Frames /sing

kvond

Tag Archives: Latour

Latour’s Inconsistency, “Start in the Middle”

Ailsa, over at a musing space asks a question that I have been troubled by myself, as she that she is in a kind of Möbius strip if she takes Latour’s reduction of Pasteur’s actorly position in a network, and applies it to Latour himself. If I understand her correctly, she is a counselor interested in the consequences of a Latour’s thinking on her profession, and though is quite happy at seeing that “essences” as lived moment to moment experiences of presence, come out of the trained existential relations of a therapy, but questions how it is that Latour himself is able to hand her the keys to the process. On what ground does Latour leverage his claim?:

I can do counselling, and in the performance their is an essence, or several essences; belonging, being in the moment…empathy. They don’t exist outside of performance, but they are aspired to and recognised as valuable in a therapeutic interaction…and therefore they are taught and aspired to…seems to me ts an ‘and and’ issue.

To adapt some Latourian critique of Pasteur and turn it on Latour himself:
Is Latour not giving his entity a little nudge forward? …He is doing the action, he has prejudices, he is filling the gap?
Are not the metalinguistic resources that I apply handed to me directly by the author…

The Case of Free Translation

I reprint here my comment, as it reflects something I have raised before, that Latour reduces the world in some rather dramatic ways without attaining to the very requirements he sets before others:

I have to say that applying the ontic/methodological principles of a philosopher to themseleves is one of the great tests, and few philosopher’s remain unscathed in some important sense. But I think that this is a signficant thing to do if one is going to take philosophical thought seriously, at its word.

I am no expert on Latour, and have only arrived at his thought lately through Graham Harman, but a huge question that I have is: If nothing is reducible, but also everything that is reduced must be translated in such a way that we can trace the reduction, then where in the world is Latour’s traceable translation of making everything in the world “actors”? This is an incredible reduction (I mean that that literally, in-credible, without credit), under Latour’s own framework for legitimacy.

Perhaps he has answered this question in some way or another, or he simply doesn’t care for the meta-question, the internal consistency of his thought. It is one thing to say that one must always “start in the middle” (I wonder if he got this from Deleuze and Guattari, for this is their advice from “a thousand plateaus”), but quite another to say, “Because I start in the middle, my theory is self-justified”.

This is one of the difficulties that I have with Latour as far as I know him. He presents a very rich weave of concepts which help us tease out the nature of interactions in the world, but what he argues is incomplete, and leaves out significant factors of what we look for in an explanation. Yes, we are all actors in a world of actors, but we are also more than that. Its my feeling, as you suggest, that something of the demand that “existence precedes essence” comes from the insufficiency of “we must start in the middle”. Yes, we must “start” in the middle, but the middle always leads us to what was before us.

My problem seems to be slightly different than Ailsa’s, for while I am troubled with the internal consistency of Latour’s thinking with a view toward its wider philosophical applications (its relation to other philosophical positions making claims of equal breadth), Ailsa is more troubled with her position as a subject, operating within a philosophical framework, looking to bring its analytical principles into play in real world situations. But I don’t think that these aspects are disconnected, for it is actually well-within our perceived, self-relating coherences that we work best as agents; and the Möbius strip sense-making that Ailsa is untangling herself from is part of the reason that chained-causes, the way that history imposes itself upon a process and gives us the constitutive weight of what “essence” is, substantiate a process. There is ballast to the thinness of the actor.

 

Advertisements

Comments upon Latour’s Flat Originality and Immanence

Ailsa, over at a musing space; a performance in progress comments upon my recent thoughts on Latour’s concept of Originality, The Flatness of Latour’s Concept of Origin and Holbein’s The Ambassadors. In “it’s not a case of “either or” but of “and, and” she finds that I haven’t fully satisfied on my my claim that Latour’s treatment of originals in some substantive way contradicts or at least is not accountable in his existentialist principle that existence precedes essence:

While I disagree with Kvond who appears to argue against this proposition with reference to art, yet his argument to my mind demonstrates exactly what Latour says. The minutae of detail, the pressure of the paint on the page, the texture of brushstrokes and the variability in paint pigmentation…are all ‘things’ preceding essence. Essence came in the aggrargation of such things in a time and place and viewed in a context, or so I understand Latour. But what then of other ‘things’?
I find myself comparing these arguments of authentic art to the stories I have heard when talking of the shift of phone counselling to text. And am also reminded of the historic stories captured on moving conversation to phones. But to stay with counselling for the moment, is its ‘essence’ lost when the medium changes? The logic from Latours argument, is that it cant be as essence is always preceded by existence.

Because she is applying Latour to counseling solutions (her blog says that she is currently reading Latour’s Reassembling the Social, and she is a teacher of communication skills at a Health Facility), she is particularly interested in how moving therapy processes to the telephone our to text, might or might not involve a change in essence.

The essence is in it’s existence, not an antecedent event, but in it’s being performed. Does the reproduction in another form lessen its value? Perhaps. The processes of translation from one medium to another may fail to capture the ‘things’ of importance , what then can be added or removed? Is it essential to counselling that it be ‘in the moment’ that it be synchronised not asynchronised? Far from becoming “sterile” counselling so reconstructed becomes more accessible. So where does the crime lie? I suggest it lies in the gap where the index for reality is misunderstood. Text counselling far from being barren or sterile is serving a purpose attested to by those who continue to make use of it.
It provides an option, the value of which is evident in its being used and in its ongoing development and ongoing translations.

In such a conclusion she seems to have found something of a resting point on my concept of a change in recording surface, as I describe the differences between a painting and its photograph, and there are signficant productive values to be watched here as translations of subjectivities occur across domains. In the comments section there we touch on the possibility that we are thinking of two different aspects of “essence”, but I also sense that in our valuations of originality and its copies, any interpretive value placed on an original source of replicating effects also must draw its weight form the marks of the forces that brought it into being.

A Blog of Immanence

Also this weekend I ran into an interesting thought stream provided by Adrian J. Ivakhiv who teaches at the Rubenstein School of Environment & Natural Resources at the U of Vermont. He describe’s the weblog’s mission in part as the following:

(1) To communicate about issues at the intersection of environmental, political, and cultural theory, especially at the interdisciplinary junctures forming in and around the fields of ecocriticism , green cultural studies, environmental communication, political ecology, and related areas (biosemiotics, geophilosophy, social nature, poststructuralist and liberation ecologies, zoontologies, animist liberation theologies — invent your own neologisms!).

(2) More specifically, to contribute to the development of a non-dualist understanding of nature/culture, mind/matter, structure/agency, and worldly relations in general. Dualisms aren’t inherently bad, but these have become stultifying; they contribute to the log-jam in which environmental thinking has been caught for too long. To this end, the blog is interested in philosophies of process, ontologies of immanence and becoming, and epistemologies of participation, relation, and dialogue – that is, ways of understanding and acting that take ideas and practices, bodies and minds, subjects and objects, perceptions and representations, agency and structure, to be fundamentally inseparable, creative, and always in motion. The blog will be a place where non-dual mind (/body, subject/object) meets non-dual world (nature/culture), or where rigpa meets anima.

As all these are positions that I have some affinity for, in particular as a Spinozist approach seems to embrace them, it is a webspace I will be watching. Recently there was some discussion on Stuart Kauffman’s new book (which dissappointed me to no end for how much I have loved his past books), and the potential of blogged philosophy as is being done by Levi, Shaviro and Graham, to name just a few. I have not searched the site heavily, but I wonder if how much, if at all Adrian follows Arne Næss’s Spinoza influenced Deep ecology.

The Facsimile and the Stolen Aura of the Original

The Latourian Migration

[Bruno Latour offers this citation correction for the article discussed below: Latour and Adam Lowe and here is the exact reference to the soon to be published version: « The Migration of the Aura – Exploring the Original Through Its Facsimiles », a chapter prepared for Thomas Bartscherer (editor) Switching Codes, University of Chicago Press (2010).]

Bruno Latour has as wonderful article on the philosophical and aesthetic consequences in an Age of extremely accurate and realized digital reproduction, “The Migration of the Aura – Exploring the Original through Its Facsimiles” (2008), here at his website. He takes as his principle focus the remarkable reproduction of  Veronese’s Nozze di Cana, a huge framed painting that has the unfortunate favor of being hung (and so dwarfed) opposite the tiny Mona Lisain the Louvre. He traces the digital and pigmented reproduction of this painting, a process so exact that the question of where the original is has to be raised, in particular when the “copy” is hung returned to where it was stolen, placed in a refectory in San Giorgio, very much like the one where it originally hung. There something of the original lighting, spatial presentation, atmosphere even is given with the re-production, enough to convince some art critics that THIS is the original, finally restored. Reminding us that the word “copy” merely comes from the word meaning “copious”, he  makes the wonderful point that the very notion of the original, our sense that there is an original, is dependent upon the great pressure exerted by the multiplicity of its copies. Mixing metaphors, originality is only seen as an Urspring in the aftermath of a rich and diverse progeny, like the Delta of the Nile:

But it’s not the original, it’s just a facsimile!”. How often have we heard such a retort when confronted with an otherwise perfect reproduction of a painting? No question about it, the obsession of the age is for the original version. Only the original possesses an aura, this mysterious and mystical quality that no second hand version will ever get. But paradoxically, this obsession for pinpointing originality increases proportionally with the availability and accessibility of more and more copies of better and better quality. If so much energy is devoted to the search for the original – for archeological and marketing reasons- it is because the possibility of making copies has never been so open-ended. If no copies of the Mona Lisa existed would we pursue it with such energy – and would we devise so many conspiracy theories to decide whether or not the version held under glass and protected by sophisticated alarms is the original surface painted by Leonardo’s hand or not. In other words, the intensity of the search for the original depends on the amount of passion and the number of interests triggered by its copies. No copies, no original. In order to stamp a piece with the mark of originality you need to apply to its surface the huge pressure that only a great number of reproductions can provide.

So, in spite of the knee-jerk reaction -“But this is just a facsimile”-, we should refuse to decide too quickly when considering the value of either the original or its reproduction. Thus, the real phenomenon to be accounted for, is not the punctual delineation of one version divorced from the rest of its copies, but the whole assemblage made up of one -or several- original(s) together with the retinue of its continually re-written biography. It is not a case of “either or” but of “and, and”. Is it not because the Nile ends up in such a huge delta that the century-old search for its sources had been so thrilling? To pursue the metaphor, we want, in this paper, to behave like hydrographers intent in deploying the whole catchment area of a river -not only focusing on an original spring. A given work of art should be compared not to any isolated locus but to a river’s catchment, complete with its estuaries, its many tributaries, its dramatic rapids, its many meanders and of course also with its several hidden sources.

Latour, makes the Benjamin-friendly point that it is the change of intensity of labor, and the gap in techniques or processes, that renders a copy as only a mere copy, and he has some interesting comments on the effects of a cut-and-paste realm of web communications. There is odd point in the essay where he is exacting some sort of criticism of the restoration processes that have made the Holbein “The Ambassadors” actually look flattened like so many of its many postered reproductions, as if the pressure of the copies themselves have worked to undo the original. He calls the photographs which were actually used as a guide “the most barren” of reproduction techniques, though this appeal runs counter to the very defintions of originality already submitted.

Actually, a terribly revealing documentary shows the culprits restoring the Holbein by using as their model photographs of the original and subjectively deciding what is original, what has decayed, what has been added and imagining the painting as a series of discrete layers that can be added or removed at will. A process that resembles plastic surgery more than an open forensic investigation.

If indeed “The Ambassadors” has been made to look like its photographs, this “plastic surgery” very well have added to the fecundity of the image in museum, and isn’t barren at all, as the confirmed similarity to mere copies may drive even more visitors to witness the enshrined aura of the original, and admire its efficacy of reproduction (willing to buy photographs in the bookshop, for how closely they mimic what they just saw). How many movie star faces employ just this sort of photographic “fecundity” wherein the original becomes nearly photographic? (And even more striking as a truth, the botched surgeries of Mickey Rourke’s face may have given him the generative edge of an Academy Award nominated role, ensuring more duplications.) 

Latour does not address this seeming contradiction or the problematic of originality as defined by the numericity of progeny, and it is a contradiction probably due to his lasting connoisseur sensibilities for the lost minutia of detail in the hallowed first, a feeling that details should not be erased no matter the productive value of erasure. And I think that there is something to this, though I can’t see how it is captured by Latour’s analysis. All the same, a wonderful essay that changes one’s view about what makes a copy a copy, and even a type a type. It allows us to conceive of “original” in the Medieval sense of how types were read, as powerful manifestations that were strong enough to force imitations and reproductions. The Christ type. The Achilles type, etc.

And it is interesting to think along with Latour on the movability of the “aura” of the original, how it can seem to move from one material manifestation to another, almost atavistically. I think that there is one sense of the “original” which is underdeveloped by Latour perhaps due to his appeal for the flat ontology but I cannot be sure, is the sense in which the original to all those copies, itself as a thing value, bears the traces, the marks of the forces that gave rise it it. We want to see the pressure of Holbein’s hand in brush strokes, the crease of repetitious grimaces in the face. The original, even our most sacred isolation of it, is not monolithic, but rather maintains its value through the fingerprints of causation that trail behind it, in the way that we can feel the forces which nexused themselves at this point, to create such progeny. In a sense, to change the original is to change the direction that those winds had blown, often making our histories more recursive and therefore possibly starved of potential resources of productivity and self-examination.

Is Latour an Under-Expressed Spinozist?

Selections from The Prince of Networks

This posting works as something like a hypothetical dialogue, a reading and response to the first twenty pages or so of Graham Harman’s Prince of Networks. Each of the Latourian points below are largely the words and descriptions taken directly from Harman’s forthcoming book on the renowned sociologist of science, presenting him as a metaphysician). Here is an interaction with the metaphysical possibilities of Latour when considered in the context of Spinoza. The aim is to press as coherently as possible the correspondences between these two thinkers, and to find bridges in the analysis of events such that each may inform the other. More specifically could say that this comparison follows from a rough equation between the two which proposes that all of Latour’s actors are well seen as modal expressions of Substance for Spinoza, such that in many respects Spinoza’s philosophy is able to accomodate or even subsume Latourian descriptions. Of course such an overlay is not complete, for no thinker presents the thinking of another, but the similarities are greater than might otherwise be supposed.

Because the Latourian points are specifically drawn from Graham Harman’s description of them, the comparison also serves as a quick introduction to the kinds of characterizations Graham is making in his coming book. Even if you disagree with the Spinozist comparison, orientation to Graham’s coming book is worthwhile orienting oneself towards.

a = Graham’s description of Latour

b = My comment on how Spinoza bears on the same issue.

The Four Axioms

1a. First, the world is made up of actors or actants (which I will also call “objects”).
1b. Spinoza’s modalities.

1.1a All entities are on exactly the same footing. An atom is no more real than Deutsche Bank or the 1976 Winter Olympics, even if one is likely to endure much longer than the others.
1.1b All modal expressions have the same reality as any other, as perfect expressions of Nature, (though some may have greater reality than others, that is be more active and powerful, given number of combinations they can make.)

1.2a This principle ends the classical distinction between natural substance and artificial aggregate proposed most candidly by Leibniz.
1.2b The Leibniz distinction is non-existent in Spinoza, so does not need to be so ended.

2a. Second, there is the principle of irreduction, already cited above. No object is inherently reducible or irreducible to any other.
2b. To know a thing is to understand its causes. In this way no modal expression is “merely” a certain form of description. Which is to say, neither is an apple merely a collection of atoms, or a fruit of the tree, but also because Substance exists and acts through modal expression, an apple is not merely Substance acting and existing, but also the sum total of all modal causation. It can be neither reduced, nor is it irreducible.

2.1a Yet in another sense we can always attempt such explanations, and sometimes they convince others. It is possible to explain anything in terms of anything else, provided we do the work of showing how one can be transformed into the other, through a chain of equivalences that always has a price and always runs the risk of failure.
2.1b I believe that Spinoza would accept this. It is important to understand that all of our causal explanations for things occur in Spinoza within the imaginary horizon of human activity, the social field of actorly agents. It is not at all clear that Spinoza allows human beings to hold completely adequate ideas, so thus all that they can do is build more and more powerful chains of descriptions, marked by their internal coherence to each other.

3a. Third, the means of linking one thing with another is translation.
3b. What links one thing to another is a vectorial degree of power, organized around the power to act, and therefore know: all things are linked to all other things, translation being a question of perspective which is never complete.

4a. Fourth, actants are stronger or weaker not by virtue of an inherent strength or
weakness lying in their private essence. Actants gain in strength only through their alliances
4b. Spinoza agrees. This difference of power is a degree of Being difference along a vector of knowledge (see 1.1b and his General Definition of Affects).

Concepts of Concreteness

5a. [The] four metaphysical axioms all stem from a deeper principle: absolute concreteness. Every actant simply is what it is. This entails that all actants are on the same footing: both large and small, both human and nonhuman. No actant is just fodder for others; each enhances and resists the others in highly specific ways.
5b. Spinoza agrees, the conatus of each thing strives to preserve itself to the optimum of its capacity (this defines its actualization). The human being is on no more “footing” than a peanut. Each are perfect expressions of Substance. In human beings this involves imagining things that give them the greatest power to act, and aligning themselves with things which are imagined to empower them

6a. Though graduate students are usually drilled in the stale dispute between correspondence and coherence theories of truth, Latour locates truth in neither of these models, but in a series of translations between actors.
6b. Spinoza also by-passes the dispute, ultimately because coherence is correspondence, but in human beings it is expressed by degrees of adequacy and power. Spinoza’s theory is not one of Representational knowledge.

7a. Nothing exists but actants, and they are all utterly concrete.
7b. In a deepingly of the flat Latour model, there is a qualification of “exists”. Substance has Being, but its being “exists and acts” through modal actants. So only do actants exist, but the totality of actants are an expression of Substance, individual actants (and their clustered relations) holding degrees of Being powers to act. So the Being of Substance is expressed in the “utterly concrete” expression of the modes.

8a. His philosophy unfolds not amidst the shifting fortunes of a bland human world correlate, but in the company of all possible actants: pine trees, dogs, supersonic jets, living and dead kings, strawberries, grandmothers, propositions, and mathematical theorems. These long lists of actors must continue until their plurality and autonomy is no longer suppressed. We still know nothing about these objects and what they entail.
8b. Spinoza agrees with the plurality of modal expressions, but as we come to understand the causes of any modal expression we ourselves become more active, ultimately aiming to understand the causes of our own modal expression; thus the boundary that keeps us from the world is an non-categorical determination: we are in modal combination with the animate and inanimate.

Not Aristotle’s Notion of Substance

9a. This does not lead Latour to a philosophy of substance. Traditional substance can be defined most easily by contrast with its qualities, accidents, and relations. A substance can easily be distinguished from its qualities, such as warmth or villainy, since these traits may change over time without its becoming a different thing. In fact, one of Aristotle’s best definitions of a substance is that which supports different qualities at different times. In this way, traditional substance suggests something identical beneath all its trivial surface fluctuations. Latour emphatically rejects this rift between a substance and its trivial exterior.
9b. Spinoza changes the Aristotlean approach to substance. First of all, any modal expression of Substance is not trivial, but rather the perfect and determined expression of Substance becoming fully concrete. So the above critique of Substance is understood in terms of Substances, which Spinoza explicitly rejects. There is only one Substance, the only thing that can be conceive through itself being the cause of itself. Modal expressions of Substance in Spinoza are not “trivial surface fluctuations” but the very means by which Substance “exists and acts”.

9.1a A cat, a tree, or a soul would be substances, but not the nation of Egypt as a whole, or vast pieces of machinery with thousands of parts. But since Latour grants all actants an equal right to existence, regardless of size or complexity, anything in the world must count as an actant, whether natural or artificial, as long as it has some sort of effect on other things.
9.1b As mentioned, Spinoza would grant Substance to only one thing, the Totality of all manifestion, and no modal expression has a metaphysical priority over any other. Indeed, a nation, or a theory, or a the Ethics itself, in that it is an expression of Substance in both Extension and Idea, and thus is a ratio of parts in communication, would all count as a body, having as much right as any other body.

10.a For Latour, an actant is always an event, and events are always completely specific. An actant does not hedge its bets, lying behind current involvements like a substance eluding its surface fluctuations. Instead, an actant is always fully deployed in the world, fully implicated in the sum of its dealings at any given moment.
10.b This is quite in keeping with Spinoza’s ateleological, immanent metaphysics. Each and every moment is an ideational and extensional expression, completely actualized, fully deployed as it is possible to be (under a degree of power/being when considered in isolation, perfectly actualized when considered in terms of the totality.)

11a Unlike a substance, actants do not differ from their accidents, since this would create a hierarchy in which some parts of the world were mere detritus floating on a deeper sea, and Latour’s principle of democracy between actants would be flouted.
11b Modal expressions only differ from Substance in terms of degree. There is no hierarchy though, for Substance exists and acts through modal expressions. The “accidents” are Substance acting. In this way my words, the color of my shirt, my legal standing, all express themselves autonomically as far as their striving can take them.

The Power of Relations

12a Latour’s central thesis is that an actor is its relations. All features of an object belong to it; everything happens only once, at one time, in one place. But this means that Latour rejects another well-known feature of traditional substance: its durability.
12b. For Spinoza Substance is its modal expressions, thus any actor is composed of its relations. The only thing that truly endures is Substance itself. But in the ratio of parts in a communication can be understood to be preserved, what Spinoza calls the ratio of motion and rest which defines a “body”. But because this ratio is mind dependent and ill-defined, it is not clear at all why he cannot be read as an Occasionalist, like Latour. Because each body is only an expression of the totality, ultimately to speak of preservation is a question of perspective.

12.1a We always speak of the same dog existing on different days over many years, but for Latour this would ultimately be no more than a figure of speech. It would entail that we abstract an enduring dog-substance or dog-essence from an entire network of relations or trials of strength in which the dog is involved at each moment of its life. Ultimately the unified “dog” is a sequence of closely related heirs, not an enduring unit encrusted with shifting accidents.
12.1b For Spinoza indeed each thing has an essence which is exhibited in its conatus/striving, and whose existence depends on modal causations external to it, but whether it is the same dog over time, or a series of closely related essences/strivings is ultimately indeterminate in Spinoza (he writes of an aged and mentally stricken poet who seems like the same person, but is not, and how our essence as an adult is different than that when were babies).

13a. Since an actant cannot be split into durable substance and transient accident, it follows that nothing can be reduced to anything else. Each thing simply is what it is, in utter concreteness.
13b. Due to the wide-sense expression of Substance by its modes (not a split), the power of explanation, empowerment through the knowledge of causes, is grounded in immanent expression. This means that modal expressions are not “reduced” to Substance, because modes are the means of Substance’s acting and existing, but they are explained through Substance. This is the ultimate metaphysical grounds which establishes the power of knowing. But in the actualization of modes, human beings necessarily are passive, dependent things, expressing themselves largely through imaginary relations and affective reactions (that is, translation always has its price and effect). The causal connections we make betweeen one modal expression and another though are perspective determined, for all things are connected to all other things.

13.1a We cannot reduce a thing to some privileged inner core by stripping away its inessential features.
13.1b Spinoza is in complete agreement. There is no inessential feature of Substance. Understanding a thing is achieved through understanding its causes in each and miniscule manifestation and effect. As an example, nothing is more useful to man than man, due to the sharing of a nature (the possibilities of connection), but the individual particularities, the causal history of one man and another are signficantly needed to achieve this usefulness.

14a. [For Latour] A theorist is no different from an engineer digging a tunnel through the mountains near Barcelona. One studies the rock, carefully assessing its weak and solid points, the cost of selecting one path over another, the safety concerns of workers, the availability of drill bits needed for specific tunneling methods, and other such factors. The engineer is not a free-floating mastermind of stockpile and calculation, as Heidegger imagines.
14b. Spinoza compares human understanding to being that of a worm in blood. The human being is both a historical being, plagued by imaginary associations and inadequate ideas, but also achieves relative freedom and clarity by understanding that he/she is a expression of Nature, the uniform, parallel expression of thing and idea. In order to theorize something (explain it), the causal history of his/her own ideas, emotions, pictures of the world need to be incorporated, as well as causal expression of the thing to be explained.

14.1a [an] engineer must negotiate with the mountain at each stage of the project, testing to see where the rock resists and where it yields, and is often surprised by the behavior of the rock.
14.1b It is not clear if in Spinoza human beings can hold absolutely adequate ideas at all, but ultimately any attempt to understand something (explain it) is to combine with it, both affectively and ideationally. Theorization is always an experiment in material combination, and not just ideas.

15a Nothing is pure calculation, nothing follows directly from anything else, nothing is a transparent intermediary. Everything is a medium or mediator, demanding its share of reality as we pass through it toward our goal.
15b For Spinoza completely adequate ideas follow cleanly from adequate ideas (as an asymptotic limit), but it is very unclear if human beings can hold a completely adequate idea, so any tracing of explanation occurs with the gradated and real history of one’s necessarily passive position in the world, ever assuming the maximalization of thought and extension, of which one is an expression. Calculation is a material as well as ideational act.

16a A truth is never a simple correspondence between the world and statements that resemble it, since we only link a statement to the world through the most difficult set of displacements.
16b Spinoza agrees. A true idea corresponds to its object, but this correspondence is ever buried in the relations of the human mind to its body and its causal history of the physical world, and his theory is certainly not a representationalist one. Ideas are actions of the mind and body. My ideas about China and Scrabble and Latour are all actually ideas of my body being in various states.

17a Neither is truth a kind of “unveiling,” as in Heidegger’s model, since this still implies that we approach truth asymptotically.
17b Spinoza does not speak of truth as “unveiling” (but he does rarely call his propositions to the Ethics “the eyes of the mind”. Because he refuses a representationalist model of knowledge, running counter to all Idealism, truth is a relation. He does make our relationship to the truth asymptotic, an aymptotology which shows itself concordantly in our power to act (and feel Joy). This asymptotic vector is the actual vector of Being/Power/Activity/Knowing.

The Full Deployment of Actors/God

18a Actants are always completely deployed in their relations with the world, and the more they are cut off from these relations, the less real they become.
18b Spinoza’s degree of Being definition of knowing and acting corresponds quite well here. The greater capacity a thing has to act or be acted upon, the greater degree of Being it has. Connections make perfections.

18.1 A Pasteur begins alone in his fight with Liebig over the cause of fermentation, or with Pouchet over spontaneous generation. Yet gradually, Pasteur amasses a formidable army of allies. Since Latour is no Machiavellian, not all of these allies are human. Pasteur’s allies may include mighty politicians who grant him funding, pieces of glassy or metallic equipment, and even bacilli themselves.
18.1b Spinoza would completely agree, both on the level of human and inhuman alliances, but in terms of how alliance functions in the human realm. Though he would insist that alliance is made in the strongest sense by appeal to commonality and a knowledge of causes. A theory is always a material as well as ideational expression, and it shows its power in its ability to combine not only ideas, but also material relations as well. The mind is no more priviledged than the body, and that means any body.

18.2a We become more real by making larger portions of the cosmos vibrate in harmony with our goals, or by taking a detour in our goals to capitalize on the force of nearby actants.
18.2b Spinoza agrees in terms of harmonization of parts, and would judge any interaction which increases our capacity to act a “good” thing.

19a For Latour, the words “winner” and “loser” are not inscribed in the essence of a thing, since there is no essence in the first place.
19b For Spinoza a loser is something that simply was overcome by a stronger force, the ratio of its parts in communication scattered. There indeed are modal essences in Spinoza, but because the existence is not predicated of a modal essence, it existing or not existing is not “inscribed” therein.

20a All actants are equal; all actants can win or lose, though some may have more weaponry at their disposal.
20b For Spinoza this weaponry is largely the knowledge state of a body, its degree of a capacity to act. But contingent circumstances can intervene to upon any partial modal expression of Substance, no matter how knowing/active. That is, the sage might very well have a piano fall on his head. Spinoza has strong Machiavellian influences, arguing that each and everything thing has as much right to the degree of power it can marshall.

Playing with Machiavelli

21a. The impact of Bruno Latour as a thinker is deployed in the bookstores that carry his works, the admirers who recommend them to others, and the careers that are altered by contact with his writings…There is no central point in the network where we encounter the very heart of Latour and his philosophy.
21b Completely so in Spinoza. Spinozist philosophy must be understood as both an extensional expression, materialized in all its manifestions, from books printed, to neurological states in people’s brains, to vibrations of air in conversation.

22a In order to extend itself, an actant must program other actants so that they are unable to betray it, despite the fact that they are bound to do so…. We always misunderstand the strength of the strong. Though people attribute it to the purity of an actant, it is invariably due to a tiered array of weaknesses.” (direct quotation of Latour)
22b I believe that Spinoza would agree because his affinities with Machiavelli, but a primary weapon of such “programming” others, is freeing them from their own illusions so to think more rationally, to understand the causes of the states of the world and their own states, and to ultimately to seek their own advantage. In this way Spinoza is an ethical Machiavellian.

23a Latour scoffs at the notion that the imperialist West succeeded by purifying objective truth from the naïve superstitions that still haunted gullible Indians.
23b For Spinoza it is simply a question of becoming more active and stronger through the understanding of causes and becoming more active. I don’t know what he would say as to why the West ultimately overcame the Indians, historically, for there may have been many intervening contingencies. But he would say that knowing the causes of things (for instance knowing the capacities of gunpowder), played a determinative role. He finds the West in many ways far more superstitious and imaginary than otherwise granted.

24a “It takes something like courage to admit that we will never do better than a politician….[Others] simply have somewhere to hide when they have made their mistakes. They can go back and try again. Only the politician is limited to a single shot and has to shoot in public.” (direct quotation of Latour)
24b Spinoza also finds a “single shot” concept of power manifestation (though the rational understanding of something is a pivotal aspect of the freedom to act). Spinoza’s “single shot” public concept of action is that each and every thought that we have is an affirmation of the power of the body to act, and can provide a change in the degree of reality one has. Conscious thought has no priority over any other mental/bodily action. Our actions are not usually what we think they are.

25a Forces are real, and real tigers are stronger than paper ones, but everything is negotiable.
25b Spinoza provides the same notion of negotiability, but it is between the real increases in Being which result from increases in knowledge, amid seemingly contingent relations to the world. Indeed a pen-stroke can kill, but this depends upon the entire matrix of coherent relations between events, the knowledge of which would only increase one’s own capacity to act.

26a Harmony is a result, not a guiding principle.
26b Harmony is both, a constructed result and a guiding principle. Very often increases in harmony at one level can induce disharmony at another (for instance the reception of Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, which he refused to allow to be translated into Dutch, in much distinction to the ill-fated strategies of his friends the brothers Koerbagh).

27a Even power, the favorite occult quality of radical critics, is a result rather than a substance.
27b Power is not a substance but an expression of Substance.

28a Latour holds that truth itself is a result, not a starting point. “A sentence does not hold together because it is true, but because it holds together we say that it is ‘true.’ What does it hold onto? Many things. Why? Because it has tied its fate to anything at hand that is more solid than itself. As a result, no one can shake it loose without shaking everything else.” We call “true” whatever has attached itself to something more durable, less vulnerable to the resistance of other actants.
28b Spinoza would say that this “solidity” to which true sentences are “tied” to is the very nature of Substance and its expression in parallel Attributes.

29aRecently there has been a tendency to privilege language…. Language was so privileged that its critique became the only worthy task for a generation of Kants and Wittgensteins…. What a fuss! Everything that is said of the signifier is right, but it must be said of every other kind of [actant]. There is nothing special about language that allows it to be distinguished from the rest for any length of time.” (direct quote from Latour)
29b Spinoza does not privilege language either, but makes the power of ideas most distinct from their linguistic expression (or their related images).

30a Since actants are always fully deployed in the universe, with no true reality lying in reserve.
30b God is always fully expressing himself, nothing is reserve.

31a Latour dismisses any distinction between literal and metaphorical meanings of words
31b Spinoza would make a strong distinction between the imaginary relationship (affects) caused by words, and the ideational linkings, which allow us to see the causes of things. I do argue that there is room for the power of metaphor in Spinoza, since it is through metaphor and imagination that human beings are bound to each other in increasingly powerful relations, but there is a deep distinction.

32a Like the works of Whitehead, Nietzsche, or Leibniz, Irreductions views objects as individual perspectives striving to impose their viewpoints on the rest.
32b Spinoza is in 100% agreement, we want others to love what we love.

33a “I don’t know how things stand. I know neither who I am nor what I want, but others say they know on my behalf, others, who define me, link me up, make me speak, interpret what I say, and enroll me. Whether I am a storm, a rat, a rock, a lake, a lion, a child, a worker, a gene, a slave, the unconscious, or a virus, they whisper to me, they suggest, they impose an interpretation of what I am and what I could be.” (direct quote of Latour)
33b I am ultimately an expression of Substance as it expresses itself concretely, and thus what I am is also expressed in all other things. As I go through this seemingly contingent world, passively exposed to things I have little control of, as a mode of Substance my power to act comes from my ability to combine with any other mode of Substance.

Conclusion

If there is a difference between the two it is that Spinoza grants greater ontological changes in being and power to the understanding of the causes of things, whereas Latour would like causal explanations to be understood much more haphazardly, productions of chance and not needing explanation themselves. One might ask, Does not with the relative suppression of the need to explain the power of understanding the causes of things come the suppression of an ethics of communication, the way in which our ability to form networks with others and objects primarily occurs through attributions of interpretive charity? One might also ask, if indeed actants are to be understood to only as real as the power they exhibit in their networks, has Latour privided enough traction for the strategies for self-determination and liberation, the kinds of which grant freedom through the understandings of our own causes?

[all selections on Latour are quotations from an unpublished PDF of Graham Harman’s Prince of Neworks to be published this Spring by re.press]

The Unlived Life and Unnecessary Triviality

Poetix offers a beautiful post on the meaning of the unlived life Latourian/Marxist valuation and its necessary connection to vitalism.

“A premise of Marxist economic theory, in particular of the Labour Theory of Value, is that exploitation is odious: the “surplus value” extracted from workers is a part of their life (that is, of their labour) which is taken from them and not returned. Not only is the working life of the worker actively curtailed by exhaustion and immiseration, but even the life he has left is not lived to the full inasmuch as he never enjoys the full fruits of his labours.”

From this comes to mind the Process Theology definition of “Evil”, derived from Whitehead and Aristotle, presented by Cobb and Griffin. Process Theology is an off-shoot of Whiteheadian metaphysics. Under this definition, there are two kinds of evil, absolute as Discord and relative as needless Triviality:

“Discord, which is physical or mental suffering is simply evil in itself, whenever it occurs. Triviality, however, is only evil in some cases. A trivial enjoyment is not evil in itself insofar as its harmony outweighs its discordant elements. But if it is more trival, and hence less intense than it could have been, given the real possibilities open to it, then it is evil. Hence while discord is absolutely evil, triviality is only comparatively evil.”

[Briefly summed up here: A Non-moral theory of Evil ]

With this in view, the soterial drive is the drive for the redemption of the “triviality” of other lives, a re-inscription of the meaning of their persisting notes in the strain. It is perhaps why Zionist movements and Christian Eschatology have played a heavy hand in the history of the West, in particular during it turning points of modernity 17th century and early 20th(and perhaps now). Keeping with an analogy of music, notes that are played trivallyso in history, the banal, sing-song jingles of an immature happinesses, or worse, the culdesacs of suffering, sour notes let out, each can take on a difference juxtaposed meaning when considered with our own actions. In this sense, our actions are genetic fulfillments of the hopes, unconscious and conscious, of others.

I think it is right to read the very question of continuity within the question of the maximalization of the intensity of our present lives, and hence attribute an implicit vitalism to any rational scheme to make sense of our world. As we stretch the living band to its most taut, discord reaching point, and form counterpoints to that tension, it is ever the graves of others that we retroactively over-turn and rebury.

The Angel of History

I differ though from Benjamin’s notion of historical impasse, the sense that we are ever removed from the paradise of a growing piling up of corpses and fragmentations, the haunting of a hautology:

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

– Walter Benjamin,

Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History

And I do not read individuation as a necessary ghosting as Benjamin evocatively summons up,

Standing behind the doorway curtain, the child [who is hiding] becomes himself something floating and white, a ghost. The dining table under which he is crouching turns him into a wooden idol in a temple whose four pillars are the carved legs…. Anyone who discovers him can petrify him as an idol under the table, weave him forever as a ghost into the curtain…. And so, at the seeker’s touch, with a loud cry he drives out the demon who has so transformed him – indeed without waiting for the moment of discovery, he grabs the hunter with a shout of self-deliverance.

Walter Benjamin, One Way Street

The reason for this is that given a Spinozist conception of sense-making, one already takes any notes played as optimally intense, not from their perspective, but the perspective of the fullness of Substance’s expression. But, this is not to say that our position, or own historical attempt to maximalize ourselves beyond the locality of our individuation, beyond the ghosting implicatures of the Symbolic, necessarily doesn’t keep a record of the relative intensities and trivialities of others, not only of the past (!), but of the present and the future. It is musicology. As such, there is more than enough room though for the Caliban Question, and the imagination as prophetic, including the spectres of ghosts.

[Also recommended, the “Life Beyond Life” post at Complete Lies.]

The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman)

 

Thinking about the Politics of Objects

As an aftermath of my thinking about Spinoza and Heidegger it occurs to me that Heidegger ready-at-hand contains something of a notion of “Whiteness,” in the idea of invisibility (and his present-at-hand something of that of “colored”). I suspect that this probably has some strong correlate in Derrida’s critique and continuation of Heidegger, but it has been a while since I have engaged Derrida, so I want to think on it a bit myself.

The very invisibility  of the ready-at-hand, which someone like Graham Harman would like to emphasize as absolute, conceptually has of it the whiteness of society, the unseen but pure transference of power across the object such that nothing within them, about them, inhibits or retards the fullness of their expression. Such beings, what Graham calls “tool-beings,” are like what we learned white light is, a certain combination of all colors, but as to be completely transparent to our sublunar eyes.

If this generalization stands, then we might want to ask the political question, How much Whiteness is in Graham’s ever retreating objects which hide entirely from our view? Or worse, how Causacian are his tools?  (It seems odd when you put it that way, but perhaps “odd” is what is necessary to expose this proper aspect.)

We then must follow, Does not Heidegger’s veiledness of present-at-hand itself give us the very tried-and-true sense of interfering “color,” the drape of instantiated sense which forever keeps us from what something really is? (This is what you get when you love to play with binaries, you get history’s binaries.) So we ask a series of questions of a Heidegger follower. Of the sensuously rich vicars that are said to be buried in the intentional hearts of objects, the very mediating and jeweled indulgences of perception, are these really “colored people” idealizations, euphanies generated by the binarization of social terms (invisible/colored) in the first place? Is not the whiteness of society the condition of its very invisibility? And is Graham’s binarized ontology of the Real into mediating pairs then thus racially conditioned (or Colonialist)? I say this meaning no personal offense, since I believe that we all are in some sense, or even many senses Racist, by virtue of our histories. But these are questions that indeed must also be asked because Graham (as do most classical metaphysicians) asserts a certain independence of ontology from politics, and hence any ontology must defend itself when it seems to be unconsciously carrying out political forms. So are the exotic, frosted-over, accident-bedecked vicars from within, colored?

And if so, what does it politically mean to give such a representationally bestowed role to the colonial, to place the lavishly enjeweled other as our vicarious mediator? One must consider the accidental but significant fact that Graham does work out of a country he loves, Egypt, which is in a certain sense is the most resistant, and yet accommodating of colonial of countries, in my opinion. So long has Egypt been the repository for both economic wealth and the projection of esoteric wisdom for the West, it has inured itself to that cultural incursion, creating an autonomy within its representational, mediating force, strangely having insulated itself from the West, from the inside (I recall how viscerally Graham reacts against Flaubert’s idealizations and dehumanizations of “the Egyptian,” while at the same time feeling that there was an intimacy between Graham’s frosted-over and encrusted internal objects and Flaubert’s saturated depictions of Carthage in Salammbô). As I have suspected for a while, it is the qualities of object that Graham really is most concerned with. 

Hölderlin Sings of the mediating Fremde

One has to ask in this continuing vein, Are these projections of sensuous, mediating and colored vicars not the very mechanisms of whiteness, in the sense that the colony becomes the necessary and mediating extension of the homeland (a homeland that ironically enough, as Heidegger likes to dream of it in Hölderlin fashion, we are expelled from). We are all caught between our Whiteness which we can never reach or return to, adrift in a colored East which forever mediates our connection to what invisibily lies below.

Again, I recall that Graham has a repulsion for Hölderlin, Heidegger’s laureate, something he attributes to the ad nauseum  Heideggerian forays into the poetic. But Hölderlin himself seems to sum the juxtaposition perfectly, the weird world of Object-Oriented metaphysics connections, as our real states are forever mediated by what is alien to us, caught in a transferal between like and unlike:

 

Ein Zeichen sind wir, deutunglos
Schmerzlos sind wir und haben fast
Die Sprache in der Fremde verloren. 

A sign we are, meaningless
Painless we are and have nearly
The Tongue in the “East” [The Foreign] lost.

Mnemosyne (lines 1-3) [rough interlinear translation here]

And is not the “bedeutend” [indicated] of the snow that gleams and glances on the Alpine meadow just like lilies, the very principle of “allure,” the metaphorical transfer that Graham claims is the mechanism of all causal connection?

Denn Schnee, wie Majenblumen
Das Edelmüthige, wo
Es seie, bedeutend, glänzet auf der grünen Wiese
Der Alpen, hälftig
Da…

For snow, like Maylilies
High-nobility, where
It would be revealed, gleams on the greening meadow
Alpine, half
There…

With Harman-like efficacy accidental allure brings each distant, retreating object across to another distant and retreating object, the “distant signal” of whiteness communicating, poking through the rich, veiling mediator vicars of a too-sensual world, a connection which Hölderlin calls in the hymn, “Fernahnend mit/Dem andern” (sensing-distant with another). The poet to his lost Diotima? Is Graham’s theory of causation in some determinative sense, Hölderlinian, the way that real objects of the home pierce through the richness of the foreign veil? Could it be that Graham’s strong resistances to the idealizations  of the East in both Flaubert and Hölderlin are the very condition of his projections of the same into this metaphysics of mediating coloredness? And thus are this metaphysics intimately colonial of source, and accidentally so in project?

But there is a significant difference between Graham’s neo-Heideggerian position, and Heidegger’s own caught-in-the-middle universe. There is no wistfulness of detachment, or explicit longing to return home from the vicarious world; although the importation of the exotic pervades his object-universe, in a quest for the weird, (but we have yet to read his coming treatment of Orpheus, the veritable picture of lost retrieval). So though he has not been able to formulate a detailed explication of just how  vicar-mediations might operate at the inanimate level, there is no sense at all that objects as such do not in fact continually interact with distinguished flow. The existential gap of sojourn is not at all immediately present for objects, in fact, objects of each type (the real white, and the sensuous colored) are actually barred, not from interacting with the the opposite kind, as if whites cannot mix with blacks, but rather are barred from mixing with each other. The white and distant objects in retreat actually need the colored vicars to touch each other. So if we allow a political extension, the Caucasian West needs the colored East to communicate at all with the Caucasian West, and the foreign is already internal to real object state connections (in fine dialectical fashion).

This is an interesting line of analysis. Graham tells us that the color world of inner vicars is one that is externally connected to those things of its own kind (an intentional object is composed of its qualities and even accidents, each sharing the same “conceptual space”). The problem in the intentional realm is not one of isolation,  how each sensuous part might come in contact with the others of its kind, for they are ever ready to bleed into each, almost with lude enthusiasm. For this reason the colored world is somehow internally “buffered,” Graham says, keeping its characteristically natural gravitational collapse of sensuality at bey from one great con-fusion (one might read in separation of the sensous types, the ethnographic buffering of traditional or tribal customs, often to be contrasted with rational laws, a contrast then thought characteristic of “foreign” peoples). The white world of real objects have exactly the inverse of the difficulty. They are not ever-crossing the boundaries of each other, incestuous of their realm, ready to produce unexpected catalytic changes, but rather are forever in retreat, imploding, “vacuum packed,” in withdrawl from each other in isolating and unique distance. They are tellingly in tension with even their own qualities. Their qualitative manifestions they merely wear like clothing they are not quite comfortable in, like a restrained, northern people from colder climes. Little soul-cores of white essence shrink back from color (How White  are Leibniz’s monads? Do we have to ask?). In this perpetual retreat of real objects do we see the rationality of Anglo austerity and Laws, strict non-contact formulations against the body and the senses, the puritanical clean of objects/citizens themselves? Is it no wonder that for Graham these two complimentary projections indeed form a necessary pair? We must ask, insofar as these are projections of a political, sociological creation, how much does that naturalize, metaphysicalize our political products?

The Vicarious as Ideal

As mentioned, the positive for Graham’s metaphysics is that these two, the colored object of sensuality and the white object of cold removal, are interdependent upon each other. He concentrates more it seems on the way that the white object needs the mediation of the colored object, and there is some sense in which the colored object only persists because it is enveloped in a greater real/white object (in his theory of causation, The Intentional as a Whole, which holds as somehow private the asymmetical meeting ground  between white and colored objects). These are slight biases against the place of mediating sensual representation figures. But all in all he also seems to see them as completely interwoven kinds which from the wider view is really the interweave of two equal realms. They form complimentary “problems.” Each realm is seemingly autonymous but still needful of the properties of the other for communication with its own kind.

If any of this analysis of color is correct, then where does that leave the political imprint and force of Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy? It conceptualization seems to be derived from a colonialist inspired history of idealized foreignness, the dripping wealth of the native which is always placed in a mediating (vicarious) position towards whiteness itself. As with idealizations of the noble savage, one knows that such esteem always harbors the dangers of its suppressed reverse, the projection of the negative shadow of whiteness. In this Graham’s depiction of vicars does not explicitly, or even implicitly participate, which does not mean that it is not present. 

But then there is that extraordinary metaphor of the bomb found in his essay on vicarious causation, which must have strong political resonance given the time and country that he inhabits:

 

Something must happen on the
sensual plane to allow them to make contact,
just as
corrosive chemicals lie side by side in a bomb –
separated by a thin film eaten away over time, or ruptured by
distant signals.

(“On Vicarious Cauation” 197)

I put it in a stanza because Graham is an evocative, poetic writer at times and the point he is making is indeed the point of contact that subsumes the sensuous as part of its means. The “bomb” of the unexpected comes from the very proximity of the sensous colored ones, which somehow corrode into catalytic action, bringing real white objects into explosive collision OR, the bomb comes from the distant signals of real white objects sent to each other. (Actually, in the greater passage it is not quite clear to me just what is lying next to what, or what doing something to something else.) In this extraordinary analogy the bomb of the middle east goes off out of the very sensuous communicabilty of colored interactions, the provoked collapse of their customed bufferings, by the clean signal sent by white objects to one another, through their foreign medium. And all of causation in the world is seen to be something of a terrorist bomb.

Cairo, the Weird of Causation and the Democracy of Objects

Equal authority is granted to the colored realms – remember that the first occasionalist Graham turns to is notably Islamic, Al-Ghazali, though Object-Oriented Philsophy strips him of his God.  That power is given to the colored facility of connection, in that it is at least rhetorically a form of political, fringe, violent protest against the West that becomes a model for causality itself, one sees through to Graham’s “democracy of objects” where each object has the same rights, the right to erupt from depths; and thus all things are imagined as engaged in a mutuality of two inter-locking realms even if in mysterious and unpredictable communication, beneath the surface. But the great problem is, at least for my theoretical ear, that much of this evocative and explanatory language has not only a deep entrenchment in the Idealist tradition (something I have argued at length from various directions), but also in the very ethnocentric projections of a determinatively White West. The very attributes of positive characterists that imbue the internal vicars that allow all these cold, distant objects who can’t touch, to touch, are charicatures of Eastern or more widely, colored rich. In this way they perpetuate the image of their own enslavement. And the very poetic gravitational centers which make such a description attractive (that give it its allure), are those aspects which retard us from being able to conceive of the dynamics between things as fundamentally and conceptually different than these projections of our historical past. Is it necessarily true that the white must depend upon a vicarious colored? And if so, is not this logical dependency born of its very imaginative split, upon the assertion of “white” in the first place?

But the attractiveness of such an exotic theory does not  merely condemn it to a simple repetition of past forms. One must admit that the very lure of it is also the means by which it may allow a transformation of the projections it uses; that is, the exotic language of vicar description as it puts colored obects into more centralized mediating roles, may in the service of a “democracy of objects” allow us or future others to metaphysically write themselves out beyond such idealizations, at the proper time. And there is the sense that come from a Western writer in an American University, within Cairo, it is just such a “weird” metaphysics that is incredibly timely, expressing a logic of ethnic tension in a materialistic, capitalized Age. Yet if this is the case (and that remains to be argued), such a metaphysics I believe must also be strongly critiqued for its inheritance, as colonial, so as to trace the transformations it brings to Heideggerian (and Hölerlinian) whites and coloreds, so to fully allow the directional “bombs” of Graham’s conceptions to go off most soterologically. If we are going to binarize, we must keep track of our binaries, where they come from, and where they lead. 

For my part, though I admit this possible  productivity of the rhetoric, I find these kinds of metaphysical plays with binaries highly problematic, especially when they put forth the form of a naturalized “kind” which embodies much that really should be examined in a more rigorous way. And I wonder if Latour’s resistance to Graham’s retreating objects behind his own ANT occasional actors of ever kind and color is an instinctive retreat from any explanatory oppositional whiteness. The reason why actors may be enough for Latour is that coloredness is enough, there is only colorness, so to speak, not just as a matter of our condition, but of the condition of the world. While I do not find Latour’s flatness of actors and networks satisfying, and agree with Graham that a deepening is needed, I am suspect of any good that a binary of absent, invisible things does. Rather it strikes me that it is more in the very structural dynamics of power, into the depths of causal explanation itself, the way that understanding how something works gives real ontological change in the capacity to act, that we better turn. In this way we side step both the positivity and negativity of theoretical allure, rather to make of our philosophy the most articulate grammar of an effective communication across the currents of these rooted identifications.

The Problem with Spinoza’s Panpsychism

Stones that Think, Imagine and Have Ideas?

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

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

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

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

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

Not Representation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adequacy to Landscape

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

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

Adequacy to Totality?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “ens reale” and the “ens rationis”: Spelling Out Differences

The Pleroma and Creatura: Bateson

Gregory Bateson, a father of modern cybernetic has some very important things to say about the nature of differences, and has been fruitfully appropriated in any number of ways, primarily due to his very powerful defintion of Information as “a difference that makes a difference”. But it should be noted that Bateson’s approach to differences is one that drives a very firm, dualistic line between Mind and Matter, one that follows Carl Jung’s categories of the Pleroma and Creatura:

The significance of all this formalization was made more evident in the 1960s by a reading of Carl Jung’s Seven Sermons to the Dead, of which the Jungian therapist Jane Wheelwright gave me a copy. I was at the time writing a draft of what was to be my Korzybski Memorial Lecture and began to think about the relation between “map” and “territory.” Jung’s book insisted upon the contrast between Pleroma, the crudely physical domain governed only by forces and impacts, and Creatura, the domain governed by distinctions and differences. It became abundantly clear that the two sets of concepts match and that there could be no maps in Pleroma, but only in Creatura. That which gets from territory to map is news of difference, and at that point I recognized that news of difference was a synonym for information. (Angels Fear, Introduction)

For Bateson, the separation is one of processes, and not one of Substance like it is for Descartes, but all the same, it imposes a strict heirarchy which privileges the mental over the physical. A stone simply is restricted to the domain of the Pleroma, while any differential making process, even the simplest of biotic discrimination is given over to the realm of Creatura:

It is, of course, true that our explanations, our textbooks dealing with nonliving matter, are full of information. But this information is all ours; it is part of our life processes. The world of nonliving matter, the Pleroma, which is described by the laws of physics and chemistry, itself contains no description. A stone does not respond to information and does not use injunctions or information or trial and error in its internal organization. To respond in a behavioral sense, the stone would have to use energy contained within itself, as organisms do. It would cease to be a stone. The stone is affected by “forces” and “impacts,” but not by differences. (Mind and Nature, Chapter II)

To most of us this is a perfectly acceptable, perhaps even obvious designation. There seems a powerful instinct that tells us that a stone simply is not in any sense like an amoeba, which is to say, what a stone does (if it does anything at all) is somehow categorically different than what an amoeba does (though both can kill you). The difficulty arises for anyone who wants to theorize in a way that does not privlege the Mind over Matter. This begins perhaps as a desire to not privlege human realities over animal realities, and then ultimately to give over to even the animate some kind of “right”, some play in the game in determining what is “real” and thus “what matters”. When Mind (in some form of Idealism) becomes the heirarchial source point of what matters, somehow this all slips back into a remote solipsism of the merely human world (and then even, the Western world, or the American world, or white upper middle class academic world). If one instanitates a fundamental primacy between the Pleroma and Creatura, wherein the Ceatura determine the status of the Pleroma in heirarchial, a priori fashion, something of the Mind/Bodd, Spirit/Matter dichotomies that have long haunted philosophy are dragged forward (often with explicit political consequences of such binarism).

The Difference that makes a/the Difference

For this reason one must keep in mind the essential metaphysical base from which Bateson is employing his work (Marx makes just such fateful Nature/Culture distinction from the start as well).  If one is going to grant equal footing to the non-human (and non-biotic) actor in the world, this essential binary must be categorically undone. As long as one has divided up the entire world into realms, one realm becomes paramount, and the line merely shifts.

What Bateson has in mind when he speaks of “a difference that makes a difference” is the way that information connects what is “out there” in the world to the “in here” of a cybernetically organized system. To put it most simply, the internal relations within a system form a boundary which is sensitive to only particular kinds of disturbances (a blind person does not turn his head to see someone waving to him from across the street, a tick does not drop from its leaf when a breeze blows). The difference out there in the world that makes a difference in here, is for Bateson the difference that makes a difference, it connects inside to outside.

But out of a completely unintended difference in the way that Bateson has framed his defintion of Information, I would like to use his notion of difference differently. Because I am not interested in giving priority of mind over matter, I am less concerned with the way that mental systems exercise dominance over physical structures (picking out what matters so as to eventually predict and control it), I am not going to follow the breadcrumbs of difference from outside to inside. This is far too Idealist for me. Rather, I want to see if we can talk about differences in such a way that the things a stone is doing, and the things that an amoeba are doing, are in someway signficantly related (and such that the actions of each are given footing).

Bateston states his defintion of Information in at least two ways in separate works.

1. A difference that makes a difference.

2. The difference that makes the difference.

It might sound trivial, but in the spirit of acknowledging even the smallest of differentiations, of this variation between the definite and indefinite article, I would like to spin out a profound distinction which maps onto a fundamental ontological distinction of Medieval Scholasticism. Much of Scholasticism spent its time trying to iron out the remarkable, but underdeveloped semiotic point that Augustine made, that signs transcend the Culture/Nature dichotomy. There are natural signs, and their are signs of convention. And (natural and cultural) signs are defined as:

“a sign is something which, offering itself to the senses, conveys something other to the intellect,” (Signum … est res praeter speciem quam ingerit sensibus, aliud aliquid ex se faciens in cogitationem venire) (Augustine De doctr. chr. II 1, 1963, 33)

Attempting to work out the full consequences of an ontology of the semiotic which transcended the Nature/Culture barrior, Scholastic philosophy realized that there must not only be material signs “out there”, but also mental signs “in here,” and much ado was made on how to connect the two (until in modern times gradually questions of signification became a questions of representation…many like to put this at the foot of Descartes, or even the Locke, but it is not altogether clear that this is the case).

A product of this debate was the two classifications Ens Reale and Ens Rationis. A real thing, and a rational thing. These are treated in various ways, often as the difference between “physical being” and “logical being”, but I want to speak much more broadly, without precision. An ens reale is a thing in the world, and an ens rationalis is a thing in the mind. Is here that I want to propose a loose though hopefully enlightening homology.

1. A difference that makes merely a difference  is an ens reale.

2. The difference that makes the difference is an ens rationis.

Leaving behind Bateson’s use of information as the thing that connects inside to outside, as an ontologist I want to speak of differences in their variety of states. Following Plato’s initial definition of being as the capacity for anything to affect or be affected, as found in the Sophist, the general sense of the reality of differences is that anything that makes a difference in general, “a difference” has being, and is ens reale. But any difference that is strictly internal  to a closed horizon relation of parts, is an ens rationis, that is which is to say, it is a difference that makes the difference, recursively. In this way, and event out there in the world, perhaps lightning strike, is an ens reale difference insofar as it is not taken with in an overarching internal circuit of relations, and its effect upon the human organism, that actual internal differences which are within the horizon of person, are each ens rationis. It is important to keep track though, that every ens rationis is an ens reale. The question is: Is every ens reale also an ens rationis. I think they are.

Spinoza’s Bodies as Certain or Fixed Ratios

As I mentioned previously, Spinoza’s defintion of Body is far more rich that it is often taken to be. More than simply a billiard ball image of circulating motions (which is how it appears at first glance), his panpsychic metaphysics grants some degree of mind (Idea) to any extensional expression, such that even the simplest of bodies in composite have a foothold in the mental. Here is the definition in bodily terms:

Definition: When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or if they are moving at the same or different rates of speed so as to preserve an unvarying relation of movement among themselves, these bodies are said to be united with one another and all together to form one body or individual thing, which is distinguished from other things through this union of bodies. E2p13a2d

It is quite interesting that Spinoza finds what separates out one body or individual from another is a certain or fixed ratio, certa ratione. It seems safe to say that not only living things preserve for Spinoza through a certa ratione, but also taken to be inanimate things. We have here the potential for categorical description that crosses through the Pleroma/Creatura divide that Bateson privleges. The ultimate question is: Do abiotic wholes which do preserve through a certa ratione, also achieve within that horizon of “individual” an order of differences that allows us to say that they are each ens rationis.

It is hard to know exactly what Spinoza has in mind: when he describes this perpetuation of communicated motion, for instance, is it a different sense of body than that brought about by external causes in the earlier part, When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or it is simply the internal specification of those external forces? What we can do is use the definition as tellingly as possible. What I suggest is that differences that are internal to an object or body as Spinoza sees it, are differences that are indicative of a mutuality of effects. A change in this part of the body effects a change in another part of the body, and then another, and so forth, such that the whole is still maintained. And there need not be the cybernetic closure that Bateson enjoys with Creatura. The entire world would seem vectored with communicated balances between bodies that however briefly or enduringly remain in ratio with each other. These mutuality of communications I hold is the threshold for an ens reale to be an ens rationalis. The cybernetic closures which map a territory are certainly different kinds of internal organizations of horizons, but rocks, breeze patterns, neuron rhythms, photon pathways, planetary equalibriums, dust corners, electron loops, all possess an internal coherence of differences which is preserved, and in which a single difference (I would say) semiotically indicates consequences of internal coherence. Stones “think”.

Stone Cognitum

There is a perspective of stones, one that is not reducible to the way in which differences in stones make differences upon us. In this sense, as Graham Harman says in Latourian fashion, stones translate other stones when they encounter each other. (I do not see how such a claim can be separated out from panpsychism.) The internal relations that make up a stone (semiotic, of each an ens rationalis), are also each an ens reale (a difference that makes a difference) which can make a difference that makes the difference to us (or some other internal set of relations), is itself also a difference as ens realis.

There are several interesting ways to procede from this, but the one that I would like to take up follows through from my last post on Spinoza, and that is that any ens realis (a difference that makes a difference), is not only already a difference that makes the difference in the internal expression of Substance as a modal whole, and thus an ens rationalis. But it is already caught up in any number, perhaps an infinite number, of ens rationalis horizoned closures. In this way, differences which are semiotic to an internal whole of differences, are also because real, differences that are internal to a plethora of bodies that cross cut that body. That “fixed ratio” is tugged at from any number of other “fixed ratio” directions, as parts of its coherence respond not only to an external horizon of differences, but also to their participant share in a cross-sectioning fixed ratio, communication whole. Any ens rationalis is Semiotically Conjoined to a variety of mentalizations.

For this reason, it is not just that the totality of coherent differences that make up a body are occluded from us, selected out by our cybernetic, ratioed closure, but also that the semiotic investment of those differences is occluded from that body itself, the coherence of its inside/outside closure. And the same is said of our own body (bodies, really).

There is another aspect which should be grasped so that we don’t fall too deeply into any Subject/Object binary. And this is something I will develop later. Because ultimately an entia rationales closure is itself a perspective, when one or many entia rationales closures come into supportive relationships to each other they can be read as forming new bodies. This is to say, when we come to know something else and intimately relate to it in a bodily, the boundary between us and it at least is semiotically problemized (if we seek to keep them completely distinct). Thus, it is not merely the case that the “kernel” of relations of an object we engage is kept from us, like a forever retreating shadow, but also the case that as we engage an object (an aspect of our environment), we at a very real, semiotic level (that is, at the level of entia rationales), become it.

Thus, as the carpenter uses his hammer, or the lens grinder his grinding lathe, there is a communication of motions which exceed the boundary of bodies, forming one of two (to some degree). The world is felt, mutually, through the performance union of both bodies. It is for this reason that Tommaso Campanella tells us: To know is to be, cognoscere est esse. This is not a metaphorical transformation of the subject into the object, but rather a real, substantial in-form-ation, binding the two bodies both epistemologically and ontologically, through the ordering of their mutual coherences. If the object of the hammer remains somewhat blind to the carpenter (some of its variety of aspects still hidden), these aspects must be accorded their place within the causal, and hence semiotic, internal relations of the body (body + body). Ultimately, these differences can only be the differences of Conjoined, and thus often silent, Semotic inherence at the bottom of any entia rationales closure, the way that an ens rationalis is necessarily polyvalent to a variety of cognitioning, and therefore persisting, bodies.

The Synth of Photosynth: Subjection and Engagement

Here: Photosynth of Popolopen Creek [link did not work, now it does]

Still experimenting with the notions of Space implict and explicit in Microsoft’s new Photosynth service. Above is a still from my second trial, the first was talked about some in context with Graham Harman’s Object Oriented philosophy. As you might see from the still, the program and service offers a way to synthesize various planal captures of a physical space such that something of the original experience topos is re-produced. The planes of approach are vectored against each other under the posit of any number of virtual positions, and the effect is one of REAL environment. This effect is furthered by the means of viewing. One either toggles through the virtual space with the arrow keys, jumping photo by photo clump in a kind of primative, self-directed cinema staggar, or with the mouse slides through the space, up, down and across; or lastly one can pin-pointed planal windows with the mouse and jump-into each with a click, spun across the constructed dimension.

The aesthetic makes a good backdrop for some of the actor oriented thinking I have been doing (I am in the middle of reading Graham Harman’s forthcoming work in Latour Prince of Networks, and also studying Augustine’s De doctrina in view of Davidson’s principle of Charity). What strikes me most forcefully is the summoning up of the experience. It is not so much that the physical space is represented (though clearly it is reconstructed in a mathematical sense, and “the space” or “the object” in this aesthetic does seem to become the primary subject). It is more that the conscious engagement of an enviroment is re-lived, as if in the mode of a memory, the way in which objects, perspectives, aspects suddenly come into mental view in an unpredictable yet linked way (each visit to the synth produces a different narrative experiences). This mimic of consciousness becomes a parallel metaphor for the mimic of sight that the still camera rectangle accomplishes. Somehow in the whirl of axial polygons induces or invokes the experience of memory, (or investigation), the very topoi  of photographic iconic use.

In particular the hinge-swings of the synth which break from the smooth curve of the space, instead of expressing the failure of a continous space, in their imagery of book pages, call into being the very booked realities in which page-turns are not disruptive, but enhancing, apophantic. Reality itself is exposed as layered, positional, framing, temporal, juxtaposed in the very artifice of the aesthetic. One can feel the seams between photos, and it is this felt texture, like zipper scars, that gives the experience its power, the way that reality “shows through” the crude prismings.

The sun is dimming in the late afternoon of the bridge above. The positions of the subject jerk about as planal as their property frames, tied to so many Renaissance visual grids, yet as long-set sun, stones and snows turn on virtual axes, displaying their polygons, and the anamorphic projection of the self is levitated through-out, the spirit of the space (and not the subject) is called forth. In fact, the community of effects, something which is not centralized, not particularized is set up before one, across  flesh.

There are no Black Boxes, and Latour wants. There are more Spheres translimpid of occasioned and causal shadings. The way that bodies inform by combination.

[An alternate synth from the same site]

The Harmanic Impassibilty of Monism…Spinoza Sails Through

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]