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Tag Archives: Ovid

Seminar on Joy’s Transformation: Cybernetic Achilles

The Serpent, Sea and Fire: Thinking Beyond the Skin

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

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

As she announces, referring to Haraway,

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

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

The Frayed Threads of Divinity 

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Library, III. xiii 5-6

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

Achilles: The First Cybernetic Man

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Voiceless Texture of the Octopus

Octopus Silence

“There is something about octopus intelligence that invites an almost perfect projection of the missing elements that are not swept up by lingistic descriptions. The radial non-anthropocentric nature of their bodies, the fluidity of their movements and contortion, the highly tactic nature of their engagments, their reclusivity, and yes, the incredible topographic aspects of their communications, a communications that works to express just as much as to conceal (camouflage), to connect to their surroundings…all work to give us to see some missing vector of what we too do when we speak, gesture and move.”

The above is my comment from Fido the Yak’s “Voicelessness as Symptom” post, speaking the way that vocalization is conflated with powers of cognition. His turn to the vocalizations of dolphins is what brought up the octopus for me. Also, when considering the textile dimension of intellection, the Ovidian myth of the rape of Philomena (at the hands of her sister’s husband who cuts out her tongue to silence her), and the tapestry she voicelessly wove to reveal the crime (a common feminist metaphor), comes to mind. Along with Deleuze’s notion of a Distaff tradition in philosophy.

When she first saw his sword above her head.
Flashing and sharp, she wished only for death,
and offered her bare throat: but while she screamed,
and, struggling, called upon her father’s name,
he caught her tongue with pincers, pitiless,
And cut it with his sword.–The mangled root
still quivered, but the bleeding tongue itself,
fell murmuring on the blood-stained floor. As the tail
of a slain snake still writhes upon the ground,
so did the throbbing tongue; and, while it died,
moved up to her, as if to seek her feet.–
And, it is said that after this foul crime,
the monster violated her again…

…But even in despair and utmost grief,
there is an ingenuity which gives
inventive genius to protect from harm:
and now, the grief-distracted Philomela
wove in a warp with purple marks and white,
a story of the crime; and when ’twas done
she gave it to her one attendant there
and begged her by appropriate signs to take
it secretly to Procne. She took the web,
she carried it to Procne, with no thought
of words or messages by art conveyed.

Ovid, Metamorphoses Book 6

We follow the Greek word for “irrational” often attributed to brute animals ἄλογος (a-logos), surely linked to the powers of vocalization itself. As well as the Greek onomatopoetic word which became our “barbarian” βάρβαρος (bárbaros), thought to mimic the incoherent sounds of foreign tongues to the East. Of silence, Ovid’s invocation of the tongue as snake (which itself sees with its tongue) is fitting for our imagination of the vocalizationless animal who inconcordantly speaks at the Fall, a wisdom/threat beneath speech. The semiotic tactility within the capacities of speaking, part of what Cixous/Irigaray called two lips touching. The semiosis that occurs at the limits of folds, where on thing ends in intensity and another begins, and vectors in orientation to it. Weaving.

And then under questions of rationality and vocability we have the case of Amanda Baggs, an autistic who until she got a computer keyboard was thought to be a low functioning schizophrenic. I’ve thought about Amanda Baggs before: Amanda’s “Private Language”.

The “Slave of Love” in Latin Poetry

A Theory of Romanized Subjectivity: Alienation as Traverse

The aim of here is to take survey of the trope servitium amoris, a slave of love, as it appears in three poems of the Roman Love Poets. And to do so such that it reveals both something of the internal dynamics of its function as a trope in poetic form, but also so that the figure itself can be shown to reflect a subjective change in the way that experience qualifies authentic Roman expression, as an objective limit. It is my thought that within the rise of the servitium amoris trope, one can see an internalization of experience, psychologizing the needs and desires of the lover via a hypothetical servitude, drawn from a real social hierarchy, and also a simultaneous segregation of those affects, a personalization of love, setting the lover apart from all other social forms such that as a privatized experience it can be reintegrated into social contexts, via that form. In brief, by borrowing from the form of institutional slavery itself, and expressing its normalized cruelties and humiliations as a private subjectivity, the poet can claim both a freedom from social norms (through this subversion), and also a re-inscription upon those norms (through homology). Through this trope of servitude, the poet explores a new locus of experience, setting forth its grounds, and circumscribing its limits, and it is through this trope that the poet seeks to contextualize his experience within sociability, giving it a language and authenticity.


The adventure begins with Catullus 63, a poem that even in meter, the Galliambic of traditional Attis worship, seems to break radically from the forms of Latin love contemplation; from the start, by invoking the heavy, drum-like repetitions of a formal ceremony, the poet is both calling towards an ancient past, but also a modern break, fusing a primordial and a metropolitan self. Read more of this post

Strategies of Recursivity…the Nemian Lion

O pudor! hirsuti costis exuta leonis
Aspera texerunt vellera molle latus!

I re-came upon this notepad thought pattern, and the two lines of Ovid. There is a certain sense in which we “wear” our philosophies which bristle with affective and protective tensors of sense, constructed recursively, in self-reference, so as to make a coherence, a non-reductive circulation of near degree-zero effects. Perhaps this is why Spinoza’s Ethics  is so satisfying to those that have penetrated it, it exemplifies this fundamental recursion. It resists the eye, our interests, until it broken through (affectively) and is tried on, so to speak. Then the deadened hairs (propositions) start to waver, ripple, in a breeze, and their is a sense of a muscle-work below. Few philosophies manifest this internal, body-making perception so explicitly…but perhaps all have it.

Secondly, it is sometimes noted that ideologies are defeated from within (they are logics of the εἰδός)…from taking their proscriptions literally, too literally. The claw of the lion is the only thing that could cut its Nemian skin. One enters not only philosophical recursion, but all social self-defintion from within, as part of its surface.  The plane which is thought to divide groups, is the skin which allows their sym-phany.

There is a sense as well, that we want to drape our harshest won skins over the softest affects, to create the inconcordance which distinguishes the circulation of the affect of the Law from the indulgence that lay beneath, illicitly, as if the pleasure of the one could bled into (and also contra-distinguish) the pleasure of the other, Eros into Thanatos, and back. This indeed is one betrayal of the lion’s skin, where affective recipricosity is the coin of living exchange. Our philosophically coherent visions are meant for the lives they inhabit.


After Heracles slew the Nemean Lion, he faced the quandry of the fact that the skin was impenetrable. Nothing in the world could cut it. He solved the riddle by using the Lion’s own claw to incise the skin, and strip it from the ribs of the beast. Tautologies are such that they are self-defined. The elements that compose them are produced by their recursivity, and they define themselves. Heracles then wore his slain tautology as a mark of his status, impenetrable. There is no argument here.  

Tautologies have been long thought to be “empty”, simple circulations which tell us nothing about the world. But this is the point, the tautological are not so much as empty, but simply closed. They form bodies. Much as Heracles’ Nemean Lion, their very closure of skin are their strength. The circularity of references actually seem to define life. When Heracles slays the tautological, he drapes it across his body. It becomes the sign of his heroship. Rather than seeing through, beyond tautologies, one enters into them. They become vehicles. Rather than being self-defeating (un-provable, un-foundational), they are self-perpetuating, enduring.”

Spinoza and Ovid

Michael Weiss discusses the book Betraying Spinoza with it author: A Kibitz on Pure Reason (Day Two). I have have to say that the book was not a favorite of mine, though the combination of veiled and unveiled personal observation, fiction and nonfiction was a unique take on Spinoza, a man who is sometimes overly caricatured by our needs to make him be a certain kind of person.

But I write here momentarily on something Michael Weiss says in passing, his note of the “inner warmth” of Spinoza beneath the “outer carapace”, signaled by Spinoza’s use of Ovid in the Ethics, hinting at an exoteric and an esoteric Spinoza:

I quite liked your narcissism quote, although my Penguin translation of The Ethics doesn’t put it so poetically as that – a shame, given the citations of Ovid with which Spinoza peppered a few of his axioms. This lure towards the romantic furnishes us with a clue, I think, about Baruch’s unacknowledged biases, since he thought the antique pangs of a fellow outcast fit for such a hyper-rationalist treatise on how best to stifle those pangs. Augustus likely gave Ovid the boot for his decadence and estimation of eros above the stuffy political conservatism and jingoism of imperial Rome. Spinoza had his own epicurean tastes, so I wonder if the frequent nods to the love poet aren’t further evidence of his inner warmth despite the outer carapace.

This caused me to think of my own love for Spinoza’s Ovid quotes and suggestions. In the wider view, I actually find Spinoza quite humorous at times. There have been guesses on what part Spinoza would have played in Terence’s “Andria” and “Eunuchus”, put on by van den Enden’s group in ’57 and ’58 (Leopold, Proietti), a point brought out by Wim Klever. I love the picture of Spinoza acting on stage as a 25 year old. But mostly, I have liked Spinoza’ remarkable Ovid Amores II xix reference when discussing the nature of the courtesan, and the facts of social binding, a Nietzschean: 


Iron is he who would love what the other has set down.

Let us hope while we fear and fear while we hope, we lovers

And let rare repulse make a place for a vow. (4-6)

The wordplay of the Latin is intense, and that Spinoza would draw on such multiplicitous lines is suggestive. Spinoza must have quoted favorite lines from memory (!), for he transposes the two initial lines, and significantly perhaps, suppresses the conciliatory conclusion of mutual conflict, the “locum voto”, the space for a vow (must we revisit the rumor of his lost love for van den Enden’s daughter?),


Let us hope while we fear, and fear while we hope, we lovers

Iron is he who would love what the other sets down. (Ep31c)

Spinoza’s contextually Ovidian argument:

If we imagine that someone enjoys some thing that only one can possess, we shall strive to bring it about that he does not possess it.
Schol: We see, therefore, that for the most part human nature is so constituted that men pity the unfortunate and envy the fortunate, and with greater hate the more they love the thing they imagine the other to possesses. We see, then, that from the same property of human nature from which it follows that men are compassionate [misericordes], it also follows that the same men are envious and ambitious (E3p32).

He who strives, only because of an affect, that others should love what he loves, and live according to his temperament, acts only from impulse and is hateful…since the greatest good men seek from an affect is often such that only one can possess it fully [ut unus tantum eius possit esse compos, hinc fit], those who love are not of one mind in their love-while they rejoice to sing the praises of the thing they love, they fear to be believed (E4p37s1)

I find these to be incredibly subtle and suggestive parts of his argument, and the poem they are drawn from provocative in subject. And lastly, one must remember that Colerus tells us that he would place spiders in a web to fight, amusing himself at the gladiatorial display. I have a feeling that Spinoza was something more than the man (image) we have made of him.


related thoughts: Spinoza and His Courtesan