The Full Nelson of Plato
Larval Subjects posted what Levi calls “the Full Nelson” of Plato, the exemplary text from the Phaedo which has condemned all of Western Philosophy to a certain kind of choke hold that ever since we have been trying to get out of (to transmute Hegelian dialectics into a single trope we still carry with us). The fearsome conclusion, roughly as Plato wrote it reads,
And we recognize also that this absolute equality has only been known, and can only be known, through the medium of sight or touch, or of some other sense. And this I would affirm of all such conceptions (75d)
Socrates has turned the relative sameness between things (rocks, tables, doves) into a derivative of Sameness itself, some surpassive Sameness, which we must have had grasp of [lambano] previously, so as to be able to grasp these samenesses through our senses.
I suppose we all know this drill, but occasionally when we return to the Same, we detect something different, and for some reason reading Levi’s post elicited in me a slightly different understanding of the Same, even the Same in the Platonic chokehold sense.
I should say from the start that the associations that I have for the search of Ontologies of Difference, of pure-Difference, have always troubled me. It is not that they are wrongly motivated, but rather that they seemed far too in love with the soterial potential of essential binaries, the Being/Not-Being dichotomy of imagined to be transcendental Logic (even when renounced), a dichotomy which itself is derived from an over-simplified caricature of human experience: hence, the reduction of the subject qua Subject, and on overall disregard for the plentitude of Being. It seems that somewhere someone got it into their heads (and there are more than a few candidates), that homosexuals or blacks or women, or poor, that is those that fall to the margins of society cannot be fully affirmed, cannot have the full rights of Being, unless we find a Being that starts with Difference. In such a reading which not only exposes the political use made of Ontologies in the past, a certain naturalization of subjugation, the category of Being seems to stand in for the State, and to reduced difference (skin color, gender, mental coherence, poverty) to merely a derivative of the State (as the Same Status), necessarily condemning many to the margins. Same became not only the political enemy, but the Ontological enemy. Difference must be celebrated, (and ontologically, logically posited) as essential and if possible, prior.
There is more than a grain of truth to this revisioning. That is, through our ontologizations we configure what is imaginable, we lay the land of concept so to speak. So a radical revisioning of what is ontologically beneath all of our legal and otherwise taken to be objective descriptions seems deeply in keeping with changing what is possible between us. Yet, there is something to this praise of difference for itself, the grand celebration of difference as the full right of Being which troubles me.
First of all, insofar as this re-ontologizing is a vast reclassification of particular people of difference, that is particular homosexuals, particular people of color or (trans)gender (the rights of which as different become projected onto the class of others like them that are deprived), there is an odd consumerist essentialization of difference for its own sake running through like a theme. “We chose and affirm our difference, as difference, because choice is what essentialized commercial subjects do, that is our right and duty, to choose.” As individual intellectuals celebrate their choices, and then align their differences to groups composed of difference, whose difference then becomes ontologized as a point of logic through elaborate strategies, it seems that dragged with it all is a fundamental, domesticating assumption, the subject of choice. I cannot say this for all celebrations of difference, and all searches to get out of Plato’s homoerotic chokehold, but this is a strong current in the movement.
Second of all, coming to think again on the nature of Plato’s Same, the enemy of pure, underived Difference, it seems that in some ways this Same has been misconstrued. I say this because for a very long time I think I misconstrued it. The problem is that in our binaries of logic we tend to flatten out what is a possibly a much more dynamic relation, almost always with a hope of transcending it. We draw the flat map to have mastery over the terrain, but as Wittgenstein tells us, the map is not the territory. (I would add, if we are to understand maps and territories, we have understand that while the map is not THE territory, it is A territory.)
A Minimization of Difference
Back to Levi’s post and my reaction to it. The trouble is that when we as postmoderns look at the argument that Plato puts forth, it does feel stultifying. (As Levi sums it up…)
Plato’s argument thus runs as follows. Equal-things always differ in some respect or capacity. Because equal-things always differ, we cannot arrive at a concept of equality-itself from equal-things. Therefore, our concept of equality-itself does not arise after our experience of equal-things, but must precede our experience of equal-things, for how could we recognize equal-things as equal-things- all of which differ both from themselves and others like them -if we did not first know equality-itself. Consequently, our concept of equality itself is prior to any of our dealings with the world.
For one thing, we don’t want our experiences here on this earth to be minimized in the least. This minimization begins a long process of minimizing one thing or another, one experience or another, one person or another, one peoples or another. We might be all for valuations and discriminations of better or worse, but something in us tells us that it should not start at the wholesale level, our experiences here are as real and significant as anything else. Secondly and relatedly, there is the terrible sense that if the reason why we able to recognize the similarity of things is simply because we have already grasped, before hand, a Grand and essential Sameness, this fails to capture the importance of differences to us. It is not just the samenesses that give us a love for living, but differences, perhaps even more so. How can all of these mundane distinctions merely be derivative? This carries with it the unsatisfactory notion that homosexuality is merely derivative of heterosexuality (with lexical irony), and that woman is derived from man, black a marring of white.
The Even Ground of Equilibrium
But, thinking on what it would mean for Sameness to be the origin, the great basin for Differences, I went back to Plato’s text, and looked at the word for “same” or “equal” (as it is translated). It is Ison, from which we get our words like isometric or isomorphic. What is immediately conjured up is mathematical equality, and this is generally the purity of Same towards which this binary heads. But contingently the LSJ dictionary had among any of its easily recognizable uses, one use which contained a subtle difference. It not only meant “equal” but “even”, as in can describe ground as “even or flat”, or the cadence of an army as marching in iso. As always is the case with the Greek, as much as we would really like to rationalize them into a near mathematical purity (given the tradition of their depiction), there is always a depth, a material depth to their conceptions that we miss. There is not a great difference between ison as “equal” and ison as “even”, but it a difference that opens up what Same is, not only for the Greeks, but for us as well.
I started picturing what it would be like to assume evenness of ground, or of step as the basin for difference, and what came to my mind is a perceptual experience which I rather naively assume to be shared with much of the animal kingdom. A predator, perhaps a mountain lion on its ledge overlooking a shallow gorge stares out at the field. There is an odd sort of evenness to it, as consciously it creates a field upon which differences register, there, a movement in the brush! Is this picture of consciousness, the idea that the evenness of the field in a certain sense foregrounds the possibility of difference really at the heart of the repression of woman and people of color? Is it that the difference of a deer’s movements are “derived” from the Same of the valley gorge, playing second fiddle? Is it that the evenness of perception has priority over the differences it enables, and if so, this hierarchy becomes the hierarchy of the subjugation? Well, in thinking about it, the shallow gorge is never completely flat, or even. It is already percolating with differences that the lion is registering (in my fantasy reenactment of an animal perception). The field of vision, as even, is in a sense fecund with both samenesses and differences, both the flat and the eruption, seem to be found within a general sense of ison. Instead of thinking of a great abstraction through which our logical binary can cut, it seems better to think of ison as Equilibrium, and an experience of Equilibrium at that.
When imagining that a sense of equilibrium is prior to, or the condition of disturbance, it seems that something less of the conceptual either/or baggage of ontological abstraction is carried through. It is hard to imagine that the general sense of equilibrium, what we as organisms have, is foundational to a naturalized minimization of the differences between people. Instead, equilibrium becomes the experiential baseline (already rich in differences) for which other differences, disequilibrium’s, disturbances, take on their significances.
In this embodied vision though we are immediately drawn into a Hegelian comprehension of the Negation of the Negation, that is, at bottom is an equilibrium process that encounters disturbances (negations, exceptions), which are then re-incorporated into a new and higher equilibrium. As someone like Judith Bulter complains, difference is always subsumed under a new Non-difference, (with the implicit, and one might say Capitalist/consumerist duty to difference for the sake of difference). Everything goes flat again. We have the appeal of a process of consciousness which describes how we are ever disturbed, and find ways to repress or reintegrate these differences that may feel like something we naturally do, without the desirable conclusion of difference for its own sake.
Not a fan of the Hegelian appreciation of the Negation, and its attendant teleology of history, I wondered if there is another way to think about this equilibrium, this field of evenness, which is not so reductive. Well versed with Spinozist tendencies, my own appreciation for Plotinus’s NeoPlatonic revisioning of Platonic Forms (ultimately the Ison), I keep wondering if we are missing something in the Greek notion of Same, of Equal, of Even.
Cat or Tails
If I return to the mountain lion and explore this notion of Same as Equilibrium and continue with the imagination of the field of differences, this is what I come up with. The cat, gazing lazily over the gorge is in an unattuned state of perception, that is, there is a directedness upon the general equilibrium of the life-force below which does not form an object, and upon which eruptive events occur, the shake of breezes on brush, the shadow from a hawk above, the regularity of the brook running. Any of these can provide occasions for momentary attenuation which is then reintegrated in the general state of equilibrium. These disturbances, these eruptions of a difference that make difference, are not best seen as objects, per se, but effects of relation. Their perception does not make up the essence of a consciousness (its intentionality), but the entirety of the field, its equilibrium states and its dissonances, do.
Now there is a movement, a disturbance which heightens the cat. Ears move forward, eyes narrow, breathing slows.
The difference, the disturbance in the equilibrium is registered as “prey” (to be categorically crude about it). The cat’s involuntary motions already set up a new equilibrium, and then motions towards the animal below (those differences), on a vector, set up new equilibriums, and soon the animal is running, leaping, configuring itself as a mutuality within the field of the world that the deer, the shallow gorge, and it all share. The contemplative equilibrium, that of a passive witnessing of a certain retreating flatness, has been transformed into an equilibrium of subsuming movement. Capacity to act. To say that all of the differences (disturbances) are only derived from the Equilibrium is to be too lexical, too syllo-logical about it (and to misunderstand the origins of logic). They are the very substance of what Equilibrium is. They are its expression and power as equilibrium. It is that the mountain lion has appeal to (cognitively, structurally) the dynamic equilibrium of the world, that it is able to act more freely. It is not that all of the differences are merely collapsed into the banality of Same, but that rhythm operates through the recognition of the full reality of difference, as difference, a process which is includes the awareness of difference as dissonance. If one is to make the collapse of the nature of Being into that of the State that is implicit is so many criticism of ontologies of Same, it is not that marginality is a secondary effect of the State (or even that the State is established through the necessary suppression of difference through the production of marginality — still too optical, containing the notion of the “hidden”), but that the State in its very forth-comingness, produces a maximalization of difference as the possibility of its very field, as perception. Instead of a Subject as Object-consciousness essentialized reading of Being (with its priority of absence or Nothingness which cloaks at the borders of an object, not to mention the optical sense that the “back” or the “inside” of the object is forever hidden from us), it is a Same as Dynamic Equilibrium, producing differences as concrete expressions of its power to act, maximizing those differences as it goes, creating the texture of its possibilities.
I think that this is what is behind the development of Plato’s “Full Nelson”. It is not so much a chokehold, as a hug. The Same is not a flat, logical identity of things to be expressed merely as a binary, and not even a Progressive necessity of the reduction of differences, but rather it is best seen as dynamic equilibrium, equilibrium as maximum expressiveness, an expressiveness beyond all subsumption. Being as radiating differences and distinctions.
There comes to mind a word from Sophocles’ Ode to Time, found in the play Aias (Ajax). Time is called “anaríthmêtos”. I have quoted the line before:
All things Vast [makros] and Unmeasured [anaríthmêtos] Time (646)
The word is often translated “countless” or “immeasurable” (and makros often simply translated as “long”). Time moves for Sophocles with a kind of negative theology. It cannot be measured. A metron in Greek is not only a “measure” as in a measurement, but also a “measure” as in a meter of poetry. Sophocles in measured poetry is singing about the immeasurableness of Time, a pure and delightful contradiction. If we were to translated the metered verse of the Greek into our English emphasis on rhyme, Time moves un-rhymeably in its vastness, as we rhyme about and with it. As we move away from Sophocles’s joy of the negation, the chasm of the tragic abyss (something I think he eventually profoundly overcomes with the concept of Eleos in the play “Philoctetes”), I think this is an essential aspect of the conception of Same which must be incorporated in our reading of the concept. Equilibrium for the Greeks, is musical. It is in the form of the poetic, an expression. If we are to recover from Plato’s Full-Nelson, it is from within this heritage of the Same that we must surely operate, the Same as maximalization of differences.
Again though, we really must retreat from any flat logic of binary differences; they are not rich enough to capture what happens in metered verse. (There is not only a genetic reason why Parmenides, who is thought to have made a category mistake of flat logic, wrote in meter.) And reaching out toward an ontology of pure difference does not cut it either (the dignity of persons of color or mixed gender does not rely upon that). It is rather the sense, the overriding and concrete sense that the entire world monistically is connected, that it rhymes, fundamentally with itself. All of our equilibriums, our transitions from contemplatively flat equilibriums to dynamic, poetic, bounding mountain-lion equilibriums of action, are reliant upon the appeal to a world that expresses itself as one vast equilibrium, an equilibrium of expression. The lion cannot run without fundamentally rhyming with the ground, the shallow gorge, and even the deer, each of them as expressions.
This is where I have long had a subtle misreading of the Sameness of Being which sterilely cut itself off from its step-brothers Differences. How is it that we are supposed to connect all of those differences (and those samenesses) back up to one Same? What an absurd question. It relies upon a notion of Same, of Ison, too flat, too drained white, not richly enough conceived as equilibrium as maximum expression. Much as we have had the metaphysical danger of confusing the map with territory, we have flattened out the lines of what Ison means. A car idling in the drive is Ison, even. The same car accelerating through a canyon curve is Ison. The communication between the driver and the steering mechanism is Ison. But also, the tree that has fallen in the road also must be Ison, if we are to continue, and the fear of hitting a deer is Ison, or the speeding over the limit is Ison. That is, there is always a plentitude toward the rhyming which is appealable, the bath in which is rewarded with a constructability, the possibility of action.
Same as Dynamis
It is here that I think that Spinoza’s notion of Substance provides particular revelation. How is it that he connects the Substance up to all the diversity within it?, people want to ask, flattening out the map of dichotomies. How does he get from the Only thing to the Many things? This is to mistake the question of the Same at the conceptual level. The Ison is fundamentally and unreservedly a dynamic equilibrium, a vast expression. As such it necessarily produces a maximalization of differences out of the pure plentitude of its even, equal, Isotic expression. To make anything less of these modal differences than the absolutely concrete actuality of Ison, to minimize even the tiniest of differences, is to minimize the reality of what Dynamic expressive Equilibrium is. The modes are Real because Being when it is “running” (and it is by it very nature always running), produces itself distinctly.
Returning to our mountain-lion, it is a music of Being which may attend to this sub-line of music (this equilibrium, the shallow gorge) in order to note this sub-line of music (deer-brush interactions, which serves as a dissonance), then composing its own gorge-lion sub-line of music, but none of this is done outside of a harmonization, that is the music, however faltering, always recaptures itself in a way that musicality itself becomes the tantamount supposition. The question for pure ontology of Difference, that is, the sour note that is granted full rights and dignity out of its very sourness, always must come back to the dynamics of tasting. This does not mean that all difference is simply collapsed into Same, made into an ephemera, an illusion (unless the illusion is that one can have a musical difference whose essence is non-musical, a freedom of choice or purchase which is utterly private and cut off from all interplay…the fantasy behind the hole in the Capitalist/consumerist, Democratic Subject). Rather, as one acts as Substance, increasing one’s capacity to act in the world through the understanding of expressive causes, as Substance one increases the number of differences one creates, a potentiality of sour notes abound, which is nothing other than the creation of a perceptual field of distinguishings, a body of dissonances, the way that the hair stands up on your skin, bristling. The is the meaning of horror, and awe, which lies at the bottom of any ancient contemplation of Same, of Ison.
The project of Being, insofar as we can stipulate one, is the creation of as diverse a number of surfaces upon which the horror-awe can condense, the maximalization of intensity as expressive equilibrium, in which one’s own differences register as a plentitude. Is this pure Difference? I wouldn’t know. It is more an Ontology of Perceptibility, and I suggest that it is reached not through a primary optical metaphor of Objecthood (the hidden below the surface), the shadow the Citizen as Subject, but through constructive bodily assemblage, the way that we technologically construct the living soul through our cybernetic combinations with the material and para-material world, creating more and more surfaces upon which revelation (dissonances) may occur. The hairs stand up on end.
It is for this reason that I think it best to see our capacities to read and experience the world as ultimately mutually expressive. Action is not at a distance because distance implies primary opticality. Action is always constructive out of a plentitude that is present, which is ever appealed to making rich differences which make the difference. Ison as plentitude, and not its lack.
The unhappy consequence of this understanding of Being is that it does not give ontological voice to what is taken to be an essential human experience (people who to define the Human separation from Nature by it). We want an ontology which expresses our alienation, one that fundamentally buries out alienation in the very heart of Being. We do not want to be told that our sadnesses, our dislocations are only problems of perspective, that if simply change our view our haunting shadow of the Abyss will simply disappear. And part of this is not wanting to imagine that when a bird returns to its nest-tree only to find it destroyed or raided, it may feel alienated or dislocated, or even sorrowful, at least not in the category which we are able. Our ontologies must entrench the very sorrow of our condition, anchoring it, alleviating our need to look towards our relations (chosen and otherwise), as the causes of our experience. It is agreed that the great satisfaction of Existential Ontologies of Negation, is denied here. Ours is not a world condemned to a freedom of Nothingness in various guises. In replace of this solace is rather opened a continual path of construction. That is, at any moment in time we can begin construction of bodies in assemblage, which are either newly created, seemingly ex nihilist of a change idea or mind, or can be reconfigured more powerfully from already existing forms (the same change in two ways). At any moment one can begin anew a music through the musical recognition of what is already playing, edging on cacophony. One searches for the tilted Equilibrium and affectively combines with other affective bodies, anew. Repeating a sour note, attenuatedly, changes it, yet one can only repeat the note cognitively, in a change of power, through the understanding of its cause through a mutuality with the world, and with others. When one does so one changes the possibilities of difference, modal becomes nodal.
The finding of similarities (of which metaphor is a exemplary) is ultimately not a referential process. The “same” of which the process participates is not a same of reference, a pointing back to, or over and above to some over-arching ground of Same. I’m not sure that even Plato thought of it in this way. This is a table not because there is a same of Table floating behind it. Rather, the finding of similarities is productive and best seen as bodily in construction, putting our bodies in consonance, such that it assumes the power of an equilibrium. Looking for the priority of this equilibrium, its foundation, is like looking for the workability of the experience of “it works”. But this does not make this Ur-Equilibrium simply the world of Becoming, for this flattens out the pure dimensionality of Being (a great fear of someone like Graham Harman). This dimensionality, a certain depth, is found in two ways. Locally its is found in the sheer dimensionality of bodies in combination, in the lived, affective transfers which express the power of communications, radiating out. The mountain lion-gorge-deer assemblage is dimensioned in locality. But it is also brought into depth through the nature of causal understanding itself. The very nature of increases in power through causal understandings is necessarily a minimal trinity where there was only a shallow binary before. The world becomes fleshed and immanent, through the power of causal understanding. This too is not an understanding of reference (Substance is not a “thing” or even a “state”), but of a constitutive experience flowing out of what Equilibrium must be.
Beneath any such appreciation of Equilibrium there is always the danger of having the concept collapse and become flat, that is the constant and ever-producing Equilibrium of Being can be read as a flat-line nullity. This the haunt of the Freudian Death Drive, the Shadow of the Pleasure Principle. A Pure and empty circulation, the inorganic draw beneath Pleasure pursuits. There is a tendency to see Pure Being as a negation of its expression. Our individual pleasures only collapse into a great machine of Death. This is merely, in my view, the gravitous compliment of too close a contact with the sacred (profane), as dissonance rises beyond the threshold of comprehension or even organization. The Death Drive circulation works as the center-of-gravity closure that allows dissonance affects to sink down and cohere, if only in a pure banality of effects, forever the attractor of Fascist, totalitarian binding. In this way a Spinozist conception of Substance (and of State) maintains as a matter of its project ever the ascetic haunt of blind circulation, intensity turning down upon itself for the sake of its own rhyming. The music of Being turned into a dull ditty (the pains/pleasures of dissonance flashing as mere surface ephemera). The antedote to this is to realize its ever presence (as a function of lived thresholds of coherence, a tendency to urgently create bodies in vaccum), and to return a notion of Ison as normatively and ontologically the production of maximal difference, a product of its fecundity. These ontological closures are mere cocoonings (sometimes brutal), for mixtures of potential action through dynamic Equilibrium.