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The Soul Crushed and Twisted by the Mechanical Arts – Plato

Plato’s Prisons of Techne

I repost here the quote from the Republic that in usual Platonic, imagistic language is full of potential truths. Here we find Socrates discrediting primarily the sophists, but really by virtue of a whole class of technically skilled [techne] workers, those whose power and knowledge consists in their experiences, and standing, as workers. In condensed fashion he runs the gambit from prisoners to technicians to mere machine workers. All of these he tells us, wish to gravitate, actually more, leap or fly to the prestige of philosophy:

Just as men out of prisons into holy sanctuaries are fleeing, so these joyous men out from technical arts are leaping into Philosophy, as if those being most intricate would hit upon the little art of themselves. For in comparison with the other arts the honor of philosophy even though abandoned is more magnificent. This is the flight of the many unaccomplished by nature, who from the technical arts and even workmanship, their bodies have been mutilated and their souls envined and even crushed through the mechanical arts.

Plato, Republic [495d]

Leaving the question of the sophists aside and picking up the word-image, we really have something here. There is the interminable sense that our experiences as workers confined to the techniques of our knowing and doing, caught within the demands of an economic and thereby psychic necessity, contort us, alter us. And Plato’s image is quite strong as he evokes the worker or technician (and some editors have thought that he had the military arts in mind, but the image carries through) whose body is maimed by the arts he practices. We see vividly the industry worker, or other friends of the “machine” who has lost fingers or received other bodily harm, even desk workers whose time in the chair have changed their posture. All of these graftings of a machinic upon the human body are rolled up into the image of the prisoner at the beginning of the passage, the one who is confined, shackled by circumstances of every degree. And all of these make for Socrates those who are unqualified to the seat of Philosopher. This is because, as the body is the image of the soul, it is not only bodies that have been exacted upon, it is souls, and here in the end forming a bookend to the prisoner the image is striking. The mechanical arts (by which we are to see mean arts, perhaps those of low craftsmen, even with the association of the weaver who is feminine), actually “envine”, they envelope and slowly twist and choke the soul, even eventually crush or pulverize it. What comes to mind for me is of a gear-working, a rack that out of its unnatural nature incrementally destroys the cognitive powers of the soul. Here “work” in every mechanical gradient becomes the equivalent of torture.

At a certain level we have condensed here all of the reasons why the economic freedoms of others become a high priority for us. For it is not just in political restriction that the voice and soul becomes contorted, but also that the very lived mechanical – and we read mechanical even in the most abstract sense of purposed and productive repetitions – states of workers are binding and cognitively contorting devices. At least that is the rhetorical picture. Aside from Plato’s political aim, the freeing of cognitions from devices remains a kind of halo of a hope, an attractor.

Scholastic Silence: How to Comtemplate

But in this ethical picture stands its opposite, the idea that the Philosopher is he who is not contorted, maimed or crushed. The one whose body and soul stands relatively whole, unpressured, the one who can see clearly, from a distance. It is there that Bourdieu’s critique of the “scholastic point of view” which I brought up in my last post, occurs. The production of the quietude of the Philosopher, the near monastic, let us say scholastic isolation from the contortions of mechanical art pressures, is, Bourdieu wants us to know, artificial. The cocoon and buffer that creates the gap between a world of devices and techniques exacted, and the imagined realm of reasons, has to be built. It has been constructed through labors which themselves are structured. And then it too is structured by internal devices and arts. What Bourdieu wants us to know is that when the philosopher adopts the scholastic point of view, he/she is likely carrying with him/her the vast train of social constructions (literal constructions) which enable that monastic cell of contemplation, and there is both a social and epistemic responsibility towards the excavation of those inherited and largely unconscious relations (an excavation that in some sense is retarded by flat ontologies who know only their surface).

The One Machinist of the 17th Century

In a way it is the Philosopher who knows least the mutilations of his/her body, the envinings of his/her soul, the pulverizations, due to the very quietude of contemplation. And to this great dis-orientation of thinking towards the mere mechanical, my mind turns towards the rise of the philosophy of the mechanical, the Dutch flowering of Cartesian mechanism. It seems here that most, if there was to be a philosophy that embraced the mechanical nature of thinking it would be found here. I wrote some time ago about the “hand of de Beaune” a brilliant mathematician who was working hard in the service of Descartes on the production of a fantastic automated lens-grinding machine :Descartes and Spinoza: Craft and Reason and The Hand of De Beaune. With somewhat of a coincidence de Beaune’s hand was severely cut just as Plato’s technician’s body was maimed. Descartes’ dream though was of producing machines which no hand would touch, pure, abstract machines, concretized maths, in a sense, those which would free the otherwise fettered human mind. Plato’s dichotomy duplicates itself, the machine as enemy to the mind because of the body, as well as its instrumental aid. As I have pointed out in my investigation of Spinoza’s lens-grinding, Spinoza was the only “worker” of the period, and in fact the only craftsman per se. While lens-grinding and machine fascination was an elite hobby among the new scientist riche, Spinoza was actually a worker, and engaged his lens lathe daily as a matter of his economic sustainance. Deep in this machinic age, only Spinoza new the machine in a fashion Plato’s Socrates could not. He knew it with his hands.

In an interesting fashion, Spinoza’s “scholastic point of view” embodies a unique self-reflective awareness that is encapsulated in his worker, machine status, as well as one might admit, his standing as an ostricized Jew. He occupied a position at the border, a stand-point, that made of his quietude a different sort of awareness. Born of the age of the machine, Spinoza understood the human being too as a device, a complex series of ordinations, to which other complex serieses of ordinations are connected, a “spiritual automaton” he called the human being. In this awareness the “worker” takes on a different place: Not that of “prisoner” to stand in dialectical opposition to the unmutilated man, but of machinic degree. Our work becomes an expression of machines, machines of which we never extricate ourselves. It is only that we need to choose our machines (those of which we are made) more carefully, with an eye to liberation. The gaze of leisure is to be questioned.

Blogged Quietism

In this view blogging of course becomes a significant phenomena. Some philosophical bloggers write out of a self-created cocoon to escape the twisting techne of university or college, forming however brief a contemplation of respite, engaging the machinic of the internet. Some blog in order to be able to speculate, to freely exhibit what they might be able to think, if they were allowed to. Yet, as we produce our ideas and disseminate them, to the degree that we do not embrace the machinic, we are fraught with generating the modes that have produced our monk-cell, unconsciously, not recognizing the shapes of our bodies and souls.

Atop this image of the mechanical arts that contort there is the artist, we might say, is also the self-artist. The one that grasps the inherent machinic character of the human, and purposely undergoes specific machinic contortions upon both body and soul, not to perfect, but to express (and to some degree soterologically free themself and others from) the specific techne of the world, as it stands. To take on the machine, in the way that a poet takes on a complex meter.

Being/s as Power to Affect or to Be Affected

From the Sophist


λέγω δὴ τὸ καὶ ὁποιανοῦν [τινα] κεκτημένον δύναμιν [247ε] εἴτ᾽ εἰς τὸ ποιεῖν ἕτερον ὁτιοῦν πεφυκὸς εἴτ᾽ εἰς τὸ παθεῖν καὶ σμικρότατον ὑπὸ τοῦ φαυλοτάτου, κἂν εἰ μόνον εἰς ἅπαξ, πᾶν τοῦτο ὄντως εἶναι: τίθεμαι γὰρ ὅρον [ὁρίζειν] τὰ ὄντα ὡς ἔστιν οὐκ ἄλλο τι πλὴν δύναμις.


I sat that that which has acquired any power (capacity) of any kind, either to create a change in anything of any nature [247e] or to be affected even in the least by the slightest, even if only on one occasion, all this actually IS. For I set up the term to divide beings to be nothing else but power (capacity).

As a means of comparison Spinoza’s:

That which so disposes the human body that it can be affected in many ways, or which renders it capable of affecting external bodies in many ways, is advantageous to man, and is more advantageous in proportion as by its means the body becomes more capable of being affected in many ways and to affect other bodies; on the other hand, that thing is injurious which renders the body less capable of affecting or be affected – E4p38

A Vectorial Understanding of Being

10 Greatest Philosophers (sigh): Desert Island Question

Tool Kit

Jon Cogburn’s list in the comments section over at Perverse Egalitarianism  it seems has forced/spurred me onto my own list, as absurd as it may be, (but processes of organization are creative). It is a conflation of “greatest influence,”  upon me, but also as I read it, “greatest influence” upon the best solution for the pressing questions of our historical moment, a solution which must resonate down to the root/earth of the Western Philosophical tree. In a sense the list represents the authors from whom — if I was on a desert island and had to compose a philosophical theoretical perspective for our Age, and could be given the entire oeuvre of each — I would compose my island library; where there are two, I get two for the price of one. I include a small note on what seems the most germane contribution, though effects are radial.

1. Spinoza (parallel postulate under a register of power)

2. Plato (formulating the Orphic)

3. Augustine (Immanent Semiotics of truth)

4. Plotinus (Degree of Being transformation of Plato)

5. Davidson (Triangulation and Objectivity)

6. Guattari and Deleuze (Ontology of Affects)

7. Wittgenstein (Language Game)

8. Nietzsche (Ascent of Metaphor)

9. Sophocles (The Surpass of Tragedy)

10. Maturana and Varela (Operational Closure)

A large measure of this ranking can be seen as an after-image of an entire branch of thinking stemming from Descartes’ Central Clarity Consciousness  conception, which had its reverberations and mal-interpretations running through both the Continental and Analytic sides, a branch that is best left behind for now.

The actual numbers are only as they came to me without very much juggling. Tons of beautiful philosophers left off, some of my most favorite ones with whom I agree much more, and more inspire me, than some on the list…but that is the beauty of lists they force a composition, a constellation. Of course I would love to hear any of your own lists under something of the same criteria (or whatever).

(On another para-frivolous note, I would love to do a NCAA like bracket “playoff” of the 64 greatest philosophers, a competition/comparison which could have serious conceptual implications about truth and correction.)

Here a BBC Greatest Philosopher List

Heidegger’s Confusion Over “Truth”

The Blanketing of the Truth

The problem is that Heidegger as he examines the Greek concept of truth (aletheia), even as it is investigated by Plato in The Sophist, begins with Aristotle. We can see this plainly in his recounting of the “history” of truth in his lectures on the Platonic Dialogue, as he moves as quickly as possible to the logos-determined, speaking realm of human beings. Heidegger wants to get onto the firm and comfortable ground of Dasein, of human-oriented Being-There. And in the quotation below we can see how in just a few strokes he gets from “Aletheia” (which is commonly translated into our word “truth”) to the albeit to be problemized “uncoveredness” of the legomenon, “the spoken thing”.

the history of the concept of truth

Alethes means literally “uncovered.” It is primarily things, the pragmata, that are uncovered. To pragmata alethes. This uncoveredness does not apply to things insofar as they are, but insofar as they are encountered, insofar as they are objects of concern. Accordingly uncoveredness is a specific accomplishment of Dasein, which has its being in the soul: aletheuei he psyche. Now the most immediate kind of uncovering is speaking about things. That is, the determination of life, a determination that can be conceived of as logos, primarily takes over the function of aletheuein. Aletheuei ho logos, and precisely logos [speech, reason] as logein [to speak]. Insofar now as each logos is a self-expression and a communication, logos requires at once the meaning of the logomenon [the spoken thing]. And insofar as it is logos which aletheuei, logos qua logomenon is alethes. But strictly taken this is not the case. Nevertheless, isfaras speaking is a pronouncement and in the proposition aquires a proper existence, so that knowledge is preserved therein, even the logos as logomenon can be called alethes….Knowing or considering is always a speaking, whether vocalized or not. All disclosive comportment, not only everyday finding one’s way about, but also scientific knowledge, is carried out in speech. Legein primarily takes over the function of aletheuein. This legein is for the Greeks the basic determination of man: Zoon logon echon [an animal that holds speech]. And thus Aristotle achieves [in Nic. Eth. VI, 2], precisely in connection with this determination of man, i.e. the field of the logon echon and with respect to it, the first articulation of the five modes of altheuein. (Heidegger’s lectures on Plato’s Sophist, 18-19)

There are a few things to set straight right off. His simple, literal defintion of aletheia as  “uncoveredness” is an incredible simplification of the meanings and origins of the word, something he quickly has reduced, in largely Sophoclean fashion, to a trope of cloaking and residual depth. The power and sweep of this simplification should not be underestimated, for it directs the whole of the theoretical that follows. When something is “covered” our immediate questions inevitably turn to the nature of the thing that lies between it and us, how did it get there, what is it made of, can we remove it, what purpose does it serve. One can see how nicely such a condensed translation fits within the Idealist tradition which focuses on the Phenomenal and Ideational veil of Ideas.

Unfortunately, or we might say fortunately, the history of the concept of truth goes back much further than where Heidegger wants to take it. He wants us to see that A-letheia is a privative. It means A (not) letheia (covered). But does -letheia mean “covered”? Not really; at least it cannot be reduced to such without extensive distortion. We can recognize the name famous River of Lethe in the land of the Dead (so named by Ovid) in the word, a history of which we will return to in a moment. But the root comes from the Greek verb lanthánõ, which specifically means (LSJ):

A. in most of the act. tenses, to escape notice

B. causal, to make one forget a thing

As a signular note, a cloaked thing might or might not escape notice, and one might or might not forget a cloaked thing (in either case its very cloakedness could draw attention to it, as someone who kept their hand hidden behind their back has a certain obviousness to them). The Greek concept of Lethe is much more thorough than “cloakedness.” It is much closer to our notion of Oblivion. The forgetfulness of Lethe is more than the visual trope of “coveredness” gives us. It is the dissipation of difference. There is no difference there that matters, that makes a difference.

To bring out more of this concept of Aletheia, the a- (un) letheia (forgotten, obliteratered, lost) I want to turn to the Orphic mythologies that informed Plato’s own theories of truth, and likely formed a widespread and constitutive influence upon the very notion of aletheia in Greek culture. Below I quote from Guthries’s Classic text,  Orpheus and the Greek Religion, a selection which focuses on the occult knowledge of the Underworld given an Orphic Initiate regarding the topography of the land of the Dead, and their explicit instructions on how to avoid Lethe.

Keeping, then, to the right, the soul comes to a spring [on the right, having been warned not to drink from the spring of forgetfulness on the left], and addresses to the guardians that are before it a prayer that it may be allowed to drink of the water, of which it is in dire need: “I am parched with thirst and I perish”. We may presume that it has passed by the way that is described in the Republic as leading to the plain of Lethe, “through terrible and suffocating heat; for it is bare of trees and of all the fruits of the earth”. At the end of that journey too the souls are given water to drink. For the general belief that the dead are thirsty and in urgent need of water we have references which though not frequent are sufficient to indicate that it must have been widely held and not a particular tenet of the Orphics. The same prayer occurs in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and had been adopted from it into the Hellenic religion of the same part of the world, as is shown by several sepulchral inscriptions, found, like the gold plates themselves, in Italy, with the formula: “May Osiris give thee the cold water”. No doubt the name of Osiris was taken by the Greeks because they found in the Egyptian religions an idea similar to that which they already held themselves.

The word yuxpro/n means of course not simply “cold” but “refreshing”. (The two are the same in Mediterranean countries.) It is of the same root as psyche, soul and Dieterich (Nekyia, 95) compares the word a)nayu=xai in the Orphic line which literally means “refreshed from evil”. The water is not ordinary water. It is water from the lake of Memory, and it is only the soul whose purity is vouched for which is to be allowed to drink from it. This is the soul which has escaped from the circle of birth, or evil, or woe, and is about to enter on the state of perfect divinity. Consequently it is not, like the souls in the Republic which are being prepared for a new incarnation, made to drink a certain measure of the water of Forgetfulness (Rep. 620a). That, without doubt, is the fountain on the left which it is told above all things to avoid. For it is reserved the water of life, which will enable it to retain full consciousness (Guthrie, Orpheus and the Greek Religion, 177)

How far we are from simple “covered” and “uncoveredness”, and even linguistic reductions of the determination of the human soul to that which is spoken. Rather, the depiction of Lethe and not-Lethe is expressed in very physical terms, in terms of refreshingly cold water as drink. The soul in the land of the dead has passed through extreme heat, and is bewildered by its thirst. It has been instructed not to drink of the fountain on the left, but on the right. Here I quote the already cited Orphic passage from the Republic:

[621a] And after it had passed through that, when the others also had passed, they all journeyed to the Plain of Oblivion [tes Lethes pedion], through a terrible and stifling heat, for it was bare of trees and all plants, and there they camped at eventide by the River of Forgetfulness [Ameleta potamon], whose waters no vessel can contain. They were all required to drink a measure of the water, and those who were not saved by their good sense drank more than the measure, and each one as he drank forgot all things.

The word-choice here is telling. The soul has passed across the Plain of Oblivion (tes Lethes pedion), and the river that the reincarnating soul drinks from is not the River of Lethe, but the River of Ameleta, the River of Uncaring. Under Orphic telling, the aletheia is not the “uncovered” but “the not-uncaring”. Clearly, those that drink from the River of Mnemosyne instead of Ameleta, retain their cares and concerns. Quite to the contrary of Heidegger’s lexical reversion which will eventually make a “cloaking” out of human Dasein engagment with the pragmata (affairs, things of concern), the very nature of aletheia is that of retaining concerns and care. It is only through the retention of cares that the soul is refreshed of the heat of oblivion.

The Role of Care as Revelation

Importantly, Heidegger tells us in his history of the concept of the truth that “This uncoveredness [of aletheia] does not apply to things insofar as they are, but insofar as they are encountered, insofar as they are objects of concern.” Notice how this differs from the Orphic/Platonic tale of elementary care and concern. The concern is not with “objects” but with thirst itself, with the state of one’s own body. It is the purity of this sufferance, as a care, which in turn orients the soul both toward the gaurdian and the spring. And contrary to Heidegger’s assessment, it is indeed the care of the soul which orients it rightfully to the pragmata, “insofar as they are”. One must, in examining the history of the Greek notion of the truth acknowledge this fundamental equation.

It is for this reason that the optical metaphor of covered and uncovered that Heidegger adopts, while suited to the Idealist heritage he keeps, actually is insufficient to the Greek concept of truth (insofar as we can historically generalize). The the failure of cares in Oblivion is the detachment from one’s own state, to dissipate. It is not a condition of veiling, or coveredness, of something coming between the subject and the world, but rather is a constitutive internal relation, a failure of orientation towards one’s own health and dynamic expression, a failure to recall in one’s concerns the connections which “as they are” have constituted you.

In this correction we must keep track of Heidegger’s smooth move towards Aletheia of speaking being: “Now the most immediate kind of uncovering is speaking about things.” One wants to stretch back to some time more distant than the benchmark for truth, Aristotle, and turn to Homer, the Iliad. Achilles is furious and in attendance of the Assembly where he is told that Agamemnon will take from him his beloved Briseis. Achilles has his hand on the hilt of his sword which he is in the act of drawing. Agamemnon is finished, yet:

The white-armed goddess Hera had sent her forth, [195] for in her heart she loved and cared for both men alike. She stood behind him, and seized the son of Peleus by his fair hair, appearing to him alone. No one of the others saw her. Achilles was seized with wonder, and turned around, and immediately recognized Pallas Athene. Terribly her eyes shone. (Book One, lines 195-200)

What is the “truth” status of Athena’s terribly flashing eyes? None of the others in the hall saw her (literally, she was coming to light [phanomene] to him alone, not the others).  Not only did he perceive her [gignosko] as generally present, but seemed to do so as particularized by the very manifestion of her eyes [phaanthen]. These eyes are the very epithetic status of the goddess herself, “Flash-eyed” Athena. I suggest really that it is not on this occasion of words (debate in a hall) that the most immediate form of “uncovering” is words, but rather of bodily seizure and distinctive identification. The pragmata of Achilles’ concern, that of Agamemnon’s unworthy stewardship of the Greek contingent, his love for Briseis, suddenly is invaded by the pragmata of his own condition, exposed in the glinting revelation of things as they are, the concerns of his very thumatic soul. But it is not a condition of layering, of things standing between what is and the perceiver. Nothing is hidden, rather the richness of connection is accomplished in care. We find this in the poem when Achilles finally achieves the ῎Ελεος of compassion for Hector’s father and his sworn enemy King Priam, Eleos, the God of Mercy. This is what is missing from Heidegger’s notion of “truth” as kinds of covering and uncovering, in an optical metaphor of distance.

Productively I feel that the order of these points against Heidegger should be framed within a large problem in the Idealist tradition that Heidegger participates in, and this is the absolute tendency to consider philosophical questions solely in terms of a fundamental dyad. This form of analysis is one that principally comes out of the European Christian concern of how to connect the human soul with God. The presumption was that the world simply interferred in some sense (which the exception of the Church, which faciliated the connection) As God came to be displaced, the fundamental question became epistemic, how does the human perceiving subject connect to the world (and the world’s surrogate, the “object”). In taking the philosophical question to be primarily a subject/object question, the great and constitutive third, others, came to be pushed aside. In general, as philosophies become discordantly engaged with one-to-one relationships, and their profusion of binaries, it is inherently insuffient and misguided (that is, it has decomplexified the relationships of the world to an unhelpful degree). It seems to me that as Heidegger turned to Aristotlean notions of truth, categorizing them widely as Greek, and adopted a primarly optical metaphor for qualifications of Being, he did so in a way quite friendly to the pre-existing Idealist dyad of self/world. In this fashion, in his foreclosure to the immanent capacities of “care” in the Greek mind, he obscured the very third leg of the triangle, others, which would otherwise show how “care” in all things, including things “non-human” is actively involved in our mutual construction of the world, in degrees of ontological freedom.  Because “aletheia” was for Idealist Heidegger primarily an EYE/OBJECT relation (that metaphor), the constitutive movment from “lethe” (dissipative oblivion) to “a-leth-eia” (condensed internal relations of expressive care) was robbed of the very depth of the dimensionality of others. More Augustine, more Achilles was needed.

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.

Witnessing Ontologies of Difference

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 is 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 which 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), when 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 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, their 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 (it 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 essentialization 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 (one might say if one were being humorous). 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. Time is called “anaríthmêtos”. I have quoted the line before:

All things Great [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 is 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, 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, as 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 much 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 which 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 to the Only thing to the Many things? This 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 subline of music (this equilibrium, the shallow gorge) in order to note this subline of music (deer-brush interactions, which serves as a dissonance), then composing its own gorge-lion subline 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, 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 sournotes 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 what 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 similiarites (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 on 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, 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 a 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 matter of its project ever the asethetic 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, as a product of its fecundity. These ontological closures are mere cocoonings (sometimes brutal), for mixtures of potential action through dynamic Equilibrium.

The Coins of Others

Today while eating at our favorite greasy-spoon Andy’s my wife and I were discussing an everyday something that happened at her work, where she is a bartender. This is how she summed it when I asked her if she would:

Ricardo, a buser, appeared at the bar and presented to me a small, bronze coin, not unlike a penny. His English is not expansive and he told me in a somewhat confusing way that the coin had been discovered by someone in the kitchen or on the busing staff and that, though he liked it, the person who had found the coin had instructed him to give it to me. It was something of a gift.

I looked at the coin a bit more closely and realized that it was a Canadian coin. I showed Ricardo the image on the “heads” side of the coin, explaining that it was the queen, expressing to him that it was not a US coin, but rather a Canadian coin, and therefore had no worth for spending.

Ricardo was interested in this, not only because he was surprised to find it was a foreign coin, but perhaps also because he had appraised it as a gift. I accepted it happily and thanked him.

It was interesting to me that an object that began as a mistaken penny, a seemingly worthless piece of currency as it is, but was presented and passed on to me as a gift of some worth. That worth – the worth of a gift – is ultimately what was imprinted on the coin. It was deemed technically worthless by its status as foreign currency, but immediately took on a sort of exotic worth in the exact same process. Had the coin been something of worth in US currency, perhaps a quarter, or even a dollar coin, the gift would have seemed something entirely different – a payment; how does it feel to receive one dollar from someone with whom you work? The “worthlessness” as a penny and the worthlessness of foreign currency are both, seemingly, necessary for the gift to be received as a gift of any worth at all.

From our discussion it occurred to me that those that are lovers of philosophy are not unlike coin lovers. There is a certain sense, in reading the ideas of others–whether they be the largely discredited, though still taken to be influential views of people of the past (Descartes, Plato, etc.), or if they be the exotic ideas of contemporary schools of thought (Deleuze perhaps, or Zizek)–there is a sense that the foreignness signals something. Because these coins (ideas) are not a part of our regular currency, they evoke the whole series of relations which allows them to have functioned as coins (ideas) at all. If one has an ancient Roman coin in one’s hand, through its marks and significations, something of the whole of Rome comes before us. These are economies of thought. And whether we use them within our own economy, and our appreciation for them, operates somewhere between a “gift” and a “value”.

This brings to mind Nietzsche’s brilliant equation of truths with coins:

What is truth then? A mobile army of metaphors, metonomies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations that are elevated, transmitted, beautified in a poetic or rhetoric manner, and that appear to the people after a long usage as fixed, canonical and binding: truths are illusions of which one has forgotten they are illusions, metaphors that are worn out and literally became powerless, coins that lost their images and are now metal and no longer coins.

“On Truth and Lie in the Extramoral Sense”

In his analogy, Nietzsche does not deal directly with the notion of public minting. There is a way in which he imagines that coin-truths are minted in a metaphorizing process, by the imprints of experience: “What is a word? It is a copy in sound of a nerve stimulus,” and “To begin with, a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is imitated in a sound: second metaphor”.They have become blank, rubbed out from their images, in his imagining, and are circulating emptily, without force. But this is not really how truth-coins function. Coins function within an economy of marks. A blank coin does not circulate, and expressions of experience do not mint coins. What Nietzsche is drawing out is that via their marks, when coins circulate, they no longer are their marks seen as marks, as part of a specific economy in history. The marks circulate invisibly, so that a “dollar” becomes in a way, transcendent in its effect. When we encounter a foreign coin, a coin of others, we encounter the very minted aspect of our ideas, our truths, the associated and contractual relations which make up a criteria laden economy. The marks come out. And when we take up the coins of other currencies, we bring up the possibilities of our own currency.

As I have written elsewhere, Nietzsche did not come up with the metaphor of comparing truths to coins. He was responding to Plato’s Socrates, who talks of the trade of pleasures likened to the exchange of coins, in the purchase of virtue:

My dear Simmias, I suspect that this is not the right way to purchase virtue, by exchanging pleasures for pleasures, and pains for pains, and fear for fear, and greater for less, as if they were coins, but the only right coinage, for which all those things [69b] must be exchanged and by means of and with which all these things are to be bought and sold, is in fact wisdom; and courage and self-restraint and justice and, in short, true virtue exist only with wisdom, whether pleasures and fears and other things of that sort are added or taken away. And virtue which consists in the exchange of such things for each other without wisdom, is but a painted imitation of virtue and is really slavish and has nothing healthy or true in it…


Here, if we follow the analogy, we surmise that there is an official mind of real coins, in fear of a counterfeit minting by others. The “stamp” of currency, is that of Ideas, (instead of the stamp of Nietzsche’s nerve-stimulous). The reason I suggest indeed that we value the gift aspects of coins, of foriegn ideas, is neither to recieve coins of official and universal mint (transcendent ideas), nor coins of most naturalmint (nerve-impressions), though the ideational, and affective aspects of idea economies are always in employ, but it is to enter into lived economies of Sense, so that they reflect upon our own. In this way, value and gift coincide.

If we must ask, What is it that is impressed upon the metal blanks of our coins? We would have to say that the blank is never blank, and what is impressed is the repeat of folds in our bodies, made from creases of our shared criteria and Sense. A community of e/a ffects and distinctions.



Cookery, Cuisine and the Truth: Plato’s Gorgias


From Plato’s Gorgias:

Polus: But what do you consider rhetoric to be? [462c]
Socrates: A thing which you say–in the treatise which I read of late–“made art.”
Polus: What thing do you mean?
Socrates: I mean a certain habitude.
Polus: Then do you take rhetoric to be a habitude?
Socrates: I do, if you have no other suggestion.
Polus: Habitude of what?
Socrates: Of producing a kind of gratification and pleasure.
Polus: Then you take rhetoric to be something fine–an ability to gratify people?
Socrates: How now, Polus? Have you as yet heard me tell you [462d] what I say it is, that you ask what should follow that–whether I do not take it to be fine?
Polus: Why, did I not hear you call it a certain habitude?
Socrates: Then please–since you value “gratification”–be so good as gratify me in a small matter.
Polus: I will.
Socrates: Ask me now what art I take cookery to be.
Polus: Then I ask you, what art is cookery ? [462e]
Socrates: Then I reply, a certain habitude.
Polus: Of what? Tell me.
Socrates: Then I reply, of production of gratification and pleasure, Polus.
Polus: So cookery and rhetoric are the same thing?
Socrates: Not at all, only parts of the same practice.
Polus: What practice do you mean?

Socrates, in the Gorgias, compares rhetoric, that is the art of speaking, to cookery [opsopoiike ]. He distinguishes it from arts [techne ], calling it merely a practice [or habituation, empeirian ], or worse a routine [tribe ], and as cookery, it falls into being a subdivision of a larger devotion [epitedeuseos ], which is flattery [kolakeian ]. He contrasts cooking to medicine, and distinguishes that medicine is something that, unlike mere cooking, tells us the real nature of things [phusis ]. And he bases this distinction upon the idea that it is the soul commands the body:

For indeed, if the soul were not in command of the body, but the latter had charge of itself, and so cookery and medicine were not surveyed and distinguished by the soul, but the body itself were the judge, forming its own estimate of them by the gratification they gave it…everything would be jumbled together.

Now, a thinker like Nietzsche, (and in a way, one like Spinoza), would turn to the Latin word for wisdom, sapientia, and speak of how such a word is derived from the sense of experiencing, or literally tasting, and suggest that such a dichotomy between cooking and medicine is not so strict. Also, as the body/soul distinction begins to break down, does not the rhetoric/truth distinction also begin to break down? Is it not, in any particular monism one might have, that when we encounter a thought, we “taste” it, as if it were cooked up, and find ourself either repelled or attracted to it, almost instinctively. And is it not the case that through familiarizing ourselves with certain abstract “cuisines,” we can acquire a taste for them, become able to digest with pleasure what in the past might have repelled us? And as we familiarize ourselves with these “practices,” we even can become expert enough to cook some up ourselves, so that others who share our taste, in tasting them might like them?

And what of medicine itself. Would it not be more wise to consider medicine a sub-division, a derivative of cooking? Are not pharmaceuticals really very narrowly defined recipes of “cooked things,” both in history (let’s say from the processes of alchemy to those of chemistry), and in actual practice? Could this not be said of “truths,” a series of cultural practices which “taste” has lead a community of thinkers to produce? And in the opposite direction, I have always found interesting the philosophical concept of “essence”. How like in cooking, I am thinking of French Cuisine, does one try to reduce things to thier essential parts, boil it down to a concentrated form, whose digestion has a remarkable effect. Is it not a mistake to have taken Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum to be something other than a French reduction, a boiling down of the bones and juice so as to make a sauce, designed to have appetitive affect (perhaps that Rosecrusian was himself confused).

Could it be that all this distillation and cooking has been meant to be nothing more than something experiential, a kind of cooking that aims for pleasure, (not the kind of “immoral” pleasure that rationality fights against), the kind of pleasure that comes with health and experience. There is a funny thing that happens when you study a philosophy in its detail, tasting all its distillations, all the recipes you have worked to become acquainted with: you begin to experience the world differently.

Perhaps Socrates got it wrong. The Body does do the discerning, and the result is not that all things are jumbled together. But rather that the body is wise, is tasting. And the result of this tasting, are things such as medicine, science and ethics (among so many other things, with which they are not jumbled). Is it not that with even the most abstract things we are still tasters, that work to refine and enhance our tasting capacities.

Cicero was of the opinion that Socrates in his division of rhetoric from philosophy did a great dis-service to both. It deprived rhetoricians of important things to say, and philosophy ways of saying them. It made philosohy otherworldly, meant to exist apart from the community of users (“tasters”) that together made philosophy both possible and important. Achilles, by Homer, is described as being great in speech and deeds. He is both knowledgable in medicine, but also notably in preparing meals. Would it not be advisable to see clear, once again, the connection between cooking and thinking, and hence between thinking and community?

…What the word does is open one up to both the biological and cultural (historical) origins of discernment. Further, I think it demystifies judgments to a degree. We certainly don’t know how “taste” works in any determinant experiential manner, but it is not mysterious. We accept the “foundationless” nature of taste without fearing that such a foundationlessness will fall into relativism. If we taste propositions, and either like them or not, we might not be so deluded into thinking it is due to something entirely ahistorical. And there is something potentializing in thinking about philosophies, or arguments as recipes. Or even essences as “reductions”. This of course is not without precedence, for Plato in the Phaedrus, in telling the orgins of the written word, speaks speaks of writting as the “pharmakon” (which can mean either “poison” or “medicine”), properly the “potion”. This is something that Derrida makes a great deal about, the inherent polysemy of words and meanings. Written texts are recipes that produce a multiplicity of effects.


[written September 5, 2006]

Spinoza and His Courtesan


Spinoza’s Courtesan.

There is in Spinoza several unSpinozic elements that float in his texts, a quoted poem here, a poetic aphorism there. One of these though is his reference to the courtesan (meretrix in Latin), actually translated out of the English by the usually accurate Curley, as if the specificity of the reference had to be suitably Spinozified and abstracted. It is always interesting to watch the “anomalous” features of a thinker, especially those that interpreters and translators seek to erase, for sometimes these “exceptions” prove to be guides of how wrong translators and interpreters are.

I’d like to focus on these rare references to The Prostitute. As Curley in his notes suggests, one must understand that the meretrix is a particular figure in history. She is not the street-walker, that is to be sure, but a woman well-cliented. In fact it is suspected that Spinoza has in mind the meretrix from the plays of Terence (and perhaps Plautus), a woman whose designs and seductions actually operate in such a way as to make a plot turn, comically. So she is not necessarily a figure of moral reprobation though she is still problematic.

Spinoza approaches the problem of the meretrix, (literally: she who earns), in the Appendix to Part IV of the Ethics where the general problem of Compassion, generosity and right living is considered in the view of the facts of sociability. She enters at section XIX, which has just followed the call for “care” in “accepting favors and returning thanks”. The call is for prudence. The Spinoza attempts to specify:

Spinoza wrote:

XIX. Moreover, love of a meretrix [Curley translates Amor praeterea meretrix: A purely sensual love], that is the desire of begetting that arises from external appearance, and absolutely, all love that has a cause other than the freedom of the mind, easily passes into hate—unless (which is worse) it is a species of madness. And then it is encouraged more by discord than by harmony.

Spinoza’ criticism is two fold. One is that the love a prostitute arises from (oritur: it is stirred up by) form alone (ex forma). It is fundamentally a reaction. From a form the libido is passively stirred up, and as such, it does not have as its cause, “the freedom of the Mind”. The question therefore is not whether such a love of form results in the freedom of the Mind, but rather what is the cause of such an action. Because the cause of the love of a courtesan is not the freedom of the Mind, it is lesser. And thus, the accepting of her favors, however equal the exchange, is not optimum. The second half of the criticism is that such a love, because its cause is from the form alone, the passions that it gives birth to can easily pass into hate or madness. It is unstable. Because men seek to own and be master of their passions, they become jealous, or drunk on them. The last sentence of the section is ambiguous in the Latin, it can alternatelhy mean that such a love feeds on discord, or that it encourages discord in the world. In either case, the love of the favors of the prostitute produces a fundamental discord, both in oneself and in society.

Spinoza contrasts this state with marriage:

XX. As for marriage, it certainly agrees with reason, if the Desire for physical union is not generated only by external appearance [ex sola forma] but also Love of begetting children and educating them wisely, and moreover, if the Love of each, of both man and woman, is caused not by external appearance only, but mainly by the freedom of the mind.

It is interesting that here Spinoza reverses the emphasis, attempting to qualify the institution of marriage. First, it is insofar as it is not by form alone, but also to beget children (have legitimate results) and lastly, mainly (another qualification) that its cause is from the freedom of the mind. He seems uncomfortable with the institution itself, but attempts to position it the context of courtesan love, being well aware of the weaknesses of real life marriages. It is as if Courtesan love is simpler and easier to assess.

He moves then immediately back onto the sure ground he is attempting to weigh:

Spinoza wrote:

XXI. Flattery also gives rise to harmony, but by the foul crime of bondage, or by treachery. No one is more taken in by flattery than the proud, who wish to be the first and are not.

This is really the core of his critique of meretrix love. For what is weakening in the Courtesan, and the job by which she is forced or chooses to earn her living, is that the prostitute is essentially a flatterer, someone who tells you what you would like to hear. What Spinoza is really trying to assess is the role of flattery in social relations. Flattery makes for social harmony, but at a cost. It is born out of fear [Appendix XVI].

“Only free men are very thankful to one another,” he writes at EIVp71, and this is the razor edge that Spinoza is trying to walk in examining the nature of sociability. Thankfulness does not include the acceptance of all gifts, and it is for this reason that the meretrix is brought in as an example.

For one who, out of foolishness, does not know how to reckon one gift against another, is not ungrateful; much less one who is not moved by the gifts of a courtesan to assist her lust (ipsius libidini inserviat: or, assist in his lust), nor by those of a thief to conceal his thefts (EVIp71s)

Thankfulness is a special prudence in the understanding of what is being produced. It is not the love of the meretrix that is in error, but the specific relation that does not make the most of itself. This is a sub-example of the exchange of flattery itself, as a form of societal transaction, the offering of a surface that does not have freedom in mind as its cause.

Spinoza, in examining the kind of exchanges that are best calls for great care, for gifts even of flattery cannot be simply shunned without respect of consequences:

To this we may add that we must be careful in declining favors, so that we do not seem to distain them, or out of Greed to be afraid of repayment. For in that way, in the very act of avoiding their Hate, we would incur it. So in declining favors we must take into account both what is useful and honorable (EIVp70s).

The issue of the courtesan cannot be closed so easily though, as one becomes careful in the kinds of relations one takes to external forms, as causes. For any philosophical discussion of courtesans must take in account the figure of Diotima, a Courtesan who supposedly taught Socrates his greatest understanding of Love (told in the Symposium). The Courtesan, as she is the symbol of affective passions, the Latin Comedy spur to action and resolution, and as she is also the fabled source of Socratic wisdom bringing us to understand the power of sociability itself, becomes not so much an example to be avoided, but really more, a historical figure, a paradigm of the fact of our affective state. For the Courtesan is one who works (again, the meretrix being the woman who earns), who must gather around her those that support her, by any lights she can muster, out of necessity. This seems our natural state, one of dependence upon others. Further, as such, she understands better than most, or perhaps any, the nature of desire, of human need and libido, by virtue of the position she occupies. It is notable that Spinoza places his discussion of the Courtesan in the context of greater human need for generosity:

XVII. Men are also won over by generosity, especially those who do not have the means of acquiring the things they require to sustain life. But to bring aid to everyone in need far surpasses the powers and advantage of private person. For his riches are quite unequal to the task. Moreover the capacity of one man is too limited for him to be able to unite all men to him in friendship. So the case of the poor falls upon society as a whole, and concerns only the general advantage. (EVI, appendix).

When Spinoza speaks of “riches” I believe he has in mind not only the material wealth that one might have, but also the conceptual wealth. The generosity to save and socialize is beyond the capacity of a single man. I suggest that the Courtesan actually stands as a figure in Spinoza for what actually is. She holds the secret of our interdependence, and our fundamentally passive states, and the secret of our desire to beget ourselves. She also shows our necessity to flatter. But Spinoza is calling for a deeper gift, a freer meretrix, one closer to the Socratic Diotima, who has transcended her economic reality of power, and finds in the gift and giving, something more…powerful.


[written September 11, 2006]