Through some recent cursory discussion in which arose the comparison between Lacan’s analytic three realms of Imaginary, Symbolic, Real and Spinoza three knowledges (Imaginary, Rational and Intutional) a very important homology upon which their differences are perhaps best spelled out, the subject of Žižek’s take on Spinoza reoccurred to me. I had encountered it a few times before, and as always with his subversive simplifications I took pleasure in what he had to say…but lasting with a kernel of firm resistance. Instead of exploring the genetic relationship between Lacan and Spinoza there is the sense that Žižek is performing a landscape of historical necessity, contorting Spinoza’s theory in a kind of Procrustean vision which reduces him to what history made of him in the developments of German Idealism, in particular under the controversy of Panthesism of that Age. What is lost to us in such a movement of Spirit is both the social-political determinations which fueled the German Ideal reformulation of Spinoza – perhaps penult in the figure of Schelling (including our loss of Heine) – but more importantly Spinoza himself. And with the loss of Spinoza, is lost the potentiality of his claims and their own historical expressions of proto-modern forms of the Dutch Republic. Žižek ensures that Spinoza cannot come to us without the mediation of German Idealism. It is impossible. There can be no importation of the past along another nexus.
This made me wish I had engaged Žižek’s thoughts on Spinoza before, so I take this chance to take up some aspects of his inscription upon Spinoza, in a kind of running commentary. Hopefully this will direct others to his succinct and interesting exposition, but also will expand Spinoza out from such a titan’s bed. My mode of engagement is not academic. I simply pass to his excellent essay and extract the relevant and interesting passages, quote whole from them, breaking them into points that mostly flow into each other, and comment with some length in much the same way I would as my mind runs when I read them. You can simply skip my comments and read the numbered points and get a pretty good sense of where Žižek is coming from (and one can always return to the essay itself). I interpose several linked reference to past posts in case others would like to hyperlink around these arguments, changing frames as they wish.
1. So what is Spinoza? He is effectively the philosopher of Substance, and at a precise historical moment: AFTER Descartes. For that reason, he is able to draw all (unexpected, for most of us) consequences from it.
I certainly agree with Žižek that historically configuring Spinoza as AFTER Descartes is quite significant, I make something of a sociologically argument for the importance of Spinoza leveraged precisely on this fact, but Žižek has something important also in mind here. Spinoza is not only after Descartes, he is BEFORE Kant and then Hegel. He forms part of a progression, a series, which terminates in Hegel. Whereas I would argue that Spinoza’s Non-Representational, degree-of-Being view of knowledge was the path not taken (exposing the raw intellect of potential in early Dutch experimentation with Capitalism, Democracy and Mechanism), Žižek necessarily reads him as part of a march towards an ultimate totalization which finds its completion in Hegel. Following this trajectory requires that we take the Idealist’s approach which moves from Spinoza to Kant to Schelling and then Hegel, and reduce Spinoza’s philosophy to merely being a philosophy of Substance. There is something to Spinoza’s Substance, but it is not what German Idealism would like to make of it.
2. Substance means, first of all, that there is no mediation between the attributes: each attribute (thoughts, bodies…) is infinite in itself, it has no outer limit where it would touch another attribute – “substance” is the very name for this absolutely neutral medium of the multitude of attributes. This lack of mediation is the same as the lack of subjectivity, because subject IS such a mediation: it ex-sists in/through what Deleuze, in The Logic of Sense, called the “dark precursor,” the mediator between the two different series, the point of suture between them. So what is missing in Spinoza is the elementary “twist” of dialectical inversion which characterizes negativity, the inversion by means of which the very renunciation to desire turns into desire of renunciation, etc.
I do not think that Deleuze’s dark precursor is identical to the “subject”. In fact there are two levels at which I would resist Žižek’s easy slide. Firstly there is the conflation between “subject” and “subjectivity” and this is unwarranted. Caroline Williams delivered a nice Althusserian-Spinozist paper that can be accessed here: Subjectless Subjectivity, A Geography of Subject: Beyond Objectology. As Williams forwards, it should be argued indeed that there is subjectivity in Spinoza, without the “subject” proper. Secondly, Deleuze’s dark precursor is not in any sense a negation. Rhetorically it does invoke something of Schelling’s Dark God ungrund of the coming subjective reflexivity, but it is itself a surplus without reflection:
“In fact, it is not by poverty of its vocabulary that language invents the form in which it plays the role of dark precursor, but by its excess, by its most positive syntactic and semantic power. In playing this role it differentiates the differences between different things spoken of, relating these immediately to one another in a series which it causes to resonate.”
Difference and Repetition
Žižek is trying to wedge in the truth of his dialectical inversion, and where it does not fit it is merely coming (if history gives it enough time). Who can blame him, but we must keep track of such wedgings. Not every meditation is an inversion (it might very well be a “fold”) and not every mediation is a negation. In any case though, I would be glad to accept that Spinoza contains neither “Subject” nor “dark precursor”(or its Schelling imposition), and this is due to the unmediated nature of Substance’s expression. Substance both exists and acts via the modes (E3p6dem).
3.What is unthinkable for him is what Freud called “death drive”: the idea that conatus is based on a fundamental act of self-sabotaging. Spinoza, with his assertion of conatus, of every entity’s striving to persist and strengthen its being and, in this way, striving for happiness, remains within the Aristotelian frame of what a good life is – what is outside his scope is the what Kant calls “categorical imperative,” an unconditional thrust that parasitizes upon a human subject without any regard for its well-being, “beyond the pleasure-principle,” and that, for Lacan, is the name of desire at its purest.
This also is something I affirm, and have written on. There is a primary if not absolute tension between Freud’s Death Drive or his splitting of the drives, and Spinoza’s unitary Pleasure Principle conatus (Spinoza performs the differentiation of destruction on another, and in fact multiple levels). I entertain the differences between Freud and Spinoza here, in the latter part of the article: The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center. As I try to point out, there is a conflation between two things in Freud’s pursuit of this drive: the search for an explanation for the repetition of trauma (recursive unhappy behavior), and the presence of conscious/unconscious morbid thoughts such as “I want to die”, neither of which require the positing of an entirely different metaphysical drive.
It is good as well that Žižek organizes the contrast between Spinoza’s conatus and Freud’s Death Drive as the problem of self-sabotage. This is because it allows us to potentially trace how Spinoza unhinges the explanatory need for such drive in his subversion of the “self” as it assumed. This is to say, ultimately Spinoza deprives any self of ontological ground upon which any then “sabotage” can be grafted or posited. There indeed are selves, just as there are objects (in fact there are just as many one could say), but these selves are ever in boundary-smearing expansions and contractions, pulled in tides across their horizons. And pleasure/power is the mode by which these permutations appear to accrue and disperse.
Where is the Center of the Affects?
4.What the “imitation of affects” introduces is the notion of trans-individual circulation and communication: as Deleuze later developed in a Spinozian vein, affects are not something that belongs to a subject and is then passed over to another subject; affects function at the pre-individual level, as free-floating intensities which belong to no one and circulate at a level “beneath” intersubjectivity. This is what is so new about imitatio afecti: the idea that affects circulate DIRECTLY, as what psychoanalysis calls “partial objects.”
Here Žižek brings to the fore a very important feature of Spinoza. It is in fact the one feature that will undermine the singular framing he is trying to provide, how Substance has to be mediated by a negating Subject. Because Spinoza’s is a subjectivity without a subject, and because his ontology of modes is cross-tidal, the looked-for subject never appears. This not to say that it is denied, rather, it simply makes no appearance because it is unnecessary in the surplus of Spinoza’s model. Without the Subject Žižek’s progression through to German Idealism’s preoccupation with an optics of reflection or construction falls off its rails…reifying as they in their variety are want to do, imaginary reflections of images in mirrors, in camera obscura devices, in paintings of linear perspective, unto a logic of binary negating ab-straction. Indeed it is through the “trans-individual” communication of affects, the autonomy of affects we want to say, that we trace out the cross-currents that both work to vectorially focus themselves in persons, selves, identities, bodies of coherence, but also tear at these the same, communicating across their parts in such a way that there are gravities which pull at the joints of any anatomy. This implicit cross-directionality in Spinoza I have written on under the conceptual auspice of “Conjoined Semiosis”: Spinoza’s Notion of Inside and Outside: What is a Passion?, The Necessary Intersections of the Human Body: Spinoza, Conjoined Semiosis: A “Nerve Language” of Bodies and The “ens reale” and the “ens rationis”: Spelling Out Differences. But aside from the details of an argument of Conjoined Semiosis, it is in the general sense the veritably the trans-individual nature of the imitation of the affects which undercuts the centrality of the subject itself, and eventually atrophies its need. Interestingly, and with some connection to Lacan’s imaginary stage of identification, the imitatio affecti are the congealing of essential rational presuppositions (we must see the world as reflected by others who are both like us, and are in the same world) which help center our experiences along specific gravities; but these condensations are not reducible to strict abstract binaries of terms Same and Different, as they inhabit and inform the co-ordination of the entire animal and biotic world where no Symbolic “subject” gains any footing even for the staunchest Idealist. (On the extrapolations of the imitation of the affects and it rational centering: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV and the concept of an Exowelt.) Yet the autonomy of these affects, the way that non-human effects communicate themselves across those similarities, is the very thing that fuses the human and the non-human together, smearing out the anthropocentric center of human-oriented, Idealist preoccupation. As Žižek rightly stresses, these forces are beneath subjectivity. What he does not fully recognize is the sufficiency of this “beneath” in terms of explanation. One should add, these effects are not “partial objects” as they pervade the biotic world and inhabit a great variety of non-representational states, at best they are semiotic pieces.
5.The next philosophical consequence is the thorough rejection of negativity: each entity strives towards its full actualization – every obstacle comes from outside. In short, since every entity endeavors to persist in its own being, nothing can be destroyed from within, for all change must come from without.
Inside/Outside and the Vectors of Determination
This is an important point, and one can certainly see how Žižek arrives at this interpretation. Spinoza is quite forceful at times that there is only a physics in which things are composed in strict inside/outside determinations. And objects persists through some sort of momentum or conatus – like a baseball thrown through a vacuum in space – striving until some External event violently interacts with its internal circulation, eventually breaking apart its communications of parts which had existed in an otherwise harmonious relation. This is certainly in some sense the picture in Spinoza, and from it we gain his very strong cybernetic interpretation of the improvements of human knowledge and autonomy. We are to look within and order our informational house in much the same way that in cybernetic theory a system works back towards a homeostasis, and does so through the filtering of external (and thus threatening) noise. But Spinoza’s view is not comprehensively cybernetic. (I discuss the relationship between Spinoza’s Cybernetic and Chaoplexic features in Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?.) One of the reasons for this is that ultimately any cognitive inside/outside boundary – and thus any ontological grounding of the “subject” proper – is illusionary, or a kind of perspective for Spinoza. Spinoza’s readings of inside persistence and external obstacle are meant to be understood as something like: “insofar as something is taken in abstraction to be apart from its environment, and insofar as it is abstracted in an act of imagination from Substance and pictured as a thing unto itself, then…”. But this inside/outside dichotomy of external destruction is not the foundation upon which the negative is foreclosed. Instead really the negation which draws a boundary between one interiority and an external force (an imaginary exclusion), is not just a distinctness which separates, but a distinctness which joins the inside and outside in a mutuality. Ultimately because all interactions participate in each other, both at the level of Substance’s expression, but also at the epistemic mutuality of essence in a shared course, inside and outside are not final determinants. (An provisional development of this line of thinking is found here, in a study of the metaphysical consequences of Spinoza’s letter to Balling: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination ; Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination.)
This brings Žižek’s invocation of a fairly common reading of Spinoza that “all change must come from without” under some radical revision. Where the change comes from ultimately is Substance’s own expression under which inside and outside attribution has no final anchor. Further, a study of Spinoza’s theory of affects, specifically his General Definition of the Affects, we see that inside and outside is no longer the focus of the diagnosis. All passions are indeed causal relations of passivity to events external to the object, registered as a lack of self-determination (which all things but Substance share), but these are auto-affirmations of its own power to exist, expressed in the degree of adequacy of one’s own ideas. This is central to Spinoza’s idea of freedom. The change in power, a loss of a degree of being, is constituted by a kind, a quality of self-affirmation which is not a reflexivity, a mental (or I would say informational, organizational) affirmation of the physical capacity to be. Locating this change strictly outside of the internal closure of affirmation simply doesn’t hold, and this is because the inside/outside boundary is not determinative. I do not blame Žižek for simplifying the Spinoza model in the way that he does, because Spinoza at times truly speaks in that way and it is common to read in him this fashion, but his physics of preservation is part of a larger metaphysical organization in which internal ordering and external participation preside.
6.What Spinoza excludes with his rejection of negativity is the very symbolic order, since, as we have learned already from Saussure, the minimal definition of the symbolic order is that every identity is reducible to a bundle (faisceau – the same root as in Fascism!) of differences: the identity of signifier resides solely in its difference(s) from other signifier(s).
This is interesting. Žižek appeals to Saussure’s binding of signifiers (upon which he wishes to leverage his Master Signifier) to show how any ultimate inside/outside diagnosis of change requires a negating Symbolic Realm, the realm in which the “subject” finds its proper place. Žižek’s reasoning is a little circular and shifting here. Identify requires a “bundle” and a “bundle” requires a negation. Spinoza refuses a negation, therefore he refuses a “bundle” view of differences. What he does not consider is the way in which Spinoza indeed allows a bundles of differences that make an “internal” difference, but then mitigates any such reading through internal transformations of being (General Definition of Affects) and a mutuality of inside/outside participations. Bundles are transpierced by other bundles, so to speak. It certainly is true that there is no “symbolic order” as Žižek conceives it in Spinoza, but there are semiotic powers of organization in its stead. It is perhaps symptomatic that Žižek has moved from one simplified notion of Inside and Outside (Spinoza’s proposed physics) to another (Saussure’s linguistics).
7.What this amounts to is that the absence can exert a positive causality – only within a symbolic universe is- the fact that the dog did not bark an event… This is what Spinoza wants to dispense with – all that he admits is a purely positive network of causes-effects in which by definition an absence cannot play any positive role.
Here is where we can really almost leave philosophy behind and simply think about the world itself. Unless we are speaking of a highly refined, and circularly defined concept of “event”, it simply is not true that the absence of some event can only have a positive (and here I read positive as promotional and determinative) role in making sense of the world. Žižek simply wants this to be the case, that “subject” and “absence” and “negation” and “symbolic” and “signifier” all interlock to provide a framework for reading the world and others. Unless you already assume the sufficiency of such a framework, one has to even ask how does such a view get off the ground? The way that it gets off the ground is from starting one’s analysis with the Idealist binary abstractions of Being and Non-Being or Subject and Object. But the world does not start there. One need only begin with another model, perhaps that of music, to grasp how significantly an “absence” can be a presence without dissolving into abstractions of Being and its negation. Even a child’s tune played on the piano can show how an anticipated note, when not played, produces a determinative effect (pleasure, discordance, etc), without its resolution into a full “subject” operation. A semiotic contrapuntal view of the world as inter-rhythmed, for instance such as that offered by Biosemiosis, is one in which anticipated absences play a heavy, constitutive role. As I have pointed out before under the question of Spinoza’s supervention of the Death Drive, experiments with Slime Mold intelligence show that the presence or absence of stimulate become determinants of intellect action, such that absences work as much as “events” as presences do (The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center). Unless one wants to confer to Slime Mold’s “subject” status, the theory and our world conflict. I might add, as a moment of obvious recognition, my dog quite easily reads my failure to feed her at the right time of the day as an “event”, as well as my failure to become alarmed at a sound outside the house.
8.Or, to put it in yet another way: Spinoza is not ready to admit into the order of ontology what he himself, in his critique of the anthropomorphic notion of god, describes as a false notion which just fills in the lacunae in our knowledge – say, an object which, in its very positive existence, just gives body to a lack. For him, any negativity is “imaginary,” the result of our anthropomorphic limited false knowledge which fails to grasp the actual causal chain – what remains outside his scope is a notion of negativity which would be precisely obfuscated by our imaginary (mis)cognition. While the imaginary (mis)cognition is, of course, focused on lacks, these are always lacks with regard to some positive measure (from our imperfection with regard to god, to our incomplete knowledge of nature); what eludes it is a POSITIVE notion of lack, a “generative” absence.
This is a nice final point, and we see where Žižek and Spinoza are at greatest friction. Žižek needs the negation to be the foundation of the ethical itself, whereas Spinoza writes an entire Ethics which requires nothing of the negation as an ontological force. What Žižek finds as contradictory in Spinoza is that the imaginary projections of anthropomorphic imaginary relations which are supposed to plug-up in the gap of our knowledge are not appreciated for what they are, fill-ins for a gash in the ontological itself. Indeed the heart-felt link between the subject and negation that Žižek requires so as to ladder himself up onto Kantian grounds, is one that cannot imagine an ethical position without the gash in the world. It is telling that the musicality of life, the contrapuntal semiotic cohesion between the biotic and the abiotic, the role of tempo and constructive absences, cannot be grasped by Žižek’s Lacanian hands. Žižek must lead us to what Spinoza called and denied “a kingdom within a kingdom”. The reason why imaginary relations are not simply stucco for the hole in the humanist wall, meant to seal out the traumatizing Real that leaks in, is that the human itself is already participant and not cut off. To put it one way, in the failure to grasp “the actual causal chain” (imagined by Žižek as a failure of Representation) mis-cognitions through both the pursuits of pleasure and affirmation of power, participate in a mutuality of causal connection. Even the most imaginary relation in Spinoza is already a partially true one. There is no cut-off from the thing-in-itself. It is not a case of vats and brains. To use an example Spinoza takes from Descartes, we may imagine that the Sun is 200 ft away (and represent it as such), but this expresses a true relation of participation involving both the Sun and our Body, and this is to some degree participant in the true. The problematic is not how to connect the cut-off interior to an Ideal exterior, but how to improve these already existing connections and participations. Imaginary effects as powers of connection are an ethical connection in which we are already participant. Ethics runs itself right down to the fibers of existence. The lacks of mis-cognition are relatives of power and action, degrees of possible performance, and not categorical negations and their completion. And key to this is appreciating the contrapuntal nature of absences. I discuss this in the context of Hoffmeyer’s Code Duality in Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza. I owe Hoffmeyer’s theory a proper critique which I have worked on but not presented, but truly it is that Spinoza’s ethical subjectivity is woven out of the very semiotic material of both the biotic and abiotic world. It requires no subject proper. Žižek is correct in centering Spinoza against any Kantian subject commandment, but he is incorrect (or deficient) in reducing Spinoza’s position to this lack of Kantianism, something he accomplishes by amputating the inside/outside diagnostic from the living body of Spinoza’s full metaphysical position, and then importing the inside/outside distinction to his own Saussurian conclusion.
A Dynasty of Kings: The Insertion of Negation
Largely the progression that Žižek wants to enable is one founded upon the Idealist Representational view of knowledge, coupled with the Christianized centrality of the “subject” (as both soul and legal figure). Žižek wants there to be a holy trinity of Spinoza-Kant-Hegel upon which he can graft a further Idealist trinity of Deleuze-Derrida-Lacan. Aside from the logic of a kind of royal dynasty, subsumption of all philosophical enterprises under the notion that a trio of Kings must mythically occupy the throne in their seasonal turn, we recognize that this genealogy of Kings is accomplished with a severe descriptive restriction upon what Spinoza claimed. Indeed Žižek is right to demarcate all the ways in which Spinoza is not Kant and not Hegel, but pared from Spinoza are all the complex explanatory frameworks that enable him to stake out his non-Idealist alterity. In a sense we cannot begrudge Žižek’s attempted synthesis of the alien Spinoza to his own philosophical position (perhaps not unlike Kreon’s desire to subsume the house of Oedipus unto the State). Repeating the traumas of a State performance of course does not do the job any better.
There is another order in which I don’t understand the Lacanian-Marxist preoccupation with the negation. The fundamental and ontological structuring of the “object” and lack as the condition of desire and subject itself is an instantiation of a logic of Capitalism. It is the proposition that metaphysically our relations to the world can be none other than that of a kind of gap-chasing and fundamental alienation, an alienation which one could argue is has been historically produced. I simply do not understand how those politically minded against alienation would take as firm a hold as possible to a metaphysics of alienation, except in the most masochistic of senses.
Naught Thought raises the image of Dark Vitalism and first associates it with the Demoness Zuggtmoy of fantasy lore, suggesting that if we allow an ontology of powers that bubble up from below, from the very matter of matter, we are faced with a world primordially chaotic of its intents. Any intelligence is swarming, polyvalent but still planal, or vectored, like so much threatening mold and fungi that at most grow up from and adhere to an omni-present death process:
Park of of the work of a dark vitalism is the sickening realization of such an image [Zuggtmoy, Queen of Fungus]. Steven Johnson’s Emergence begins with Toshiyuki Nakagaki’s work on slime molds in which he made one of the amoeba like creatures find a path through a maze towards a food. The mindless functioning of life, of life moving towards goals without any form of intelligence – creatures that function in a completely bottom up fashion (the rest).
And Eliminative Culinarism also turns to what he calls a thantropic regression (drive) when separating out the consequences of the philosophy of Brassier, a separation that ultimately finds its dark vitalism home in Freud’s Death Drive and its umwege:
If Brassier unbinds and cosmically reinscribes Freud’s theory of thanatropic regression in order to extend the eliminativist vector all the way to the cosmic exteriority, then he must also unbind the theory of umwege beyond the organic life or bios. Because as Freud has explicitly argued and as Brassier has implicitly indicated, the thanatropic regression or the vectorial move toward the precursor exteriority is inextricable from the increasing convolution of the umwege. Here the convolution of umwegeor the increasing twist in the roundabout regression to the precursor exteriority must not be confused with the complexification of life as an opportunity for posthumanist scenarios, because it suggests the differential decomposition of all interiorities via nested deployment or intrusion of cosmic exteriority. After all, the emergence or determination of an index of interiority from a precursor exteriority does not mean the complete envelopment of that exteriority and its reintegration according to the laws of the interiorized horizon. There is always a part of enveloped exteriority that refuses to be assimilated within the index of interiority, thus extending the intrusion of the precursor exteriority into the emerged nested horizons of interiority (the rest June 11, 2009).
The Death Drive and Zuggtmoy
I want to take up this promotion of the Death Drive, and the image of the fungus Queen Zuggtmoy, so as to explore the fuller consequences of so called Dark Vitalism. Mostly I want to bring out how the figure – and we can think through a figure – of Zuggtmoy enables us to see an edge to the Death Drive that previously had been obscured, as if the side of the well-used coin.
The approach towards zero (and by zero we must be careful, since there are heterogenies in this analogy, absolute zero…cold, quantity zero…nothing, and zero which lies between negative and positive numbers…placeholder) that under a Freudian conception typifies all the aim of the very complexities of life itself, life’s winding pattern, a maze, a rambling circuit that is simply trying to get back to the originary state: Death, Inorganic, Abiotic Stillness. This is how Freud presents it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle:
It would be in contadiction to the conservative nature of the drives if the goal of life were a state of things which had never yet been attained. On the contrary, it must be an oldstate of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or another departed and to which it is striving to return by the mazings [Umwege] along which its development leads…For a long time, perhaps, living substance was thus being constantly created afresh and easily dying, till decisive external influences altered in such a way as to make ever more complicated mazings [immer komplizierteren Umwegen] before reaching its aim of death. These mazings [Umwege] to death, faithfully kept by the conservative drives, would thus present us today with the picture of the phenomena of life [F III 248]
Nick Land in his book Thirst For Annihilation presents something of the conclusion all here seem to be following, and we can readily see the fungal layer (crust), as it merely bubbles up in a roundabout way of only returning, an opposite form of simply the Christian soul returning to the arms of its Absolute and loving God. We can glimpse a kind of constitutive power of Zuggtmoy here, yet here she is merely passive, a result:
Life is ejected from the energy-blank and smeared as a crust upon chaotic zero, a mould upon death. This crust is also a maze – a complex exit back to the energy base-line – and the complexity of the maze is life trying to escape from out of itself, being nothing but escape from itself, from which it tries to escape: maze-wanderer. That is to say, life is itself the maze of its route to death; a tangle of mazings [Umwege] which trace a unilateral deviation from blank.
Death and Hegelian Reversals: Nature is Immediate, But…
Now it must be stated that an ontology of Death Drive, at least from a Freudian foundation, is one that already assumes a non-vital basis for Substance (or totality), for if Substance itself is living, a return to it would not be a death. This is a difficult thing, for in an Ontology of someone like Spinoza, indeed Substance presents a kind of zero in a near Plotinian sense, but life itself and its weavings are constituted by its very force, and one is never separated out from it (being its expression). A strict dichotomy between Life (Pleasure/Joy), and Death (nil, an inorganic realm), while not conceivable for Spinoza, for Freud seems determined by the very centricity of vision, an absolute focus upon the biological organism itself as a complete boundary (from which life is attempting escape, or at least unweave itself). I have argued elsewhere (in Conjoined Semiosis and The Problem with Spinoza’s Panpsychism) why organisms cannot form an absolute limit, the kind of which would then be dichotomized toward death. It is because Freud is organism centered in really a Hegelian sense, that he is forced to account for an apparent returning difference that is driven by the very acts of consciousness/life itself. Freud performs, in inverse, the very postulation of an illusion of a nil which is posited by Consciousness itself:
True, Nature is the immediate – but even so, as the other of Spirit, its existence is the immediate – but even so, as the other of Spirit, its existence is a relativity: and so, as the negative, is only posited, derivative [nur ein Gesetztes]…Spirit, because it is the goal of Nature, is prior to it, Nature has proceeded from Spirit [aus ihn hervorgegangen]. Spirit, therefore, itself proceeding, in the first instance, from the immediate, but then abstractly apprehending itself, wills to achieve its own liberation by fashioning [herausbildend] Nature out of itself; this action of Spirit is philosophy. (Philosophy of Nature 444)
Nature is both immediate, but then necessarily post to Spirit, come out of Spirit’s very apprehension. We can see if we undo this original preoccupation with (and centrality of) consciousness as a form of negation, we can see that Freud’s own dialectic unspools. The umwege that Freud says are the “ever more complicated mazings” that are the complexifications of life, no longer are made against a background of death and zero, but come out of it, just as we have prime images of fungi and moulds that seemed by traditional lights to grow right out of putrescence and decay. In an ontological domain quite far from Hegelian negativity, matter itself thinks. There is nothing to return to, (but not “nothing” to return to), and the weavings of umwege organization are expressive powers of tendril-like freedoms.
[A fantasy illustration of the Fungal Queen from the gameplay world]
The One and the Many: Parmenides and Molds
It is here that I want to return to the powers of Zuggtmoy, in particular as they are manifested by the class of organisms slime mold. Naught Thought already directed us this way, pointing to Toshiyuki Nakagaki famed experiments with slime molds that seemed to demonstrate intelligence (referenced in Steven Johnson’s 2001 book Emergence). This is an intelligence I would like to think hard about because it defies some of our most common assumptions of the kind of forms intelligence must take.
Slime molds are a curious limnal organism, that not only lives between realms that seem conceptual opposed, Life and Decay, but also taxonomically between our easy and dominate ideas of independent Individual vs. controling Group, not to mention what is plant and what is animal (once thought a fungus, now Protista).
First let us engage the fascinating and seemingly conceptually contradictory lifecycle of slime molds, for they are neither individuals, nor colony, but participate in modes and versions of both. I propose that these examples serve as figures of philosophical analogy in particular for those brands of philosophy which like to juxtapose conceptual oppositions to be projected upon forms of life and the world. We are not going to be so forward as to assert that all things have the form of slime molds – though it does form an interesting counterbalance to explicit and implicitassumptions that “it” is like the human (or phenonemological consciousness, etc). What we are to hope is that the example of slime molds might help us overcome some of our more unconscious prejudices, especially when we engae in ontological imaginations.
As eluded to, Slime molds are remarkable creatures as they spend part of their lives in seemingly independent Individual states, and part of the time in collectives (some of which threaten our idea of what constitutes an Individual).
As you can see from the above, a lifecycle of a Plasmodial slime mold, in the haploid (single copy of a chromosome) form at the left the slime mold is either a spore or an individual cell; but, after syngamy, it begins to divide, not itself, but only its nucleus. It does this again and again until it has become one huge cell with thousands of nuclei, giving pause to the Platonic/Paramedian problem of the One and the Many, here the One being a coagulate of the nucleic many. In the Plasmodial stage the huge single cell creeps along in search for food until it eventually forms a sporangium, fructifying stalk, very much like a mushroom, which eventually will put forth the multitude of haploid spores.
To make this clearer, here below is the Plasmodial stage wherein all the individual amoeba-like cells have shed their cell walls, and the single form crawls across a supposedly “dead” territory. One can practically see the Fruedian encrustation of life, the umwege wending its way back toward Death.
And here below is the spore producing stalk structure that culminates out of the great aggregate form:
And there is a second kind of slime mold (and a third not to be discussed) which begins in an amoeboid form, a single cell that instead of following a path of nuclei division and expansion, expends its life in solitary fashion until food becomes scarce, and emitting a aggregating chemical signal to be read by other isolated slime mold cells. Once a density threshold is crossed the mold cells cluster together to form one great colony which acts as a singular organism again confusing some of our more easy categories of self and group.
Here is a concise description of the two different kind of slime mold processes of aggregation and reproduction:
All slime molds start life as a single, microscopic cell, and eventually end up as that puddle of goo. A plasmodial slime mold, like the one that researcher Toshiyuki Nakagaki coaxed through a maze (see article), constantly grows and divides. But instead of breaking itself into two new cells, it divides only its nucleus, becoming one larger cell with two nuclei. This process repeats until the plasmodium is a giant cell, like a sac of jelly, filled with thousands of nuclei. Ever so slowly, the plasmodium creeps across the forest floor, eating the tiny bacteria and yeast it finds there.
A different group, called the cellular slime molds, stay microscopic for most of their lives. They, too, live and feed in damp soil. When food gets scarce, though, these slime molds have an amazing trick for survival. Each individual sends out a chemical signal, allowing the slime mold cells to find each other. Then they aggregate, or stick together, until they have formed a giant roaming blob. This blob looks and acts like one creature, even though it is really thousands of individuals oozing along together.
Despite these differences, both kinds of slime molds complete their lives with an amazing final transformation. Either slime mold (plasmodial or cellular) keeps crawling along until it reaches a drier spot. There, it stops and metamorphoses into a sporangium: a tall, thin stalk with a sac on top, similar to a mushroom. The slime mold cells turn into stalk cells, or sac cells [about 20%], or spores [about 80%]. Finally, the cells that have become spores burst out of the top of the sporangium and are blown away by the wind. Where they land, they will start their life cycle over, invisible-and individual-once again.
[above: individual to aggregate lifecycle of cellular slime molds]
In thinking about the cellar slime molds and their ability to signal to each other their respective states, one has to consider their communitarian capacities, how they are able to respond to the very threshold field of signally others, such that the way that we identify the boundary level of the organism itself must include the very semiotic field of the cAMP itself. Here is information on a computer simulation of the cAMP (intracelluar messenger) effects between individual cells under aggregation, which offers signficant thoughts on patterns of formation, just how the chemical signal in chemotaxis expresses itself:
The slime mold aggregation is controlled by chemotaxis toward higher concentrations of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). (cAMP is a common intracellular messenger in higher organisms.) The onset of starvation causes some cells to produce and secrete cAMP. Extracellular cAMP binds to receptors on cells and initiates two processes. The first, and faster, process activates the adenylate cyclase enzyme which causes production of cAMP. This cAMP is secreted; it can then bind to the same cell, further stimulating cAMP production, and to other cells. The second slower process leads to inhibition of adenylate cyclase. This second process stops the autocatalysis. The extracellular cAMP diffuses away and is degraded by phosphodiesterase, which is secreted by the slime mold cells. Once the level of cAMP has fallen the cells begin to regain the ability to synthesize cAMP.
And here is a Florescence microscopy film of the aggregation which distinctly allows one to see the visual rhythm:
No doubt this leaves us laymen with a sense that we are dealing with the bizzare and transmogrifying edge of animal/plant, and extra-somatic behaviors, ones that allow us to detach ourselves from common notions of when and where the body ends. Cellar slime molds in particular seem to have an intensified sense of Individual and swarm, wherein the field of organization is almost forced to include a semiotic dispersion of the signal itself, with great fineness to the pattern by which they are clustered into a new, single acting entity. If Zuggtmoy powers exist here, they seem exemplified by questions of division, dispersion, unification and semiotic binding.
The Brain without A Brain
Now I would like to turn to the more pronounced “intelligence” features that seem to have been discovered within slime molds. What seems at first blush the very least discerning of vegetable/animal matter, has shown remarkable capacities for behaviors which only “higher” animals could accomplish.
The most well-known of these were Nakagaki’s evocative tests that suggested that slime molds could solve mazes:
Toshiyuki Nakagaki of the Bio-Mimetic Control Research Centre, Nagoya, Japan, placed pieces of Physarum polycephalum in an agar gel maze comprising four possible routes. Normally, the slime spreads out its network of tube-like legs, or pseudopodia, to fill all the available space. But when two pieces of food were placed at separate exit points in the labyrinth, the organism squeezed its entire body between the two nutrients. It adopted the shortest possible route, effectively solving the puzzle.
The organism changed its shape, according to the researchers, to maximize its foraging efficiency and therefore its chances of survival. The meal of ground oat flakes led to a local increase in contraction of the organism’s tube-like structures, propelling it towards the food (from this summation).
The maze was created by laying a maze template down onto a plate of agar. In the first part of the experiment, pieces of slime mould Physarum polycephalum were placed throughout the 3 x 3cm maze. To grow, the slime mould throws out tube-like structures called pseudopodia, and it soon filled the entire maze.
The maze had four routes through, to get from one exit to the other. Food was placed at both exits, and after eight hours, the slime mould had shrunk back so that its ‘body’ filled only the parts of the maze that were the shortest route from one piece of food to the other.
The researchers suggest that as the parts of the plasmodium come into contact with food, they start to contract more frequently. This sends out waves to other parts of its body which tell give feedback signals as to whether to grow further or contract. Ultimately, to maximise foraging efficiency, the plasmodium contracts into one thick tube, running through the maze.
Surely the visual aspect of the maze gives us an impressional sense of “intelligence” whereas the description allows something more like a directed motility, but really, is there a difference between the two? In a certain way the slime mold has “represented” the territory space, not pictorially, but semiotically, instilled differences within itself which spell differences in the world such that a certain economy, a judicious precision, is achieved.
But slime molds seemingly are capable of more than spatial genius. They have also a primordial memory, a manner by which they can space out time in regulative and anticipatory rhythms, having learned what tends to happen. Last year Nakagaki released a paper detailing the new co-ordinated and seemingly mental capacities.
When the amoeba Physarum polycephalum [a slime mold] is subjected to a series of shocks [burst of dry air] at regular intervals, it learns the pattern and changes its behaviour in anticipation of the next one to come, according to a team of researchers in Japan. Remarkably, this memory stays in the slime mould for hours, even when the shocks themselves stop. A single renewed shock after a ‘silent’ period will leave the mould expecting another to follow in the rhythm it learned previously. Toshiyuki Nakagaki of Hokkaido University in Sapporo and his colleagues say that their findings “hint at the cellular origins of primitive intelligence” (in Biology News)
It is reasoned that propagation pathways change with experiences, and thus retain under rhythmed cycles the form of temporally governed action. The pattern without changes the pattern/paths within, such that even the dumbest of cellular life is musically oriented towards states it seems it could never proximately sense.
The Beauty Dark of Zuggtmoy
So what has this rumination over the biological and bio-mental capacities of slime molds given us in regards to the original philosophical question, other than reminding us that there are some remarkable and probably as yet undiscovered characteristics of even what we take to be the simplest forms of living things? I offer, let us reimagine the demoness as a primordial power, one iconically represented by slime mold organism over which she is thought to rule. What would Zuggtmoy’s relationship be to “death” and the Death Drive. Slime molds we know are fundamentally oriented towards decay. Ammonia presents a near universal signal for the presence of putrification such that the entire feeding action could be said to oriented towards its presence (like Jakob von Uexküll’s tick). In this way the slime mold is determinatively and semiotically oriented towards death.
But it does not feed on death. It does not decompose. In fact it feeds on bacteria which perform the decomposition of organic matter. It feeds upon the thin layer of life which itself depends upon death. In this way its preoccupation with death is merely directed toward the very life/death shoreline. One could say that Zuggtmoy lives on the radiance of Death. And this is far from a Death Instinct. (It is easy to confuse the two.)
I want to perhaps poetically concentrate upon this very thin radiance of life that exudes from decay and ultimately death. One can see it with the very ocular and stunning effect the grotesque has upon the eye, the way that objects such as those that one might find in Joel-Peter Witkin’s gallery, shimmer with an odd kind of microbial sheen, the way the eye is forced to traverse the object as if it were covered with serpentine forms or trajectories.
I suggest that there are two things going on under the conflation of the Death Drive. There is first of all a needed explanation of the supposed Repetition Compulsion, the way in which a person (organism) inordinately repeats past trauma undermining pleasure pursuits. The apparent contradiction when placed within a Hegelian like concept of negating consciousness necessarily pressed Freud to conceive of a drive with a very different kind of aim, the aim of a return to a Death State. In typical mytho-anecdotal Freudian fashion, Freud watched a small boy toss and retrieve a spool in Fort/Da binaries only to be conflated into Being and Non-Being manipulations in philosophies of (ocular) presence. Yet, do we not see an elemental mode of the Repetition Compulsion in the most recent Nakagaki experiments on slime mold? As the slime mold slows its movements in anticipation of a cyclictic gust of dry air, are we really to say that we are finding the roots of a Being/Non-Being pre-occupation? Further, are we to deny that the slime mold has no pleasure principle circulations of its own coherence amid the anticipation? And if we were to grant a capacity to actually affect the environment in such a way that the trauma could be influenced to be repeated, would such an investment really be a Death Drive, or rather the celebration of internal coherences and environmental contrapuntal interweave. The pleasures of internal coherence, even amid outcomes of pain, are Pleasure Principle pursuits, and we might agree with Spinoza that it is our direction towards such coherences which gives us our Identification with what is beyond us, for the philosopher ultimately with Substance. There is no essential contradiction between Pleasure and Repetition, though most certainly Repetitions ever are expressionally in need for their expansions, their umwege into greater complexity and less triviality.
The second thing that is happening in notions of the Death Drive is quite apart from the Fort/Da Hegelian origins of the concept. The name itself gave associative rise to death objects or conditions which then are taken to be mesmerizing, attractive, seductive to the soul, apparently again in some sort of opposition to life and pleasure. Oddly enough these gothic preoccupations actually seem to be imbued with pleasures and perverse associations. They are kind of super-charged pleasure pursuits. And somehow these ideational objects are supposed to fit in with the Fort/Da, presence and absence drive to repeat. I don’t think that this is the case at all, and I would like to turn to the figure of Zuggtmoy to illustrate it.
It is not to Death itself that we are drawn, but rather to its sheen, its coverage by infintesmal molecules of light, perhaps we want to see Leibniz’s windowless monads here, or the first phosphorescence that feed on monad window elements loosened. It is the way in which disturbances in coherence (in proportion, form, rhythm, expectation) causes us to narrow ourselves and detect the living things, the forces, that cover that rift or disintegration. Just as Zuggtmoy’s slime molds scent themselves toward the bacteria that thrive upon decay, so too there is a primordeal force which feeds on the life that feeds on death.
But we must pause for a moment to consider what Death is. Is it really a zero-place, a return to nil as we sometimes are inclined to believe? Is it not simply (and factually) the dis-in-tegration of composed elements? The return of nutrient richness back to a matrix of further involvement. (I am reluctantly inclined to the joke Mozart was to be found in his coffin after his death, erasing all his musical works.) A living preoccupation with Death is really a preoccupation with wholesale constitutive elements, things that must be returned to the biome in order for it to function. There is a sense that the way in which material Life feeds itself with growing complexity is by attending to the very abiotic shoreline, the biocline, at which elements become first incorporated into bodies. And Zuggtmoy, the blue-skined Abysmal queen of fungi and their kind, tells us that there is ever a ribboning and forceful consumption which preoccupies itself upon this singular and pervasive riverbed, which pours itself along every vector.
The First View From a Microscope: Finding the Finite
There is an interesting if not compelling anecdote from the history of Science (and philosophy) come from the time when they were perhaps just diverging. Theodore Kerckring was a physician of the mid 17th century and participant in the running dispute of the exact nature of the things of human anatomy that the newly invented microscopes were revealing. The biggest debate was whether the human body was a system of veins or glands (no one seemed to think it could be made of both), as until one had a conception of just what one was looking at through the clouded glass, one really could not be sure what it was, counter to our intution that one need only look at something to be able to roughly tell what you were seeing. In 1670 he published his “Spicilegium Anatomicum” a work of anatomical illustration, physician diagnoses, and also microscopic observation. Among these curiosities and position takings is found the only extant first hand testiment of what could be seen in a Spinoza designed microscope. Kerckring held a once intimate relationship with Spinoza, as they both were members of Van den Enden’s Latin school when young men, though Theodore was Spinoza’s senior by six years. He even married Van den Enden’s daughter Clara Maria with whom one biographical source reports Spinoza may have fallen in love. In any case, Kerckring reports that he is in the possession of a remarkably powerful microscope, designed by the great philosopher, and after he describes the granular forms it reveals, he then passes onto a most perplexing passage where in he describes the tiny animalcules that cover the exposed organs of the cadaver he is examining:
On that account, that which is by my wondrous instrument’s clear power detected, what is seen is wondrous: the intestines plainly, the liver, and other organs of the viscera, swarm with infinitely minute animalcules, which whether by their perpetual motion they corrupt, or preserve, it would be in doubt, oh, for something is considered to flourish and shine as a home while it is lived in, all the same though, a habitation is worn away by continuous cultivation. Marvelous is nature in her arts, and more marvelous still is Nature’s Lord, how he brought forth bodies, thus up to the infinite itself reciprocally in his size having withdrawn, that no understanding may be attained, if it be, if one be, or when it would be of some finite size; thus if by diminishing you would descend, never will you discover where you would be able to stand…(tentative translation).
It is not decided what Kerckring saw, but it is possible under some estimates of the magnification of Spinoza’s microscope (based on Kerckring’s other observations and capacites of the day), that these may have been the first human observation of bacteria, more than a decade before those made by the expert microscopist Van Leeuenhoek more than a decade later. But more than this, in Kerckrings speculative observation, something akin perhaps to early travel to the moon, we have nexus of the human with the miniscule of the world, the tiniest places, come from the glass of the great ontologist, Spinoza. And better his own difficulty in assessing if the small animals that cover the dead flesh were part of it maintainance or its destruction, with comparison to a home. To repeat the valued line,
…for something is considered to flourish and shine as a home while it is lived in, all the same though, a habitation is worn away by continuous cultivation.
As we contemplate the Death Instinct and the biocline shore between biotic and abiotic, it would be good to follow Kerckring first-sight inconclusion. We ultimately cannot say which processes of Life, and those of Death (though certainly which are proximately of this one life and this one death). There is an ecosystem, an economy of parts in organization that was glimpsed from the first history of it.
May we suggest that the demoness Zuggtmoy embodies the power of an alien, largely unseen aspect of our pre-occupation with Death. Not a drive to zero, but to the very sheen and radiance upon the decomposed, the falling to the inert, where bonds are loosened.
Dark vitalism, while not my own coinage, names the force of forces (or the One) not as a pure unification but the possibility of ‘isness’ itself as well as the resulting emanations, immanences, emergences and transcendences. The ontological cascade moves from the Real, to Immanence, to Sense and finally to Transcendence. Or from existence as only possibility, to the configurations of matter and energy, to the interaction of stimulus and sense, ending with the extension of ontic being via symbols, structures, technologies et cetera.
And that this vitalism is marked by its very chemical machinic nil, something that must be ajoined to the biological preoccupations of D&G…
The recently coined dark vitalism or mechanistic vitalism (dark as in nihilistic but also as attached to the chemical darkness of Schelling’s unground and mechanistic in that it is deterministic) must be articulated in response to Deleuze and Guattari.
If Zuggtmonic forces are driven by the chemical, proto-semiotic, machinic processes that serve a layer of un-brained intelligence which underwrites all “higher” forms of life, a celluar and contrapuntal, inter-rhythmed consumptive incorporation of elements and their living nexus radiance, then is this really a Nihilism at all? Is it not simply the de-centering of the human (and its emblem, consciousness) in such a way that we come to understand “individual” and “corporation” in very different terms. Pre-occupations with Death and Decay rather are turning to the incandesence that surrounds unloosening itself, the core operation of Eros.
Is it merely a revelatory coincidence that Zuggtmoy appears from the roots of Greek for yoking together (ζυγόν; LSJ) and cutting apart (τμῆμα; LSJ)? The Zuggtmonic drive is merely the machinic intelligence of dictative weaving together of initial consumption and incorporation, the feeding of Life upon the Life that feeds on Death, yoking what has been severed in a mat of constitutive grounding, in which the abiotic is sedimentally and musically re-interwove.
And lastly with this in mind, let us consider Eric Deschamps illustration of the seductive and puppeteering demoness. Is there something to say from the point of view of consciousness, the traditions that wish to think in terms of binaries and negations? What does it mean to see as Zuggtmonic a sexualized form of organic fungal-animal, self-directed in a self-organized realm, making the white bones of Centered Consciousness dance or hang? How close are we to Hegel’s greatest nightmare, that matter itself thinks. That instead of the bifurcation of reflective Male consciousness, as Irigaray tells us,
…[feminity in Hegel is] aware of no difference between itself and the maternal, or even the masculine, except that one is mediated by the abstract immediacy of the being (as) or by the rejection of one (as) being. The female lacks the operation of affirming its singular and universal link to one as self (Speculum, 224)
There is an operative consciousness of elemental contrapuntal pervasion, of female determination. Not one marked by severance and absence (however mediated) but by weave and subsumption through affective incorporation. A truly material thought. That desire, in its own realm, dances the white bones. Nicola talks of the Tiniest Diety and we questioned whether Zuggtmoy could be she.
Nietzsche has a beautiful thought about fungus that we should attend to…
Gardener and garden – Out of damp and gloomy days, out of solitude, out of loveless words directed at us, conclusions grow up in us like fungus, one morning they are there, we know not how, and they gaze upon us, morose and grey. Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener but only the soil of the plants that grow in him!
We can see where the fungal growth is relagated to an unbecoming lifeform of the worst association, but there is something brilliant here which is more than Nietzsche had in mind. Our conscious conclusion, not just our morbid ones which might pre-occupy with death, but ALL of our conscious conclusions can seem to come up out of no-where in the morning. Both our joys and our fears. And yes, though we must garden our soil, I suggest that we must also make a garden of slime molds and fungi (and not just neat English or German perfections). There is a system below, in our soil. A music in it, and our conscious thoughts spring up in radial circles, and inching surface travels that are far richer than the molar appearances that stir and consolidate us. Zuggtmoy affectively communicates to the plant and animal realm that is within us. I think that there is more to be said of her, her powers in political status and in ontological distaff, but this is a beginning.
Larval Subjects posted what Levi calls “the Full Nelson” of Plato, the exemplary text from the Phaedo which has condemned all of Western Philosophy to a certain kind of choke hold that ever since we have been trying to get out of (to transmute Hegelian dialectics into a single trope we still carry with us). The fearsome conclusion, roughly as Plato wrote it reads,
And we recognize also that this absolute equality has only been known, and can only be known, through the medium of sight or touch, or of some other sense. And this I would affirm of all such conceptions (75d)
Socrates has turned the relative sameness between things (rocks, tables, doves) into a derivative of Sameness itself, some surpassive Sameness, which we must have had grasp of [lambano] previously, so as to be able to grasp these samenesses through our senses.
I suppose we all know this drill, but occasionally when we return to the Same, we detect something different, and for some reason reading Levi’s post elicited in me a slightly different understanding of the Same, even the Same in the Platonic chokehold sense.
I should say from the start that the associations that I have for the search of Ontologies of Difference, of pure-Difference, have always troubled me. It is not that they are wrongly motivated, but rather that they seemed far too in love with the soterial potential of essential binaries, the Being/Not-Being dichotomy of imagined to be transcendental Logic (even when renounced), a dichotomy which itself is derived from an over-simplified caricature of human experience: hence, the reduction of the subject qua Subject, and on overall disregard for the plentitude of Being. It seems that somewhere someone got it into their heads (and there are more than a few candidates), that homosexuals or blacks or women, or poor, that is those that fall to the margins of society cannot be fully affirmed, cannot have the full rights of Being, unless we find a Being that starts with Difference. In such a reading which not only exposes the political use made of Ontologies in the past, a certain naturalization of subjugation, the category of Being seems to stand in for the State, and to reduced difference (skin color, gender, mental coherence, poverty) to merely a derivative of the State (as the Same Status), necessarily condemning many to the margins. Same became not only the political enemy, but the Ontological enemy. Difference must be celebrated, (and ontologically, logically posited) as essential and if possible, prior.
There is more than a grain of truth to this revisioning. That is, through our ontologizations we configure what is imaginable, we lay the land of concept so to speak. So a radical revisioning of what is ontologically beneath all of our legal and otherwise taken to be objective descriptions seems deeply in keeping with changing what is possible between us. Yet, there is something to this praise of difference for itself, the grand celebration of difference as the full right of Being which troubles me.
First of all, insofar as this re-ontologizing is a vast reclassification of particular people of difference, that is particular homosexuals, particular people of color or (trans)gender (the rights of which as different become projected onto the class of others like them that are deprived), there is an odd consumerist essentialization of difference for its own sake running through like a theme. “We chose and affirm our difference, as difference, because choice is what essentialized commercial subjects do, that is our right and duty, to choose.” As individual intellectuals celebrate their choices, and then align their differences to groups composed of difference, whose difference then becomes ontologized as a point of logic through elaborate strategies, it seems that dragged with it all is a fundamental, domesticating assumption, the subject of choice. I cannot say this for all celebrations of difference, and all searches to get out of Plato’s homoerotic chokehold, but this is a strong current in the movement.
Second of all, coming to think again on the nature of Plato’s Same, the enemy of pure, underived Difference, it seems that in some ways this Same has been misconstrued. I say this because for a very long time I think I misconstrued it. The problem is that in our binaries of logic we tend to flatten out what is a possibly a much more dynamic relation, almost always with a hope of transcending it. We draw the flat map to have mastery over the terrain, but as Wittgenstein tells us, the map is not the territory. (I would add, if we are to understand maps and territories, we have understand that while the map is not THE territory, it is A territory.)
A Minimization of Difference
Back to Levi’s post and my reaction to it. The trouble is that when we as postmoderns look at the argument that Plato puts forth, it does feel stultifying. (As Levi sums it up…)
Plato’s argument thus runs as follows. Equal-things always differ in some respect or capacity. Because equal-things always differ, we cannot arrive at a concept of equality-itself from equal-things. Therefore, our concept of equality-itself does not arise after our experience of equal-things, but must precede our experience of equal-things, for how could we recognize equal-things as equal-things- all of which differ both from themselves and others like them -if we did not first know equality-itself. Consequently, our concept of equality itself is prior to any of our dealings with the world.
For one thing, we don’t want our experiences here on this earth to be minimized in the least. This minimization begins a long process of minimizing one thing or another, one experience or another, one person or another, one peoples or another. We might be all for valuations and discriminations of better or worse, but something in us tells us that it should not start at the wholesale level, our experiences here are as real and significant as anything else. Secondly and relatedly, there is the terrible sense that if the reason why we able to recognize the similarity of things is simply because we have already grasped, before hand, a Grand and essential Sameness, this fails to capture the importance of differences to us. It is not just the samenesses that give us a love for living, but differences, perhaps even more so. How can all of these mundane distinctions merely be derivative? This carries with it the unsatisfactory notion that homosexuality is merely derivative of heterosexuality (with lexical irony), and that woman is derived from man, black a marring of white.
The Even Ground of Equilibrium
But, thinking on what it would mean for Sameness to be the origin, the great basin for Differences, I went back to Plato’s text, and looked at the word for “same” or “equal” (as it is translated). It is Ison, from which we get our words like isometric or isomorphic. What is immediately conjured up is mathematical equality, and this is generally the purity of Same towards which this binary heads. But contingently the LSJ dictionary had among any of its easily recognizable uses, one use which contained a subtle difference. It not only meant “equal” but “even”, as in can describe ground as “even or flat”, or the cadence of an army as marching in iso. As always is the case with the Greek, as much as we would really like to rationalize them into a near mathematical purity (given the tradition of their depiction), there is always a depth, a material depth to their conceptions that we miss. There is not a great difference between ison as “equal” and ison as “even”, but it a difference that opens up what Same is, not only for the Greeks, but for us as well.
I started picturing what it would be like to assume evenness of ground, or of step as the basin for difference, and what came to my mind is a perceptual experience which I rather naively assume to be shared with much of the animal kingdom. A predator, perhaps a mountain lion on its ledge overlooking a shallow gorge stares out at the field. There is an odd sort of evenness to it, as consciously it creates a field upon which differences register, there, a movement in the brush! Is this picture of consciousness, the idea that the evenness of the field in a certain sense foregrounds the possibility of difference really at the heart of the repression of woman and people of color? Is it that the difference of a deer’s movements are “derived” from the Same of the valley gorge, playing second fiddle? Is it that the evenness of perception has priority over the differences it enables, and if so, this hierarchy becomes the hierarchy of the subjugation? Well, in thinking about it, the shallow gorge is never completely flat, or even. It is already percolating with differences that the lion is registering (in my fantasy reenactment of an animal perception). The field of vision, as even, is in a sense fecund with both samenesses and differences, both the flat and the eruption, seem to be found within a general sense of ison. Instead of thinking of a great abstraction through which our logical binary can cut, it seems better to think of ison as Equilibrium, and an experience of Equilibrium at that.
When imagining that a sense of equilibrium is prior to, or the condition of disturbance, it seems that something less of the conceptual either/or baggage of ontological abstraction is carried through. It is hard to imagine that the general sense of equilibrium, what we as organisms have, is foundational to a naturalized minimization of the differences between people. Instead, equilibrium becomes the experiential baseline (already rich in differences) for which other differences, disequilibrium’s, disturbances, take on their significances.
In this embodied vision though we are immediately drawn into a Hegelian comprehension of the Negation of the Negation, that is, at bottom is an equilibrium process that encounters disturbances (negations, exceptions), which are then re-incorporated into a new and higher equilibrium. As someone like Judith Bulter complains, difference is always subsumed under a new Non-difference, (with the implicit, and one might say Capitalist/consumerist duty to difference for the sake of difference). Everything goes flat again. We have the appeal of a process of consciousness which describes how we are ever disturbed, and find ways to repress or reintegrate these differences that may feel like something we naturally do, without the desirable conclusion of difference for its own sake.
Not a fan of the Hegelian appreciation of the Negation, and its attendant teleology of history, I wondered if there is another way to think about this equilibrium, this field of evenness, which is not so reductive. Well versed with Spinozist tendencies, my own appreciation for Plotinus’s NeoPlatonic revisioning of Platonic Forms (ultimately the Ison), I keep wondering if we are missing something in the Greek notion of Same, of Equal, of Even.
Cat or Tails
If I return to the mountain lion and explore this notion of Same as Equilibrium and continue with the imagination of the field of differences, this is what I come up with. The cat, gazing lazily over the gorge is in an unattuned state of perception, that is, there is a directedness upon the general equilibrium of the life-force below which does not form an object, and upon which eruptive events occur, the shake of breezes on brush, the shadow from a hawk above, the regularity of the brook running. Any of these can provide occasions for momentary attenuation which is then reintegrated in the general state of equilibrium. These disturbances, these eruptions of a difference that make difference, are not best seen as objects, per se, but effects of relation. Their perception does not make up the essence of a consciousness (its intentionality), but the entirety of the field, its equilibrium states and its dissonances, do.
Now there is a movement, a disturbance which heightens the cat. Ears move forward, eyes narrow, breathing slows.
The difference, the disturbance in the equilibrium is registered as “prey” (to be categorically crude about it). The cat’s involuntary motions already set up a new equilibrium, and then motions towards the animal below (those differences), on a vector, set up new equilibriums, and soon the animal is running, leaping, configuring itself as a mutuality within the field of the world that the deer, the shallow gorge, and it all share. The contemplative equilibrium, that of a passive witnessing of a certain retreating flatness, has been transformed into an equilibrium of subsuming movement. Capacity to act. To say that all of the differences (disturbances) are only derived from the Equilibrium is to be too lexical, too syllo-logical about it (and to misunderstand the origins of logic). They are the very substance of what Equilibrium is. They are its expression and power as equilibrium. It is that the mountain lion has appeal to (cognitively, structurally) the dynamic equilibrium of the world, that it is able to act more freely. It is not that all of the differences are merely collapsed into the banality of Same, but that rhythm operates through the recognition of the full reality of difference, as difference, a process which is includes the awareness of difference as dissonance. If one is to make the collapse of the nature of Being into that of the State that is implicit is so many criticism of ontologies of Same, it is not that marginality is a secondary effect of the State (or even that the State is established through the necessary suppression of difference through the production of marginality — still too optical, containing the notion of the “hidden”), but that the State in its very forth-comingness, produces a maximalization of difference as the possibility of its very field, as perception. Instead of a Subject as Object-consciousness essentialized reading of Being (with its priority of absence or Nothingness which cloaks at the borders of an object, not to mention the optical sense that the “back” or the “inside” of the object is forever hidden from us), it is a Same as Dynamic Equilibrium, producing differences as concrete expressions of its power to act, maximizing those differences as it goes, creating the texture of its possibilities.
I think that this is what is behind the development of Plato’s “Full Nelson”. It is not so much a chokehold, as a hug. The Same is not a flat, logical identity of things to be expressed merely as a binary, and not even a Progressive necessity of the reduction of differences, but rather it is best seen as dynamic equilibrium, equilibrium as maximum expressiveness, an expressiveness beyond all subsumption. Being as radiating differences and distinctions.
There comes to mind a word from Sophocles’ Ode to Time, found in the play Aias (Ajax). Time is called “anaríthmêtos”. I have quoted the line before:
All things Vast [makros] and Unmeasured [anaríthmêtos] Time (646)
The word is often translated “countless” or “immeasurable” (and makros often simply translated as “long”). Time moves for Sophocles with a kind of negative theology. It cannot be measured. A metron in Greek is not only a “measure” as in a measurement, but also a “measure” as in a meter of poetry. Sophocles in measured poetry is singing about the immeasurableness of Time, a pure and delightful contradiction. If we were to translated the metered verse of the Greek into our English emphasis on rhyme, Time moves un-rhymeably in its vastness, as we rhyme about and with it. As we move away from Sophocles’s joy of the negation, the chasm of the tragic abyss (something I think he eventually profoundly overcomes with the concept of Eleos in the play “Philoctetes”), I think this is an essential aspect of the conception of Same which must be incorporated in our reading of the concept. Equilibrium for the Greeks, is musical. It is in the form of the poetic, an expression. If we are to recover from Plato’s Full-Nelson, it is from within this heritage of the Same that we must surely operate, the Same as maximalization of differences.
Again though, we really must retreat from any flat logic of binary differences; they are not rich enough to capture what happens in metered verse. (There is not only a genetic reason why Parmenides, who is thought to have made a category mistake of flat logic, wrote in meter.) And reaching out toward an ontology of pure difference does not cut it either (the dignity of persons of color or mixed gender does not rely upon that). It is rather the sense, the overriding and concrete sense that the entire world monistically is connected, that it rhymes, fundamentally with itself. All of our equilibriums, our transitions from contemplatively flat equilibriums to dynamic, poetic, bounding mountain-lion equilibriums of action, are reliant upon the appeal to a world that expresses itself as one vast equilibrium, an equilibrium of expression. The lion cannot run without fundamentally rhyming with the ground, the shallow gorge, and even the deer, each of them as expressions.
This is where I have long had a subtle misreading of the Sameness of Being which sterilely cut itself off from its step-brothers Differences. How is it that we are supposed to connect all of those differences (and those samenesses) back up to one Same? What an absurd question. It relies upon a notion of Same, of Ison, too flat, too drained white, not richly enough conceived as equilibrium as maximum expression. Much as we have had the metaphysical danger of confusing the map with territory, we have flattened out the lines of what Ison means. A car idling in the drive is Ison, even. The same car accelerating through a canyon curve is Ison. The communication between the driver and the steering mechanism is Ison. But also, the tree that has fallen in the road also must be Ison, if we are to continue, and the fear of hitting a deer is Ison, or the speeding over the limit is Ison. That is, there is always a plentitude toward the rhyming which is appealable, the bath in which is rewarded with a constructability, the possibility of action.
Same as Dynamis
It is here that I think that Spinoza’s notion of Substance provides particular revelation. How is it that he connects the Substance up to all the diversity within it?, people want to ask, flattening out the map of dichotomies. How does he get from the Only thing to the Many things? This is to mistake the question of the Same at the conceptual level. The Ison is fundamentally and unreservedly a dynamic equilibrium, a vast expression. As such it necessarily produces a maximalization of differences out of the pure plentitude of its even, equal, Isotic expression. To make anything less of these modal differences than the absolutely concrete actuality of Ison, to minimize even the tiniest of differences, is to minimize the reality of what Dynamic expressive Equilibrium is. The modes are Real because Being when it is “running” (and it is by it very nature always running), produces itself distinctly.
Returning to our mountain-lion, it is a music of Being which may attend to this sub-line of music (this equilibrium, the shallow gorge) in order to note this sub-line of music (deer-brush interactions, which serves as a dissonance), then composing its own gorge-lion sub-line of music, but none of this is done outside of a harmonization, that is the music, however faltering, always recaptures itself in a way that musicality itself becomes the tantamount supposition. The question for pure ontology of Difference, that is, the sour note that is granted full rights and dignity out of its very sourness, always must come back to the dynamics of tasting. This does not mean that all difference is simply collapsed into Same, made into an ephemera, an illusion (unless the illusion is that one can have a musical difference whose essence is non-musical, a freedom of choice or purchase which is utterly private and cut off from all interplay…the fantasy behind the hole in the Capitalist/consumerist, Democratic Subject). Rather, as one acts as Substance, increasing one’s capacity to act in the world through the understanding of expressive causes, as Substance one increases the number of differences one creates, a potentiality of sour notes abound, which is nothing other than the creation of a perceptual field of distinguishings, a body of dissonances, the way that the hair stands up on your skin, bristling. The is the meaning of horror, and awe, which lies at the bottom of any ancient contemplation of Same, of Ison.
The project of Being, insofar as we can stipulate one, is the creation of as diverse a number of surfaces upon which the horror-awe can condense, the maximalization of intensity as expressive equilibrium, in which one’s own differences register as a plentitude. Is this pure Difference? I wouldn’t know. It is more an Ontology of Perceptibility, and I suggest that it is reached not through a primary optical metaphor of Objecthood (the hidden below the surface), the shadow the Citizen as Subject, but through constructive bodily assemblage, the way that we technologically construct the living soul through our cybernetic combinations with the material and para-material world, creating more and more surfaces upon which revelation (dissonances) may occur. The hairs stand up on end.
It is for this reason that I think it best to see our capacities to read and experience the world as ultimately mutually expressive. Action is not at a distance because distance implies primary opticality. Action is always constructive out of a plentitude that is present, which is ever appealed to making rich differences which make the difference. Ison as plentitude, and not its lack.
The unhappy consequence of this understanding of Being is that it does not give ontological voice to what is taken to be an essential human experience (people who to define the Human separation from Nature by it). We want an ontology which expresses our alienation, one that fundamentally buries out alienation in the very heart of Being. We do not want to be told that our sadnesses, our dislocations are only problems of perspective, that if simply change our view our haunting shadow of the Abyss will simply disappear. And part of this is not wanting to imagine that when a bird returns to its nest-tree only to find it destroyed or raided, it may feel alienated or dislocated, or even sorrowful, at least not in the category which we are able. Our ontologies must entrench the very sorrow of our condition, anchoring it, alleviating our need to look towards our relations (chosen and otherwise), as the causes of our experience. It is agreed that the great satisfaction of Existential Ontologies of Negation, is denied here. Ours is not a world condemned to a freedom of Nothingness in various guises. In replace of this solace is rather opened a continual path of construction. That is, at any moment in time we can begin construction of bodies in assemblage, which are either newly created, seemingly ex nihilist of a change idea or mind, or can be reconfigured more powerfully from already existing forms (the same change in two ways). At any moment one can begin anew a music through the musical recognition of what is already playing, edging on cacophony. One searches for the tilted Equilibrium and affectively combines with other affective bodies, anew. Repeating a sour note, attenuatedly, changes it, yet one can only repeat the note cognitively, in a change of power, through the understanding of its cause through a mutuality with the world, and with others. When one does so one changes the possibilities of difference, modal becomes nodal.
The finding of similarities (of which metaphor is a exemplary) is ultimately not a referential process. The “same” of which the process participates is not a same of reference, a pointing back to, or over and above to some over-arching ground of Same. I’m not sure that even Plato thought of it in this way. This is a table not because there is a same of Table floating behind it. Rather, the finding of similarities is productive and best seen as bodily in construction, putting our bodies in consonance, such that it assumes the power of an equilibrium. Looking for the priority of this equilibrium, its foundation, is like looking for the workability of the experience of “it works”. But this does not make this Ur-Equilibrium simply the world of Becoming, for this flattens out the pure dimensionality of Being (a great fear of someone like Graham Harman). This dimensionality, a certain depth, is found in two ways. Locally its is found in the sheer dimensionality of bodies in combination, in the lived, affective transfers which express the power of communications, radiating out. The mountain lion-gorge-deer assemblage is dimensioned in locality. But it is also brought into depth through the nature of causal understanding itself. The very nature of increases in power through causal understandings is necessarily a minimal trinity where there was only a shallow binary before. The world becomes fleshed and immanent, through the power of causal understanding. This too is not an understanding of reference (Substance is not a “thing” or even a “state”), but of a constitutive experience flowing out of what Equilibrium must be.
Beneath any such appreciation of Equilibrium there is always the danger of having the concept collapse and become flat, that is the constant and ever-producing Equilibrium of Being can be read as a flat-line nullity. This the haunt of the Freudian Death Drive, the Shadow of the Pleasure Principle. A Pure and empty circulation, the inorganic draw beneath Pleasure pursuits. There is a tendency to see Pure Being as a negation of its expression. Our individual pleasures only collapse into a great machine of Death. This is merely, in my view, the gravitous compliment of too close a contact with the sacred (profane), as dissonance rises beyond the threshold of comprehension or even organization. The Death Drive circulation works as the center-of-gravity closure that allows dissonance affects to sink down and cohere, if only in a pure banality of effects, forever the attractor of Fascist, totalitarian binding. In this way a Spinozist conception of Substance (and of State) maintains as a matter of its project ever the ascetic haunt of blind circulation, intensity turning down upon itself for the sake of its own rhyming. The music of Being turned into a dull ditty (the pains/pleasures of dissonance flashing as mere surface ephemera). The antedote to this is to realize its ever presence (as a function of lived thresholds of coherence, a tendency to urgently create bodies in vaccum), and to return a notion of Ison as normatively and ontologically the production of maximal difference, a product of its fecundity. These ontological closures are mere cocoonings (sometimes brutal), for mixtures of potential action through dynamic Equilibrium.
Tho’ many are the terrors,
not one more terrible than man goes.
This one beyond the grizzled sea
in winter storming to the south
He crosses, all-engulfed,
cutting through, up from under swells.
& of the gods She the Eldest, Earth
un-withering, un-toiling, is worn down,
As the Twisting Plough’s year
into Twisting Plough’s year,
Through the breeding of horse, he turns.
& the lighthearted race of birds
all-snaring he drives them
& savage beasts, their clan, & of the sea,
marine in kind
With tightly-wound meshes spun
from all-seeing is Man.
Yet too, he masters by means of pastoral
The unruly-maned horse holding fast,
‘round the neck yoked,
& the mountain’s
& the voice & wind-fast thought
& the passion for civic ways
He has taught, so from crag’s poor court
from under the ether’s hard-tossed arrows
To flee, this all-crossing one. Blocked, he comes
upon nothing so fated.
From Hades alone escape he’ll not bring.
Tho’ from sickness impossible
Flight he has pondered.
A skilled one, devising of arts beyond hope,
Holding at times an evil,
But then to the noble he crawls,
honoring the laws of the Earth, &
Of gods the oath so just,
Citiless is the one who with the un-beautiful
dwells, boldly in grace.
Never for me a hearth-mate
may he have been, never equal in mind
He who offers this.
Ode to Man
A BwO is made in such a way that it can be occupied, populated only by intensities. Only intensities pass and circulate. Still, the BwO is not a scene, a place, or even a support upon which something comes to pass. It has nothing to do with phantasy, there is nothing to interpret. The BwO causes intensities to pass; it produces and distributes them in a spatium that is itself intensive, lacking extension. It is not space, nor is it in space; it is matter that occupies space to a given degree—to the degree corresponding to
the intensities produced. It is nonstratified, unformed, intense matter, the matrix of intensity, intensity = 0; but there is nothing negative about that zero, there are no negative or opposite intensities. Matter equals energy. Production of the real as an intensive magnitude starting at zero. That is why we treat the BwO as the full egg before the extension of the organism and the organization of the organs, before the formation of the strata; as the intense egg defined by axes and vectors, gradients and thresholds, by dynamic tendencies involving energy transformation and kinematic movements involving group displacement, by migrations: all independent
of accessory forms because the organs appear and function here only as pure intensities. The organ changes when it crosses a threshold, when it
changes gradient. "No organ is constant as regards either function or position, . . . sex organs sprout anywhere,... rectums open, defecate and close, . . . the entire organism changes color and consistency in split-second adjustments." The tantric egg. After all, is not Spinoza's Ethics the great book of the BwO?
Ode to Man
But human power is extremely limited, and is infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes; we have not, therefore, an absolute power of shaping to our use those things which are without us. Nevertheless, we shall bear with an equal mind all that happens to us in contravention to the claims of our own advantage, so long as we are conscious, that we have done our duty, and that the power which we possess is not sufficient to enable us to protect ourselves completely; remembering that we are a part of universal nature, and that we follow her order. If we have a clear and distinct understanding of this, that part of our nature which is defined by intelligence, in other words the better part of ourselves, will assuredly acquiesce in what befalls us, and in such acquiescence will endeavour to persist. For, in so far as we are intelligent beings, we cannot desire anything save that which is necessary, nor yield absolute acquiescence to anything, save to that which is true: wherefore, in so far as we have a right understanding of these things, the endeavour of the better part of ourselves is in harmony with the order of nature as a whole.