Frames /sing

kvond

Tag Archives: re.press

Homo-Sapiensism: Not Humanism

The Soft Eternity Beneath Phylogenetic, Historical Expression

I want to thoroughly praise Paolo Virno’s “Natural-Historical Diagrams: The New Global Movement and the Biological Invarient”, found in the new re.press issue of The Italian Difference. It is one of the most engagingly written, open-vista’d philosophical essays I have read in a long while. And it came just as I was thinking about recent complaints that there are inherent dangers, implicit biases, when advocating  Humanism. I have thought to myself, what is human must be embraced if we are to gainfully produce futures that reflect our real human differences, but still, one must do so without slipping into the philosophical (and sociological) difficulties that arise from theorizing a chasm between the human and all else. What is needed, it seems, is a Homo-sapiensism, not a Humanism.

I’m going to to go through Virno’s essay to give a presentation of its arguments, quoting at some length for those who do not care to turn to the original text; but I also aim to show the rotation it gives to my own thoughts with the hope that one can see through the idea of a Homosapiensism as a fundamental foundation for future reasoning, much of this found in the critique of his position. I strongly urge you to download the essay and investigate it yourself.

Virno is concerned with the essential nature of the Global Movement’s contest within its own epoch, an epoch that quite determinatively he wants to qualify or ground in very biological terms. This is to say, he wants to identify an essential human organism upon which one can perform an historical diagnositics of the dominant forms of social organization for our time (Capitalism, perhaps an implicit Statism), and as well, of the possibilities within the resistance to or reinvention of those social organizations. From the first page,

The arena of the struggle: the movement is rooted in the epoch in which the capitalist organization of work takes on as its raw material the differential traits of the species (verbal thought, the transindividual character of the mind, neoteny, the lack of specialized instincts, etc.). That is, it is rooted in the epoch in which human praxis is applied in the most direct and systematic way to the ensemble of requirements that make praxis human. The stake: those who struggle against the man-traps placed on the paths of migrants or against copyright on scientific research raise the question of the different socio-political expression that could be given, here and now, to certain biological prerogatives of Homo sapiens (131)

I have to say right off that I just love his writing style, the diction, the conciseness, the tightness of reference, the tempo. A great deal of the pleasure I had when considering these ideas is the very way that he constantly works to frame, pause and then propel his thinking, something which one suspects is not just a stylistic skill, but rather a core project quality to his writing. And one must praise perhaps equally the invisible collaboration of the translator, Alberto Toscano.

Of course we realize from the start as well that JUST how biologicaly Homo sapiens are qualified  is the coin upon which much of this thinking trades. And we get a glimpse of what the author is going to make very explicit, that what is human is linguisitic, trans-individual, neotenic and non-specialized. The social analysis is going to operate distinctly upon these vectors. (What will remain somewhat occluded is the justification of just these vectors.)

Virno immediately warns that such a bio-mediation should fall into neither a Rousseauian ideal social deduction, nor a Chomskian contest of “raw” natural human capacities against unnatural forms of social power.

Maps of Human Nature

What is nice is that Virno brings his analysis immediately to a very significant epistemological question, one that drives right through the heart of Western philosophy and ultimately the question of Kant’s astronomical de-centering of knowledge. And his treatment, to my ear, is quite satisfying and somewhat original.

The decisive question is broadly the following: can human beings experience/ human nature? Note that experiencing something, for instance an object or an event, does not at all mean representing it with some degree of scientific precision. Rather, it means perceiving it in its phenomenal manifestness, being emotionally involved, reacting to it with praxis and discourse. If that is so, our case immediately confronts us with a difficulty…: is it possible to experience, in the full sense of the term, that which constitutes the presupposition of experience in general?

He answers this question through a subtle qualification of the idea of “eternity”, breaking apart the transcendental solution from the way in which the eternal can be seen to reveal itself in the very diagramic nature of the “natural-historical”, what he calls “an eventual physiogamy”: [There…]

There are several buried qualifications in his particular version of the second approach, for instance his reliance upon discursive and phenomenological definitions of experience bespeaks of a particular semiotic framework that I do not wholly embrace. But as a Spinozist, this really hits upon a fundamental epistemic standing which goes at least as far back as Anselm’s ontological proof of God. This is to say, human beings experience the conditions of the possibilities of experience in the very fabric of the paschontological itself. (For Spinoza this fact expresses itself in the powers of Intuitional knowledge, the way in which the mind links up with great speed the concrete and contingent to our very structured participation in the whole of Being). For Virno though, this revelatory power of eternity is best understood under the analogy of map making, an analogy that must be taken as real.

I call natural-historical diagrams the socio-political states of affairs which display, in changing and rival forms, same salient features of anthropogenesis. The diagram is a sign that imitates the object to which it refers, meticulously reproducing its structure and the relationship between its parts. Think of a map, a mathematical equation, a graph. However, the contingent historical fact, which offers the abridged image of a biological condition, is not a necessary condition of the latter, since its roots lie instead in a particular social and cultural conjecture (134)

We get the full flavor of Virno’s semotic commitments in this notion that the historical is a kind of map/diagram of the biological, one which replicates elements of the biological beneath it. He wants to qualify that the biological eternity does not cause the historical sign in the way that the a knock on the door is the sign for the person who made it, for the historical is a cultural product (I think he is wrong to explicitly deny that there is any causation here, as he seems to). I am in great sympathy towards his softening of eternity and this imminentist conception of revelation, willing to hold off on the precise “reproduction” of features the semiotic school requires (this view is far too knowledge-as-representation bound). There is great gravity to this sense that the eternal bears its mark upon its (partial) products, and that in this sense the pre-conditional can be read, or experienced in the condition itself.

Virno pushes hard on this map/territory analogy, drawing on Peirce in a very evocative way. The diagrams of historical eventology exhibit what I would qualify as the two Wittgensteinian categories of The Empiricial and the The Grammatical (which here are called the empirical and the transcedental, foreground and background), which dog-tail fashion recursively turn upon each other, each producing the other, an “endless circularity” which itself reveals “meta-historical” constants. Peirce tells us that the very nature of mapping produces, if only by accident, exact structural correspondences which reveal what is beneath it, but one in which the correspondence is a temporal mapping, one might even say a musical one:

This is an extended analogy to be sure. The historical is to the bio-eternal as a map is to territory (when placed on it), though not spatially (part/whole) but temporally. But one also feels that there is something very productive here, and that is the differential between that which lasts, and that which changes or is “just now”. As Spinozist what comes to mind here is his famous EIIp7 “The order and connection between ideas is the same as the order and connection between things”, wherein what is revelatory about eternity is not the imaginary part/whole spatial configurations, but rather the very ideational/extentional fabric of historical expression itself. It is this syntax that shows through and enables the experience of experience.

The way that our author sees it, the socio-political expresses the biological invariant (soft eternity) as a certain kind of temporal diagram revealing the very genesis of the human organism and its reality. In this way the global movement acts as a kind of map connective to the invariant itself,

Natural history inventories the ways in which human beings experience human nature. Having the latter as its content, the global movement should be considered as an episode of natural history. It can be rightfully compared to the map of an island which is laid down on a precise point of the island itself (135)

What does not yet follow in this analogy, of course, is that if you have a map (expression) of an island, it doesn’t matter where at all you place it on the territory, it is always resting on a precise point of correspondence, somewhat evacuating the heft of the homology Virno is trying to put forth. What remains is the very qualifications that make this map of the said island better than that map, or another. For if I place a map of Manhattan on the island of Hawaii, the only correspondence may be those of coordination itself (if even that).

The Potential Animal

Next on the agenda is the qualification of just what Homo sapiens is, or more precisely, what are the salient features which are going to characterize and anchor a diagramic analysis of historical picturing. Virno is quite aware of the danger of trying to essentialize the human being, and is at pains to qualify his project solely in terms of the thematic analysis itself:

The crucial point, I repeat, is not an exhaustive defintion of that which in Homo sapiens remains unaltered from the Cro-Magnons onwards, but the ways in which the mutable course of history sometimes thematizes the “eternal”, even exhibiting it in concrete states of affairs (135)

Unfortunately, such a distinction does not immunize the analysis from the most obvious attack. The problem is not the exhaustion of characteristics, but rather their prioritization, as we shall see. In a certain sense Virno is recommending that we look at history from our particular point of view and see in it the concrete traces of biological invariants that are then taken to be determinative nexuses for the capacties of political and sociological power. Perhaps this is what we all do, but one risks something of a Rorschach test in terms of argumentive force. One sees the essential biological (soft) eternities that one wants to see.

But let’s follow Virno through because his picture of history and eternity is to some degree apodictically convincing and at least provides an intellectual framework in which other disagreements could be made more clear. In something of an existentialist move he wants the most important human features to be those distinguished by the philosophical concept of dynamis, power. And dynamis here is qualified as the temporal not-now. I have some difficulties with his qualification of the not-now as a “deficit of presence” but let us hesitantly grant this essential move for it leads to some interesting concrete determinatives of an essential human potentiality:

The potentiality of Homo sapiens: (a) is attested by the language faculty; (b) is inseparable from instinctual non-specialization; (c) originates in neoteny; (d) implies the absence of a univocal environment (135)

Before we go into some details, one has to ardently insist that the turn to potentiality as the very defining historical feature of what historical events reveal about biological invariants is a great cleaving of any number of human features that are actually also shared by the entire animal world, and is of great consequence for the skewing of the theory. If what we are doing is identifying the correspondences between the historical and the biological, there is no advantage at all (in fact there is great disadvantage) in privileging features one presumes to be uniquely human. This produces, inadvertently or not, a chasm between the human and the rest of the biotic world. Instinctual non-specialization may indeed by degree be a feature that distinguishes humans from parrots, but human beings are not ESSENTIALLY non-specialized, in fact there are any number of instincts that are greatly specialized and also are invariants that bring their trace upon history. If invariants are to be the core mode of comparison and analysis, the invariants that we share with other organisms are just as, if not more important than those we are imagined not to share. To take one example, Neoteny might very well emphasize parental dependency, such that the parental instincts of other species actually grow in importance as points of revelation and historical understanding.

The Language Faculty

Following his human-as-potentia thesis Virno defines language faculty as the very potential capacity for statement forming, and not the concrete performance of these statements. Language that exists in reserve, not at all in a kind of Humanese, but rather something like Augustine’s theory of the “inner word”:

The language faculty is something other than the ensemble of historical determinate languages. It consists in a body’s inborn capacity to emit articulate sounds, that is in the ensemble of biological and physiological requirement which make it possible to produce a statement. It is mistaken to treat the indeterminate power-to-speak as a proto-language spoken by the entire species (something like a universal Sanskrit). The faculty is a generic disposition, exempt from grammatical schemas, irreducible to a more or less extended congeries of possible statements. Language faculty means language in potentia/ or the power of language. And power is something non-actual and still undefined. Only the living being which is born aphasic has the language faculty. Or better: only the living being which lacks a repertoire of signals biunivocally correlated to the various configurations – harmful or beneficial – of the surrounding environment (136)

As one can see in the end, there is a necessary disconjunction between this faculty and any determinative surrounding environment, a disjunction that spells out the very malleability and complexity of language production itself. The totality of possibile sentences is not determined by an environment, where “environment” is seen as something of a evolutionary niche. This “environmental determinism” preclusion, in fine semiotic fashion, will later by the environment/world distinction prove central to Virno’s sociological analysis. (I should note: the environment world distinction I do not except, though one does see the merit in not allowing the “language faculty” to be determined by any particular differences in the history of environmental/species interactions, and co-determinations.)

Non-Specialization of Instincts

The author then follows with a rather convoluted, or at least verbose departure from his usual clarity (a length and twisting that one suspects hides potential weaknesses in argument). He denies what “many philosophers” argue, that language is a specialization for polyvalence without any “particular ability”, but then goes on to claim that the ability of language is the detailed and univocal ability of pure dynamis. I cannot make heads or tails of just what contrast he is trying set up between a faculty for polyvalence and a faculty for dynamis.

The language faculty confirms the instinctual poverty of the human animal, its complete character, the constant disorientation that sets it apart. Many philosophers argue that the language faculty is a highly specialized instinct. But they go onto add that it is a specialization for polyvalence and generalization, or even – which amounts to the same – an instinct to adopt behaviours that have not been preset. Now, to argue that the linguistic animal is supremely able in…[sic] doing without any particular ability is really to participate in the international festival of the sophism. Of course, the language faculty is an innate biological endowment. But not everything that is innate of univocal and detailed instinct. Despite being congenital, the capacity to speak is only dynamis/, power. And power properly speaking, that is distinguished from a well-defined catalogue of hypothetical performances, coincides with a state of indeterminancy and uncertainty. The animal that has language is a potential animal. But a potential animal is a non-specialized animal (136)

The difficulty that I suspect is being papered over here is that Virno wants to embody the pure dynamis in both the very evolutionarily achieved powers of linguistic capacity, and also in an essentialized non-specialization of instinct. He is pushing to the limit and polarizing for the sake of category both the non-specialized character of Homo sapiens instincts AND the polyvalence of language itself. In point of fact human beings are not utterly non-specialized, and nor is language faculty itself non-specialized (for instance it does very well with spatio-temporal objects and their relations and ostensive defintions). Further, to put it the other way around, human beings do not specialize in disorientation. If anything, we can only speak of gradations and delineations of specialization and non-specialization, none of which separate human beings exclusively out from all other biotic life.

While the relative non-specialization of human instincts can play a serious role in any analysis of historical forms (just as Virno will favor),  this non-specialization is not an essential categorical form.

Neoteny and the Retardation of Humans

Next in the essentially human is an organic grounding of the very larval fecudity of human productivity imagined to be determined (or at least explained) by a lasting infancy. The way that Virno sees it, in one great analogy, because the human species exhibits Neoteny, it is organically pre-determined to a certain extended parentage of mores and technologies of every sort.

The phylogenetic basis of non-specialization is neoteny, that is the “retention of formerly juvenile characteristics produced by retardation of somatic development”. The generic and incomplete character of the human animal, the indecision that befalls it, in other words the dynamis which is consubstantial with it, are rooted in some of its organic and anatomical primitivisms, or, if you prefer, it its congenital incompleteness. Homo sapiens has “a constitutively premature birth”, and precisely because of this it remains an ‘indefinite animal”. Neoteny explains the instability of our species, as well as the related need for uninterrupted learning. A chronic infancy is matched by a chronic non-adaptation, to be mitigated in each case by social and cultural devices (137)

It is a seductive trope. Yet, as I pointed out in brief before in no sense does Virno take up the relationship between Neoteny and any other parentage invariants that fix the instincts of the human species. There is such a strong theoretical investment in reading the human being as pure potentiality some of the very significant specialized instincts of human beings (those which actually would tie human culture to the histories of other species, so as to reveal inseparable cross-species braids…for instance human-canine culture), are ostensibly repressed for the sake of a historical picture. In this way the emphasis on Neoteny performs the organic work or grounding for an otherwise implicit Heideggerian “thrown-into-the-world-ness”, here making of the Homo sapiens an essentially “indefinite animal” prematurely and continually born. None of which falls within the narrow band of organic determinations of real biological Neoteny. One can certainly take up the suggestive way in which human Neoteny creates a predisposition towards communal, or even parental, trans-individual in-formation, but how this attains anything close to a species that is essentially “incomplete” or even “generic” I have no idea. What would it mean for an animal to be “complete”?

No Niche, World

The last qualification of essential human animal characteristic bears the strongest existential imprint, and this is semiotic insistence that the human animal has no “niche” but only a “world”. I have expressed elsewhere the great deficiency in thinking of human beings as uniquely Umwelt bound, and Virno takes the Umwelt concept towards its most exclusionary (and for me, the most problematic) pole. One can certainly accept that human species characteristics are not determined by any particular environmental factors, but that is because NO species is so determined, as species and environments co-determine each other, and environments do not dictate to organisms how they must be.

Biologically rooted in neoteny, the potentiality of the human animal has it objective correlate in the lack of a circumscribed and well-orded environment in which to insert oneself with innate expertise once and for all. If an environment is the “ensemble of all conditions…which make it possible for a certain organism to survive thanks to it particular organization, it goes without saying that a non-specialized organism is also an out-of-place/ organism. In such an organism perceptions are not harmoniously converted into univocal behaviors, but give rise to an overabundance of undifferentiated stimuli, which are not designed for a precise operational purpose. Lacking access to an ecological niche that would prolong its body like a prosthesis, the human animal exists in a state of insecurity even where there is no trace of specific dangers. We can certainly second the following assertion by Chomsky: “the way we grow does not reflect properties of the physical environment but rather our essential nature”. Provided we add, however, that “our essential nature” is characterized in the first place by the absence of a determinate environment, and therefore by an enduring disorientation (137)

The philosophical overlay of presumption here is to the extreme. And I would express that what Virno denies of the human organism is also denied of all organisms, if only in degrees. There is no strict determination between environment and organism, across the board. And alternately, as I express in my notion of Exowelten, instead of environments bodies of organisms are actually made up of the difference that make a difference to them, precisely in the prosthetic sense, and indeed human beings are no different in this. Beyond this, the human animal possesses no monopoly on an existence of a “state of insecurity” even when there is no trace of danger, as anyone who studies the psychology (can we use that word?) of prey animals can tell you. A deer in the forest is perpetual in its insecurity, and there is no existential gap that separates out human beings from the deer. In fact though, all of these by-degree differences and similiarities, aside from Virno’s need to establish a philosophical beachhead of human separation, actually work to complexify and enhance the kind of “natural-historical” analysis he prescribes. The unique gap between the human and the biotic that is implicit in the essentialization that Virno carries out is not necessary for the diagnosis of diagramic history, and in actuality retards it. The (soft) eternity of the language faculty, the relative non-specialization of instincts, the relative neoteny, the non-determination by environments all can be affirmed without Homo sapiens collasping into a “generic” and really alienated species.

A String of Apocalypses: The History of Traditional Society

One can see how Virno, like alchemist, attempts to pull the pure ore from the dross of historical manifestation, expressed in the questions he raises by the virtue of his defintions. The presumption of essentially human species characteristics now seeks to find its home in the socio-political situation:

The terse defintions we proposed above allow us to specify the overall argument. The questions that natural history must face up to are accordingly the following: In what socio-political situations does the non-biological specialization of Homo sapiens come to the fore? When and how does the generic language faculty, as distinct from historical languages, take on a leading role within a particular mode of production? What are the diagrams of neoteny? Which are the maps or graphs that well adequately portray the absence of a univocal environment? (138)

We can see how he risks the Rousseauian idealization that earlier is warned about, as now that the author is armed with what is purely human, there begins something of a search for socio-political situations that reflect or express it. The presumption has to “come to the fore”. The analysis that follows actually exceeds this requirement, which gives me to embrace to a much greater degree Virno’s project, outside of, or beyond his stated aims. The human being in all of its biological invariants is much more than simply the hollow animal, though the depiction as such works to organisize, and not just explain, particular socio-political social forms.

Virno begins with a theory of history which highly truncated, even assuming his own defintional base. It is, as he sees it, only in crisis that most of human history as shown what is natural to it. The highly selective essence of the human animal only has shown through the occluding fibers of historical weave where the cloth seemed break. Only then does the neoteny and generic pure but natural faculty express itself, like the point on the map that seems to rest on its exact spot on the island it represents:

In traditional societies, including to some extent in classic industrial society the potentiality (non-specialization, neoteny, etc.) of the human animal takes on the typical visibility of an empirical state of affairs only in an emergency situation, that is in the midst of a crisis. In ordinary circumstances, the species-specific biological background is instead concealed, or even contradicted, by the organization of work and solid communicative habits…(138)

To my ear this is an extremely limited view of history, and therefore of the human being itself. It really speaks to the procrustean elements of original assumptions that only outright emergency and crisis shows true human nature, a nature that is otherwise only concealed or contradicted. One can see that the there is a tight-knit circulation between the explanandum and explanans wherein human nature is circumscribed because it is meant to explain certain features of human history, and in turn certain features of human history are circumscribed so as to express certain features of human nature. All in all, too much is left out. At the very least biological invariants (other than those picked out) must also be expressing themselves in all that occurs outside of emergency and crisis in traditional societies.

But if we take up even the kinds of restrictions on what is human that Virno provides there is no reason at all that crisis alone makes the potentiality of the human animal typically visible. A very simple example would be asethetic expression much of which is done very much in the service of “solid communicative habits” as any glimpse of religious art would reveal. I would argue quite to the contrary that traditional socieites, while far more structured that modern ones, also must express human nature as a matter of course, and that there is NOTHING in them that is not natural, or even concealing, or contradictive.

But let us look more closely at the Peircean vector upon which A History of Cataclysms is established, along an analogy of immunization against disorientation:

Under this view, cultural norms rush in to solve and repress natural non-specialization and neoteny, instead of being the product or expression of biological invariants themselves. The “difficult to translate” stimuli of “world” become codified to save the organism from itself. Culture builds “psuedo-environments” (instead of the productes of culture being themselves environments) that address what is thought to be a naturalized lack and essential instability of Homo sapiens. One is to say that when a lion is chasing a gazelle at great speed and is exposed to a moment of confusion of “difficult to translate stimuli” this is fundamentally different than when a person doesn’t know if he should jaywalk in the middle of the night when no police are around. I take these two things to be difference in degree, differences in environments, but not primary differences in kind. Because there is a fundamental dynamis within the lion  and the human, the recourse to repetitions that resolve disorientation are not worlds apart. In fact differences that make a difference spell themselves across species all the time. We may grant that relative human non-specialization may find itself addressed or supplimented by divisions of labor, but there is no reason at all that these divisions of labor are somehow concealing of human nature and not themselves expressive of biological invariants. We may even grant that there is a fundamental contrast between stability and disorientation, and that modes of stability are adopted as a product of (the potential of) disorientation, but the human animal is not fundamentally a disorientation animal. Let us put it this way: there is the continual suspension – be it pleasurable or anxiety producing – of application of either rules or tensioned instincts, the moment before alternatives of behavior are chosen through (either consciously or unconsciously). And this pleasure/anxiety goes across the animal world.

In this way, the very fabric of cutural norms which in a simplified vision only work to corral human genericism, are themselves shot through with exploratory and expressive features which mark out the very productivity of the human species. And it certainly is not the case the human history has only shown human nature in a beaded necklace of its catastrophes, as Virno seems to want to see.

 

[-iours. No longer selectively filtered by a complex of cultural habits, the world shows itself to be an amorphous and enigmatic context. The conflagration of the ethico-social order thus reveals two correlate aspects of invariant “human nature”: a language faculty distinct from languages and a world opposed to any (pseudo-) environment whatsoever (140-141)]

Now, to take up another semiotician by way of example, Augustine had his share of personal crises, but one needs only to read his Confessions and various other works on language to see that the inner word of contemplation need not be in any sense naturally removed from the ethico-social order. In fact, the inner word (as stand-in for any biological invariant), expresses itself across forms, in the very signs and semiotic nature of the natural and cultural world. One does not have to wait for a rift in the very fabric of things in order to see “human nature”. Moreso, though a disruption in any ordering matrix of behavior might expose the very productivity of species or natural organization, this exposure in turn shows itself in the full panoply of the organizations themselves. In a certain sense, there is no dross. Languages are just as natural as the “language faculty” is, they must be.

At the very least, the “state of exception” is to be seen everywhere and constitutive to the very expression of the world, and not merely confined to collapse. One need only take up the prevalence, in fact the assured ubiquity of metaphor upon which all languages depend for their very creation and growth to see that protean expression is in the very DNA of natural languages as they actively exist. New cultural niches are made up of the very “stuff” that they are thought to conceal: 

The ultimate outcome of the apocalypse or state of exception is the institution of new cultural niches, capable of concealing and blunting once again the biological “always already”, that is the inarticulate and chaotic dynamis. Rare and fleeting are the apocalyptic diagrams of human nature (141)

Metahistory and Social Praxis

This reaches the apex of my disagreements with Paolo Virno, as what follows is one of the more illuminating notion of critique that I find available to current attempts to rescue Humanism. The entire journey into an essentialization of Homo sapiens which I have strongly resisted in my view simply is not necessary for the rich embrace of the biological foundations of the human species’  four characteristics. And if metaphysics must be pressed, one should be led to see that each of the four characteristics can be found in some degree in the whole of the biotic realm, if not beyond. In fact, once the predisposition for these essential genericisms of human beings is left behind, it seems that use of biological invariants should be expanded to included specialized instincts and dispositions (other than language production), which may give further clue to the dynamic nature of human culture in the natural world, an inclusion which would work to further build a recognition of cross-species interdependencies and creative codetermination, intra-indexed sympathies in what I would call Exowelten, the limits of differences that make a difference to any horizon-bound semiotic closure.

But let us proceed.

What was said in the preceding section only counts for traditional societies. Contemporary capitalism has radically modified the relation beteen unalterable phylogenetic prerogatives and historical praxis. Today, the prevailing forms of life do not veil but rather flaunt without any hesitation the differential traits of our species. In other words: the prevailing forms of life are a veritable inventory of natural-historical diagrams/. The current organization of work does not allay the disorientation and instability of the human animal, but on the contrary takes them to their extreme and systematically valorizes them. Amorphous potentiality, that is the chronic persistence of infantile characteristics, does not menacingly flare in the midst of a crisis. Rather it permeates every aspect of the tritest routine. Far from dreading it, the society of generalized communication tries to profit from the “semantic excess not reducible to determined signifieds”, thereby conferring the greatest relevance to the indeterminate language faculty….the paramount task of philosophy is to come to grips with the unprecedented superimposition of the eternal and the contigent, the biologicallly invariant and the socio-political variable, which exclusively connotes the current epoch (141-142)

You can see why I like this essay so much, for after great qualification it comes to a definitive construction that grasps the contemporary moment. Contemporary capitalism has seized upon some of the most – do we want to say essential – distinctive human species characteristics, flaunting the very infancy of Man.

In our epoch, the object of natural history is not a state of emergency, but everyday administration. Instead of dwelling on the erosion of a cultural constellation, we now need to concern ourselves with the way that it is fully in force. Natural history does not limit itself to scavenging through “cultural apocaylpses”. Instead it tightens its grip on the totality of contemporary events. Because biological metahistory no longer surges up at the edges of forms of life, where the get stuck and idle, but installs itself durably at their geometric center, testifying to their regular functioning, all social phenomena can be rightfully considered natural-historical phenomena. (142)

Under the Virno diagnosis, what had been reserved for emergencies in traditional societies has become an administrative requirement. One can imagine that because I rejected the very notion that traditional societies occluded human nature with its norms-niches, I might have trouble with this sense of paradigmatic shift and exceleration. Though there is something to the description that rings true. While I would argue that all social phenomena has always been diagramatic, there does seem to be a distinctive change in the aspects of human nature upon which capitalism has seized and built itself up from: 

What a magnetic descrpition of the new landscape both of labor and of social cognition. If we leave aside the epoch distinctions and only grant that now social organization has slowly grafted itself upon these specific non-specialized qualities of Homo sapiens, we would do very well to track this constitutive change. If human beings are being forced back into their very stem-cell like state of individual malleability, a capacity that the species as a whole has evolutionarily produced, then we must attend to this co-incidence of biology and social production. What is missing for me from Virno’s consideration is the wider spectrum of human animal considerations, in particular those that might be seen to be employed in the very social grasp of neotenic and non-specialized forms. To be suggestive, the human animal, because neotenic also possesses other specialized invariants (for instance instincts of familial organization and care) to fill out the lasting infancy. If indeed the lingering child is the New Adult, all the biology of human beings that surround these inborn qualities, now embraced and exploited, are also necessarily to come into play. Will not parental, familial instincts and their deeply entrenched cultural encodings, now come back with a vengence? The American Right’s emphasis on family values, or Socialism ideological pictures of a mothering State, achieve new gravity when Neoteny is a substantive force of social organization.

Virno sees it a bit differently because he is not thinking of biological invariants that do not speak to the hollowness potentiality of the human animal. Instead his present moment is one of pure fractionation, and a corresponding rule of micro rules whose very rigidity is only equaled by the uniqueness of their application (I’m not sure that I understand what an ad hoc rule for only one occasion of application would be like, though one can imagine the impression of there being such rules):

Being conversant with omnilateral potentiality demands, as its inevitable counterpoint, the existence of far more detailed norms than the ones which are in force in a cultural pseudo-environment. Norms so detailed that they tend to hold for a single case, for a contingent and non-reproducible occasion. The flexibility of labour services implies the unlimited variability of rules, their tremendous rigidity. These are ad hoc rules, of the kind that prescribe in minute detail the way of carrying out a certain action and only that action. Precisely where it attains the greatest socio-political relevance, the innate language faculty mockingly manifests itself as a collection of elementary signals, suited to tackling a particular eventuality. The “semantic excess which is not reducible to determined signifieds” often flips over into a compulsive reliance on sterotyped formulae. In other words, it takes on the seemingly paradoxical guiseof a semantic deficit. In both its polarities, this oscillation depends on the sudden absence of stable and well-articulated pseudo-environments (144)

Because I do not see the history of the world in quite the same Catastrophic Traditional manner that Virno does, while this picture of a neotenic, non-specialized environment certainly picks out certain features of Late Capitalism that seem significant, it feels like there is a missing continuity of emphasis on many other human animal features. Instead of simply a society regimented of disorientations (which merely standardized the vast disorientations of historical, traditional man), if indeed it is the “language faculty” that is to be the well-spring of social organization, and not languages themselves, what we really need to turn to are the aesthetic modes of communication that expressed that faculty, non-linguistically, in the past, to see the very form that neotenic social organization will take. It is not just that there are mere fragmented signals, and stereotyped formulae, but that these semantic elements are floated upon aesthetic currents of largely metaphorical and analogical character.

I have written elsewhere on metapho and Vico. Vico brings a critical perspective that would appear quite fruitful if indeed social communications are going to trade upon the breakdown easily followed, univocal norms. Metaphors, following the philosopher Donald Davidson, can be seen as engendered by the production of literal falsehoods (rule violations), yet falsehoods that access the very language faculty itself. The neotenic environment of privileged non-specialization will be one in which pictorial, and indeed non-discursive experiential forms will be greatly emphasized. In fact, as we see, the production of affects have become the very engine of the world economy. We see this rather starkly as the affluent West has become one large affect pool, as regions of an industrialized Asia and Sub-continent become centers for the making of devices whose sole end product product is “entertainment”, or affects themselves (via tvs, phones, ipods, tivos, video games, etc). As such the affect-pool West has a single world economy responsibility: Experience!

If Virno is correct and the Capitalist model is aimed at expressing to the extreme human indeterminancy, and thus polyvalence, the Affect West becomes one great sea of language faculty experiences, as one can imagine, a bed ideological communications. Movies, songs, shows, texts, pictures all sub-linguistically, aethetically, create organized tides that ne’er can be resisted without ratio-imaginative diagnosis and force. We, as Vico characterized, enter upon a civilization of “imaginative universals”, a poeticized state that compliments the highly literalized achievements that mark the specialized labors of our sciences, technologies and fields of knowledge. It is just in this world that our attention to biological invariants that are not those four considered by Virno, but have co-evolved in relationship to them, will come most powerfully to the fore in the very language faculty communications that predominate the paschotological West.  Never before has Homo sapiens precariously been in such a biologically sensitive ideological sphere.

I do agree with the general sentiment that Capitalism drives human beings toward a destabilization of dependable forms, and great appreciation I have for Paolo Virno’s biological analysis of contemporary society. It is only that the human animal that makes the foudation point for any future self-determination must have a much wider essence of characteristics than Virno identifies, for reasons both of analysis, but also hope. It is our interspecies, inter-environmental connectivities that give host to our greatest resources, and Homo sapiens is part of a much larger semantic/organic fabric, of which our instinctual non-specialization and Neoteny exist only in small degrees.

As to the question of dynamis itself as the vector of analysis, as a Spinozist it is my metaphysical position that human beings do not have biological monopoly on dynamis. Indeed all things exhibit dynamis potentialities, and it is in the service of human beings to free those non-human potentia as best as our partial wisdom allows us to. Virno ends his essay with an ethical call for the Demand of the Good Life, something I whole-heartedly embrace as the very avenue for progress and human happiness. If truly ours is a Western affect pool of necessary experiences, as we pursue the object of our “sensuous consciousness”, our own history, negotiating the ideological streams of our bodily reterritorializations, image by image, refrain by refrain, following our pleasures with an attentive mind to both a biological heritage and social discrepency, then the Good Life is the only North our compass can bear.

Advertisements

Is Latour an Under-Expressed Spinozist?

Selections from The Prince of Networks

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

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

a = Graham’s description of Latour

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

The Four Axioms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concepts of Concreteness

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

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

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

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

Not Aristotle’s Notion of Substance

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

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

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

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

The Power of Relations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Full Deployment of Actors/God

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

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

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

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

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

Playing with Machiavelli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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