July 2011

I just finished watched Sucker Punch and all I can say is that this is a deeply sad film that’s left me full of anxiety. I think, perhaps, this is the reason that the film got such awful reviews. A “sucker punch” is a dirty and devious blow that comes unexpectedly when one isn’t looking. If there’s someone that’s sucker punched in this film, I believe it’s the audience. While I don’t think the film is entirely successful (I wonder if the producers didn’t get in the way of what the writings were aiming for by modifying the ending), it does come close. Basically I think the film is critiquing Hollywood’s fetishized fantasies of both women and our ability to triumph over terrible situations. The bulk of the film is filled with scantily clad schoolgirls bearing guns and samurai swords that are able to handily dispatch anything that comes their way. These sequences are portrayed like a video game (and this is significant, I think) where the girls must fight off various foes (zombies, nazis, robots, dragons, etc) to attain their objective.

If this were all there were to the film I would agree with the reviews, noting that while the film is visually stunning it is largely empty and disparaging of women through highly fetishized masculine fantasies or the female warrior figure. Yet the film is bookended between two very different sequences, outside the world of the young woman’s fantasy, that are very different and that, I believe, make the film work. In the initial scenes the heroine accidentally shoots her younger sister while trying to protect her from her step father who is trying to sexually assault her. Her step father takes her to an insane asylum and makes an arrangement with a corrupt orderly to have her lobotomized so she won’t be able to relate the events that led up to the death of her sister. It is at this point that, heeding the words of one of the psychiatrists, she escapes into a world of fantasy during the interval between her admission to the hospital and the point at which she is to be lobotomized.

Read on!

The other day I watched an interesting science documentary on strange liquids that can be found throughout the universe. For example, on Titan, a moon that orbits Saturn, there are oceans of methane that have very different physical properties than our oceans of water. For example, were you swimming in an ocean of methane it’s unlikely that you would see the liquid methane at all as it’s extremely clear due to its low degree of solvency with respect to other forms of matter. Where water, due to its molecular structure, is highly reactive such that it easily dissolves many other forms of matter (thereby leading it to often be rather cloudy), methane is molecularly very balanced, making it a rather non-reactive solvent. Deep in Jupiter scientists believe there is liquid hydrogen. Elsewhere, there are worlds that rain liquid iron.

What I found especially fascinating in this documentary was the example they used to explain the difference between solids, liquids, and gases: sheep. A solid is a relationship between molecules where the molecular structure has a rigid structure or lattice that admits of very little in the way of change or movement. In a liquid, by contrast, the molecules are bound to one another such that they don’t fill all available spaces in their vicinity, but where nonetheless are able to flow or slide across one another. Finally, with gases there is no binding between the molecules, but rather the molecules are able to detach from one another and fill all available spaces in their container.

read on!

In response to my post on nihilism as well as Graham’s there’s been some follow up around the blogosphere. Matt, over at Footnotes to Plato responds to Graham here and me here. Tom Sparrow of Plastic Bodies has a nice follow-up here. Over at After Nature, Leon follows up here. There Leon writes:

As to knocking God in favor of naturalism: process theology anyone? I am not sure that process theologians invoke God as a transcendental to “save” anyone, if anything value is contributed only retroactively. Hartshorne doesn’t even have a traditional doctrine of immortality, but rather contributionism. I can’t see why some OOO philosophers would cut short the theological implications of its own view. To my mind that is shortsighted. If you aren’t a theist, fine. But why speak condescendingly about those who are?

I confess that I’m perplexed by Leon’s remarks for a number of reasons. Before getting to that, it first bears noting that I know next to nothing about process theology so I can’t really respond to anything he might be claiming. That aside, in my post I’m quite clear that I’m referring to transcendent systems of norms inscribed in the fabric of existence. If there are religious frameworks that don’t posit such things (variants of Buddhism come to mind here) they aren’t a target of my remarks. Second, I’m not sure how I’m “knocking” such frameworks or being condescending about them. I am expressing my disagreement with such hypotheses and the reasons for that disagreement, just as I might express my disagreements with any other philosophical claims. Such disagreement doesn’t amount to “knocking” or “being condescending”. Finally third, I fail to see how OOO entails something like process theology (though, again, that might just be the result of my ignorance of what process theology is). I endorse a naturalistic framework and neither see evidence for the existence of any sort of God or divine being, nor what postulating such a being adds to our accounts of existence.

Graham has an interesting post up responding to some remarks by footnotes2plato. Footnotes2plato writes:

But in order to avoid spinning into the nihilism of some speculative realists, where human values are a fluke in an uncaring and fundamentally entropic universe… I think OOO needs to unpack its own theological and anthropological implications.

Over the years this issue of nihilism has come up a few times with respect to OOO and SR. To be quite honest, I’m not sure what exactly is being asked for or what exactly it means. How, precisely, does anything change with respect to values and meanings by arguing that humans are amongst beings, that they are one type of entity among others, rather than arguing that all other entities are correlates of humans? If humans and all other rational entities cease to exist, all sorts of other entities will continue to exist. There will still be frogs, the sun, asteroids, and octopi. What OOO refuses is any ontological framework that reduces entities to correlates of human beings and that renders all other beings dependent on human beings.

read on!

Graham has a post up briefly outlining some of our differences. The first difference he outlines is, I think, genuine. I conceive of objects as dynamic systems that endure through time whether existing for the briefest of instances or millions of years, while Graham seems to hold that each instant is an entirely new entity. This, for example, each stroke of the finger while writing this post would be a distinct and new entity, whereas I hold that these are activities are activities of one and the same entity (me).

The second difference Graham outlines, however, misrepresents my position. Graham writes,

2. Levi tends to hold that anything that has an effect is real. By contrast, I hold both that many real things may have no current effects (Levi is somewhat open to this concept of “dormant objects”) and that many things have effects that are not real (here Levi would disagree, I think). For example, all of the objects of experience have some sort of trace emotional or intellectual effect upon us, but for me this not the same thing as reality. Reality and causal efficacy are two separate things for me.

Neither of these claims represent my position. First, I do not hold that whatever is real produces an effect. There are real entities, in my view, that produce no effects whatsoever. I call these entities “dark objects”. Indeed, in The Democracy of Objects I even evoke the existence of such objects as the very reason that we engage in experiment in the sciences. Were objects constantly producing effects there would be no point in experiment because there would be no circumstances in which an object fails to manifest its powers. The whole point of experiment lies in creating controlled conditions to discover non-apparent properties of entities. This wouldn’t be necessary if entities were always producing their effects. My point about effects is thus epistemological not Ontological. Ontologically an entity can exist just fine without producing effects. But epistemologically we can only know whether a type of object exists if it produces an effect.

Likewise, I do not hold that whatever produces effects is real. I take it that in order for something to qualify as robustly real it has to be characterized by independence or an ability to exist in its own right without depending on the existence of another. Yet there are plenty of things that produce effects that do not exist in their own right. Tye other night I had a nightmare about cockroaches crawling all over me. This dream left quite an impression on me, leaving me disquieted for the rest of the following day. As such, it produced a number of effects. Yet the dream doesn’t qualify as robustly real because the entities and events of the dream do not exist in their own right, but depend for their existence on me as an entity.

A general criteria for whether or not an entity is a real entity or what Graham would call a “sensual object” might be whether the entity in question is relational or not. I borrow this distinction from Okrent’s Rational Animals, recommended to me by Jon Cogburn. My dream doesn’t exist as an entity in its own right because it exists only as a relation to another entity. Likewise, it might be parents, children, and siblings don’t exist because they only exist relationally. While the people that hold these relations exist independently, those place holders exist only in and rough a higher level object: a family. Here families would be entities, perhaps, that exist in their own right, while being-a-parent or being-a-child exists only in and through the existence of a family. Obama exists, yet presidents aren’t real objects. Rather, presidents only exist in and through a higher level object: a government. Adopting Graham’s language, it could then be said that relational entities are entities that exist only on the interior of a higher order real entity. I’m still toying with this thesis, so go easy on me here.

In response to my last post, nuno asks the following interesting set of questions. Nuno writes:

thank you for your post, i´ve been struggling with Deleuze problem of the reunification of aesthetics for years, and googling it last week !, and find secondary sources redundant, simply repeating Deleuze quite eliptical remarks.

My problem is that I grasp the idea textually – i could spit it in a exam – but in practice is a very hard to grasp.

1), if the the encounter with the work of art produces new a priori that means that it wasn´t really an a priori no?

or in another formulation:

2) these new forms of sensiblity are discovered – as if already there – or really created? they were just there waiting to be actualized or something new is produced?

3) if i produce a new a prior, say by watching a rosselini film, it will stay there hereafter (forever) or it will only last for the time of the film?

4) will the list of a priori forms of sensiblity be infinite?

sorry for all these questions, i never had the oportunity to discuss this issue with anyone.

As I understand it, Deleuze’s transcendental aesthetic is not the discovery of an a priori that was already there, but rather the production of a new a priori or form of sensibility. The key here is the three syntheses he outlines in chapter two of Difference and Repetition. These new a prioris are produced out of these passive syntheses. This is why they are also ever bit as artistic as they are forms of sensibility. The results of these syntheses are explored in chapter four of Difference and Repetition. Why call these forms of sensibility a priori? Consider the difference between my perception of an apple and a form of sensibility. In the former case I merely reproduce my image of the apple in memory when I recollect it. With a genuine form of sensibility, however, I am able to manipulate the structure of intuition in all sorts of ways, drawing further inferences from the structure independent of experience. As I argued in Difference and Givenness this is the same sort of thing we’re doing in the mathematics of toplogy when we imagine a geometrical figure undergoing variations. The structure that emerges through the activity of synthesis has its own logic or field of infinite possibilities that can be explored in thought, independent of experience. There’s a structure to the form of sensibility that opens a field of a priori inferences.

read on!

John Protevi send me this article today, showing how certain types of video games enhance women’s spatial skills, placing them on par with male spatial skills. Why is this important? There’s a common narrative in biology and neurology that certain differences between men and women (assuming it’s even appropriate to use these crude categories) that argues that we’re biologically hardwired to have certain talents. It is said, for example, that men are biologically hardwired to be more mathematical and to have better spatial skills, whereas women are better contextual, affective, and relational thinkers. We heard a variation of this years ago from Larry Summers, who suggested that money spent on women in the sciences and mathematics and wasted.

A study like this is important because it shows how these differences, in the case of spatial reasoning, at least, are developmental not innate. Here these differences would be the result of the morphogenesis of a body, it’s processes of individuation, not a predetermined code in the genes where genes are understood to function as a sort of architectural blueprint that predetermines what an organism will become at the level of its phenotype.

It is precisely this sort of developmental point, this point about the becoming of objects, that I try to capture in my distinction between virtual proper being, local manifestation, and regimes of attraction. The virtual proper being of an entity is the powers or potentials that a being possesses. The local manifestation of an entity is the manner in which it actualizes itself at a particular point in time. This dimension of objects is a manifestation because it is a way in which an entity becomes actual or takes on properties or qualities, while it is “local” because such manifestations refer to local conditions in which the entity exists. Finally, the concept of “regimes of attraction” refer to the relations an entity shares to other entities and that play a key role in how it locally manifests itself.

In the case of this particular study we’re shown that the virtual proper being is not “hardwired” to relate to space in a particular way. Rather, the female brain, like the male brain, is a field of potentials that can be locally manifested to form a variety of different spatial dispositions. The brain, as Catherine Malabou and Tom Sparrow both argue, is plastic in such a way that it can come to be formed in a variety of ways. Here, certain types of video games form a “regime of attraction” drawing the brain towards particular local manifestations or the formation of certain affects, where affects aren’t to be reduced to “feelings”, but rather are to be understood, following Spinoza and Deleuze, as powers to act and be acted upon. The body that plays with these partular sorts of video games forms a particular form of spatiality, of being affected by space, of thinking space, that other bodies do not have.

In this connection we get a Generative transcendental aesthetic. In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the transcendental aesthetic referred to an a priori form of sensibility that precedes any receptivity. Kant believed it necessary to introduce this concept to account for how it is possible for mathematics to be a priori (capable of being known through thought independent of experience), yet be universal and necessary. Kant’s thesis was that maths are really the thinking of time and space (forms of sensibility) and that the mind imposes these forms (to put it crudely) on the world. It is because these forms of sensibility arise from mind that the universality of maths is guaranteed. All things we experience will already be “filtered” through these forms of sensibility, thereby guaranteeing that the patterns I can discover in pure thought will also be found in the objects of the world that I experience.

To understand the difference between what belongs to the transcendental aesthetic and the empirical aesthetic, compare the difference between thinking geometrically and tasting a particular glass of wine for the first time. When I think geometrically I am able to discover certain spatial relations in thought alone, despite the fact that I’ve never directly experienced objects with these spatial properties. By contrast, I could never, through thought alone, discover what a particular wine might taste like. I have to have the experience of tasting the wine to know what it tastes like. The transcendental aesthetic is thus a form of sensibility that precedes any particular experience and that structures all experiences.

Now what is interesting in the study linked to at the beginning of this post is that we get the possibility of a genetic transcendental aesthetic. What this article describes is the formation of forms of sensibility through interaction with various entities in the world (in this case, video games). A new form of sensibility is developed by those who play these video games. A new a priori becomes available to these bodies. This generative transcendental aesthetic was the theme of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, where he constantly focuses on themes of learning (not knowing), where he argues that the two senses of the aesthetic (as a work of art or creativity and a form of sensibility, affectivity, or feeling) need to be reunited, and is the reason he engages in countless analyses of writers, painters, poets, and directors (he argues that they create new forms of transcendental sensibility or forms of a priori thought. We also find something similar in Bogost’s idea of an “alien phenomenolgy”. Bogost wishes to understand how other entities “experience” the world, whether those entities be bats, quarks, particular humans, or computers. What is it that an alien phenomenology investigates? It investigates the transcendental aesthetic structure a particular type of entity’s experience of the world.

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