Slime Molds


The State can be conceived as a series of institutions, but also as a system of categories through which members are named and identified as belonging to particular social categories. In the latter case, the State functions to homogenize and minimize difference by transforming differences into mere noise that can be easily ignored. For instance, we come to talk of “Christians”, “The Enlightenment”, “Men”, “Women”, “Blacks”, “the United States”, etc., as if these groupings all had one monolithic and identical content. All we can think of here are instead tendencies that happen to be more or less dominant in a situation. The question then becomes that of a concrete praxis devoted to intensifying other tendences within a population.

Discussing the process of individuation or the movement from the virtual to the actual in the process of actualization, Deleuze writes,

A living being is not only defined genetically, by the dynamisms which determine its internal milieu, but also ecologically, by the external movements which provide over its distribution within an extensity. A kinetics of population adjoins, without resembling, the kinetics of the eg; a geographic process of isolation may be no less formative of species than internal genetic variations, and sometimes precedes the latter. Everything is even more complicated when we consider that the internal space is made up of multiple spaces which must be locally integrated and connected, and that this connection, which may be achieved in many ways, pushes the object or living being to its own limits, all in contact with the exterior; and that this relation with the exterior, and with other things and living beings, implies in turn connections and global integrations which differ in kind from the preceding. Everywhere a staging at several levels. (Difference and Repetition, 217)

Perhaps one of the central contributions of Darwinian evolution is the shift from thinking in terms of abstract species, to thinking in terms of individuals and populations, where individual difference precedes difference in the species, serving as its condition. Geography here becomes an individuating factor, where relations among different populations, environment, geographical isolation or accessibility, all figure into thinking about the emergence of molar aggregates. That is, the idea of a species functions as an abstraction that covers over all these dynamic relations, such that we must conceive species as only ever being dominant statistical aggregates that “leak around the edges” rather than as being unchanging and self-identical units.
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Tolga has written a beautiful and thoughtful response to Foucault Is Dead’s recent post on communities and my recent post asking what will we have been. There Tolga writes,

OK. I am probably repeating a well-known cliche.

It seems to me, being in positions like “drug cultures, blogsphere” (though I have not been in the former and only reader of your ‘communitiy’) cannot hide the class conflict between the members. On the contrary, you realize it more, exactly because they are attempts to repress it.

Yesterday, I watched the longest mevie I have seen (it was 5.5 hours!), 1900 of Bertolucci. This post reminded me that movie, it just rang a bell. Its entire content was nearly about that conflict occuring between two main characters, the peasant (Depardieu) and patrone (De Niro).

In one scene they “try” to have sexual affair with a whore. In another, they dance with their couples in the same hall. When they are kids, wealthy De Niro desperately makes an effort to mimic the poor kid’s ugly habits: like screwing the earth, touching the face to mud etc. But it cannot be resolved. All these attempts are failures, which made the movie so wonderful to me.

In specific to Sinthome’s remarks about the multitude like continental philosophy blogosphere, as a reader of that community I can basically see those “real” contradictions and as Badiou said in one of his recent interviews:

“Negri remains inside this classical opposition, while using other names: Empire for state, multitude for movement. But new names are not new things.”

Shortly, as an outsider I think the differences are too much to make them that dream like multitude. Since new names are not new things.

Why do some of them prefer linkin Lenin’s Tomb for instance, while some are more intereted in their academic positions? Please, do not misunderstand, I am not judging anyone, just saying that they are rather different in the sense of real.
Sorry, if I got outside of the road. This was a quick light occured to me when I read your post.

First, I am in agreement with Tolga regarding the issue of antagonism. Nothing in my original post, nor, if I can be so bold, in, I think, FiD’s post, was meant to suggest that blogging or counter-cultural communities are somehow a solution to antagonism. Nonetheless, I think Tolga is right to draw attention back to the centrality of antagonism in the formation of these communities. When I evoked the word “multitudes”, Negri and Hardt didn’t even occur to me as, perhaps embarrassingly, they really aren’t central theoretical reference points for me. Perhaps this will change next year when I teach a learning community on empire with one of the anthropologists here at my college, where I plan to torture the students with Empire. Rather, in evoking the term “multitudes” I was instead trying to be polite, and to emphasize that those of us in this little blogosphere come from very different theoretical orientations, backgrounds, forms of employment, and lifestyles, thus underlining that we are not homegeneous, yet still find some way to discourse or engage one another. In fact, I think these differences are a productive principle as they tend to function as a curative to theoretical myopia that, for me at least, sometimes becomes an occupational hazard. If I am to discourse with, for instance, Kenneth Rufo who I very much appreciate, I must take into account our very different reference points. Such an encounter then becomes a creative moment where I’m drawn out of my own theoretical assumptions and become something other than what I was.
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Some Thursday night silliness when I should be working: I came across a slime mold simulator here. It allows you to discern the emergence of different patterns based on the number of cells in the environment and the rate at which the pheromones released by the cells evaporate. Play around with it a bit and see how collective formations are correlated with rates of evaporation. For my previous discussion of the intriguing properties of slime molds, you can go here.

Now in the spirit of such silliness, compare the ridiculous with the sublime, by comparing this to what Badiou has to say about intensity in his most recent work. Hallward expresses the drift of Badiou’s work very nicely in Badiou: A Subject to Truth. I quote at length:

…Badiou insists, that ‘a being qua being is, itself, absolutely unrelated. It is a fundamental characteristic of the purely multiple, as thought in the framework of a theory of sets. There are only multiplicities, nothing else. None of these are, by themselves, linked to any other. In a theory of sets, even functions should be thought as pure multiplicities, which is why we identify them with their graph… Which excludes that there be, strictly speaking, a being of relation. Being, thought as such, in purely generic fasion, is subtracted from all relation” (Court traite, 192). What Badiou calls “the world of appearances” or phemomena, by contrast, “is always given as solid, related, consistent. It is a world of relation and cohesion, in which we have our points of reference and our habits, a world in which being is, in sum, captive of being there.” (Through Badiou’s current work, “appearing” seems to obey quasi-Kantian rules of intelligibility, compatibility, and coherence.) The goal now is to understand “how it is possible that any situation of being is both pure multiplicity on the border of inconsistency, and instrinsic, solid relation of its appearing” (CT, 200). Whereas the pure being of being is inconsistent– and thus wildly anarchic, disordered, free…– the appearing of being is itself a certain ordering of being (Logiques des mondes, chapt. 1, pg. 2). We might say that the shifting of Badiou’s attention from the being of being to the appearing of being already implies a shift in priorities that bring him closer to Deleuze than ever before: from now on, the ultimate reference to ontological inconsistency or “chaos” will always be mediated by the exploration of precise ontic strata or “complexity,” in roughly the sense made current by complexity theory.

What does Badiou mean by “appearing,” exactly? He proposes to “call the appearing of a being that which, of a being, is linked to the constraint of a local or situated exposition of its multiple being, that is, it’s “being there.” Appearing appears here neither in Heidegger’s phenomenological sense nor as a function of time, space, or the constituent subject. It appears as an “intrinsic determination of being” (CT, 191-92), a direct consequence of the impossibility of any totalization (or all-inclusive set) of being. In the absence of any Whole, “appearing is that which ties or reties a being to its site. The essence of appearing is relation.”

Thought it is an intrinsic determination of being that it be there (that it appear), nevertheless it is not exactly pure being qua being as such that appears: what appears of pure being is a particular quality of being, namely existence [hence Badiou draws a distinction between being and existence, as I alluded to in a previous post on whether Badiou's ontology is genuinely consistent with materialism]. Thanks to the equation of ontology and set theory [this is not accurate, Badiou equates ontology with mathematics, not set theory alone], pure being qua being is essentially a matter of quantity and univocal determination: something either is or is not (with no intermediary degree). Existence, by contrast, is precisely a “quality” of being, a matter of intensity and degree. Something is if it belongs to a situation, but it exists (in that situation) always more or less, depending on how clearly or brightly it appears in that situation (L’etre-la: mathematique du transcendental, 3-5). We might say, for instance, and very crudely, that while a great many things belong to the American situation, that situation is arranged such that certain characteristic things (free speech, pioneers, private property, baseball, freeways, fast food, mobile homes, self-made men, and so on) appear or exist more intensely than other, dubiously “un-American,” things (unassimilated immigrants, socialists, opponents of the National Rifle Association, etc.). (296-7, my italics)

I have quoted this passage at length as it provides a nice summary of Badiou’s most recent work for those who are not familiar with his project with regard to appearing. As I have said, I have reservations about his account of being-qua-being as pure multiplicity without relation as I don’t see how it is possible to make a transition from such pure multiplicities to being-there or related being. As Deleuze puts it,

It is strange that aesthetics (as the science of the sensible) could be founded on what can be represented in the sensible. True, the inverse procedure is not much better, consisting of the attempt to withdraw the pure sensible from representation and to determine it as that which remains once representation is removed (a contradictory flux, for example, or a rhapsody of sensation. Empiricism truly becomes transcendental, and aesthetics an apodictic discipline [!], only when we apprehends directly in the sensible that which can only be sensed, the very being of the sensible: difference, potential difference and difference in intensity as the reason behind qualitative diversity. (DR, 56-7)

So long as we conceive the transcendental field as pure chaos– as Badiou apparently does with his inconsistent multiplicities –we are unable to account for how anything could emerge at all. Deleuze makes a similar point about chaos in The Logic of Sense that I need to track down, taking great care to caution against equating the transcendental field or immanence with chaos. As Hegel might have put it, that which reason draws asunder, it is powerless to put back together. There must be something at work within being or the transcendental field that renders emergence possible… Something that is not yet a being, but something also that is not pure disorder. Nonetheless, Badiou’s thought of being as pure inconsistent multiplicity without relation is a provactive conceptual beginning point or axiom of thought (like Parmenides’ beginning), inviting us to surrender the residual assumptions of substance metaphysics that might inhabit our thought. Here I’m in agreement with Hegel in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, that philosophy only genuinely begins when we start from the notion, freeing ourselves from common sense empirical requirements. This is very different from saying that philosophy should be rationalist or non-empiricist in a more rigorous sense. Rather, the point is that the world of “everydayness” is already a world of recognition, resemblance, representation and that the (un)ground must be sought prior to this field. Moreover, I have also expressed reservations about the descriptive nature of Badiou’s enterprise regarding the processes presiding over appearing or being-there, or the manner in which he fails to give us an causal mechanism by which these complex related organisms emerge. Deleuze does a far better job with regard to these issues. All the same, I think there’s a lot to be gained by thinking the two systems together.

What interests me in the passage above is Badiou’s conceptualization of existence in a situation, appearing, or being-there in terms of degrees of intensity. Clearly intensity here is being conceived very differently here by Badiou than by Deleuze, as for Deleuze intensity is an energetic factor presiding over actualization, whereas for Badiou it pertains to presence in a situation. Indeed, Deleuze’s account of intensity works nicely with the slime mold, as there’s an inverse ratio between the rate at which the pheromones evaporate (i.e., the temperature of the environment) and the emergence of slime mold colonies. Thus we have both uses of intensity at work in the example of slime molds: On the one hand, the emergence of slime mold colonies relates to Badiou’s use of the term “intensity”, where slime molds become more apparent, are more there, in a situation. On the other hand, shifts in temperature or Deleuzian intensive factors preside over this production of individuated slime mold colonies.

The questions I have been raising recently with regard to the formation of collectives and the materiality of communications pertain precisely to these issues. Here Hallward’s examples from the American situation at the end of the cited passage are entirely apropos. What, for instance, would it take to make socialists more apparent in the American situation? What are the intensive factors in Deleuze’s sense that contribute to a production of such collectives? Why do group formations suddenly pop in and out of existence? I am not suggesting that there is one answer to this question– we would have to look at the group formations in question, or at their specific material and semiotic conditions for emergence and continued existence. Nonetheless, the slime mold provides a nice analogy to the formation of collectives. Okay, so I know that I’m working with very facile analogies here, but I find that privileged examples are fruitful in rhizomatically generating connections between disparate phenomena. Here, again, Hegel is useful, as he demonstrates the manner in which the universal must always be thought through the particular.

Perhaps the ultimate absurdity of these posts about slime molds is that I’ve been getting all sorts of web traffic from people researching slime molds.

Recently I mentioned that I have been reading Rabinow and Dreyfus’ excellent Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, and that it had been filling me with a tremendous depression and despondancy. I think that there are forms of theory that can make one ill by divesting one of their power to act, and for me Foucault’s thought– especially during his middle archaeological period –is an example of such toxic theory (Althusser’s account of ideology would be another example of toxic theory for me). My paralysis emerges in response to claims such as the following:

Far from accepting a descriptive theory [of epistemes or historical forms of knowledge], he [Foucault] seems to want a prescriptive one: “The analysis of statements and discursive formations… wishes to determine the principle according to which only the ‘signifying’ groups that were enunciated could appear. It sets out to establish a law of rarity” (Archaeology of Knowledge, 118). At times he seems to go so far as to demand not merely conditions of possibility but total determination: “One must show why [a specific statement] could not have been other than it was” (“Reponse au cercle d’epistemologie”, 17). The archeologist should discover “the play of rules which determine the appearance and disappearance of statements in a culture” (CE, 19). Again and again, Foucault seems compelled to abandon the phenomenological, neutral post hoc description for some sort of explanatory a priori. (84)

What is crushing in Foucault during this period is the manner in which every statement that can be made seems to always already be determined by the anonymous historical a priori in which it occurs. While I am perhaps able to make statements that don’t obey the “established laws of rarity”, these established laws nonetheless determine what is and is not taken as a serious statement. In the worst case scenerio, I’m not even capable of making non-serious statements, but instead can only articulate what follows these laws of rarity as my very subjectivity is a product of this historical a priori.

Although Foucault marks a substantial advance in seeing these constellations as historical, there are certain respects in which he nonetheless seems to remain tied to a substance metaphysics. As Kant articulates it in the first analogy of The Critique of Pure Reason or “The Principle of Persistence of Substance”, “All appearances contain that which persists (substance) as the object itself, and that which can change as its mere determination, i.e., a way in which the object exists” (A182, B224). What Kant is getting at can be illuminated by reference to Descartes’ discussion of the wax in the Meditations. There raising the question of how it is possible for us to know the persistence of an object in time (an epistemological variation of the problem of individuation), Descartes writes:

Let us now consider the commonest things, which are commonly believed to be the most distinctly known and the easiest of all to know, namely, the bodies which we touch and see. I do not intend to speak of bodies in general, for general notions are usually somewhat more confused; let us rather consider one body in particular. Let us take, for example, this bit of wax which has just been taken from the hive. It has not yet completely lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it still retains something of the odor of the flowers from which it was collected; its color, shape, and size are apparent; it is hard and cold; it can easily be touched; and, if you knock on it, it will give out some sound. Thus everything which can make a body distinctly known are found in this example. (Lafleur translation, 30)

This might be referred to as the “bundle theory” of individuation, where I arrive at a knowledge of what individuates an object through the qualities of which it is composed (the epistemological problem of individuation should not be confused with the ontological problem of individuation). However, as we quickly see, this account of how we know the individuality of an object quickly fails:

But now while I’m talking I bring it close to the fire. What remains of the taste evaporates; the odor vanishes; its color changes; its shape is lost; its size increases; it becomes liquid; it gorws hot; one can hardly touch it; and although it is knocked upon, it will give out no sound. Does the same wax remain after the change? We must admit that it does; no one denies it, no one judges otherwise. What is it then in this bit of wax that we recognize with so much distinctness? Certainly it cannot be anything that I observed by means of the senses, since everything in the field of taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing are changed, and since the same wax nevertheless remains. (30, my italics)

Descartes concludes that we cannot know the individuality of an object through the five senses because the qualities of which the object is composed are perpetually changing, while the object nonetheless remains that object there. Something about the object remains the same. Descartes therefore concludes that,

A person who attempts to improve his understanding beyond the ordinary ought to be ashamed to go out of his way to criticize the forms of speech used by ordinary men. I prefer to pass over this matter and to consider whether I understand what wax was more evidently and more perfectly when I first noticed it and when I thought I knew it by means of the external sense, or at the very least by common sense, as it is called, or the imaginative faculty; or whether I conceive it better at present, after having more carefully examined what it is and how it can be known. Certainly it would be ridiculous to doubt the superiority of the latter method of knowing. For what was there in that first perception which was distinct and evident? What was there which might not occur similarly to the senses of the lowest of the animals? But when I distinguished the real wax from its superficial appearances, and when, just as though I had removed its garments, I consider it all naked, it is certain that although there might still be some error in my judgment, I could not conceive it in this fashion without a human mind. (32)

When Kant references “determinations”, he is referring to what Descartes calls “superficial appearances” or sense-qualities composing our perception of an object. An object, at any given point in time, comprises a number of different determinations. For instance, I have short brown hair and brown eyes, a goatee, am about 175 pounds and six feet tall, have skin that is a particular shade of olive, wear glasses, etc. These determinations comprise my qualitative appearance, yet could easily change. I could gain or lose weight. I could become pale or darker. My hair is slowly turning gray and I will get shorter as I age, and so on. Yet I am somehow the same. In order for me to be thinkable as enduring in time, I must be thought as a substance (hypokeimenon, a support the lies beneath) that remains the same throughout change.

Foucault, of course, is neither a Kantian or a Cartesian, yet when he describes the episteme governing what is seriously sayable in a particular historical moment, he seems to be referring to a sort of substance that supports variations in speech and discourse and persists throughout these variations. As I discussed yesterday with regard to Badiou’s ontology of multiplicity and the count-as-one, however, it becomes possible, after Badiou and Deleuze, to think the identity of something as the result of a series of operations, rather than as a substance lying beneath consistent multiplicities. That is, we must think the individuation of consistent multiplicities as an ongoing process without an underlying substance that remains the same. Perhaps these social organizations are far less rigid, deterministic, and unified than Foucault supposes. As John Law puts it in a nice little article on Actor-Network-Theory or ANT (with which I’m now just playing, and have not yet committed to),

Just occasionally we find ourselves watching on the sidelines as an order comes crashing down. Organisations or systems which we had always taken for granted — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Continental Illinois — are swallowed up. Commissars, moguls and captains of industry disappear from view. These dangerous moments offer more than political promise. For when the hidden trapdoors of the social spring open we suddenly learn that the masters of the universe may also have feet of clay.

How is it that it ever seemed otherwise? How is that, at least for a time, they made themselves different from us? By what organisational means did they keep themselves in place and overcome the resistances that would have brought them tumbling down much sooner? How was it we colluded in this? These are some of the key questions of social science. And they are the questions that lie at the heart of “actor-network theory”– the approach to sociology that is the topic of this note. This theory — also known as the sociology of translation — is concerned with the mechanics of power. It suggests, in effect, that we should analyse the great in exactly the same way that we would anyone else. Of course, this is not to deny that the nabobs of this world are powerful. They certainly are. But it is to suggest that they are no different in kind sociologically to the wretched of the earth.

The ANT theorist begins from the premise that social organizations are improbable in that they come into being and pass away, and that we must look for the sufficient reason for the existence of an enduring organization in the micro-processes and activities through which an organization perpetually reproduces itself in maintaining its networks of existence. Or, put differently, how does a group come to “count itself as one”? That is, rather than looking at a mysterious entity called “statements” that determines social organizations at a particular point in history, why not look at networks of relationships among actors, such as a group of professors that form together at a particular university, determining who gets hired, selected for graduate school, what gets published, what conferences are organized, and so on. Moreover, we might look at the effect of material conditions and technology that impact the ability of various social organizations to maintain themselves. Organizations are possible today that were not possible fifteen years ago due to the internet. Certain formations would become impossible were the internet to somehow collapse due to some natural event like a shift in the planet’s gravitational fields. It is these activities that maintain the existence of a particular social configuration (for instance the primacy of analytic philosophy in the United States), and which are themselves liable to change. That is, the formation of a social system and organization– and here I am questioning Luhmann’s thesis that systems constitute their own elements, and instead hypothesizing a reciprocal determination where elements constitute systems and systems constitute element –is maintained and produced through the interactions of the elements of that system. This is something that can readily be discerned here in the blogosphere, where very diverse persons are brought together in an aleatory fashion and where networks and organizations emerge through the interactions of those participants.

For instance, I would have never thought to take the work of Philip Goodchild seriously– my copy of Deleuze and Guattari: An Introduction to the Politics of Desire is heavily marked up with angry comments pointing out various places where he severely distorts Deleuze and Guattari –and wouldn’t have even paid attention to his subsequent developments, had I not encountered Anthony Paul Smith for whom I have both a certain fondness and who irritates the hell out of me. Yet as a result of that encounter, I begin to take Goodchild seriously (while nonetheless disagreeing with him) as this is a precondition for for discussing Deleuze with Anthony (who is always going on about “liking how ecological Deleuze’s thought is). Indeed, Adam Kotsko and Anthony Paul Smith appear to be engaged in a sort of missionary work, spreading the signifiers Goodchild and “ecology” wherever they go, trying to push the reading of Deleuze in a certain direction. What results from the formation of these sorts of networks and interactions, is the production of a particular “standard reading” of Deleuze for a community of individuals that discuss Deleuze. This doesn’t entail that this reading is agreed with by all. What it does entail is that others have to take that reading seriously in order to engage in discussion. Yet the production of such communities– communities that share a sort of das Man or “everyone knows” or doxa or set of background assumptions and protocols –is the result of aleatory encounters between individuals that take on a life of their own and which, through relations of feedback, come to become self-reinforcing. The crucial point is that other networks can be formed. This, for instance, is readily discernible in the history of the psychoanalytic movement, where new organizations and “laws of rarity” emerge around certain figures such as Freud, Jung, Adler, Klein, Lacan, and so on.

A speciation takes place, that transforms the entire field. The logic here is not the logic of deterministic epistemes, but rather a logic of the slime mold, where indeterminate elements that existed independently of one another can come to form bonds and self-organize into collectives, that then constitute the valence of their own elements. As Latour points out early in Reassembling the Social, identity is far more conflict ridden and indeterminate than social theorists often suppose.

Relating to one group or another is an on-going process made up of uncertain, fragile, controversial, and ever-shifting ties. Is this not odd? If we simply follow the newspapers’ cues, the central intuition of sociology should be that at any given moment actors are made to fit in a group– often in more than one. And yet, when you read social theorists, it seems that the main, the crucial, the most urgent question should be which group is preferable to start a social enquiry. Should we take social aggregates to be made of ‘individuals’, ‘of organizations’, of ‘classes’, of ‘roles’, of ‘life trajectories’, of ‘discursive fields’, of ‘selfish genes’, of ‘forms of life’, of ‘social networks’? They never seem to tire in designating one entity as real, solid, proven, or entrenched while others are criticized as being artificial, imaginary, transitional, illusory, abstract, impersonal, or meaningless…

While the most common experience we have of the social world is of being simultaneously seized by several possible and contradictory calls for regroupings, it seems the most important decision to make before becoming a social scientist is to decide first which ingredients are already there in society. While it is fairly obvious that we are enrolled in a group by a series of interventions that renders visible those who argue for the relevance of one grouping and the irrelevance of others, everything happens as if social scientists had to claim that there exists ‘out there’ one type that is real, whereas the other sets are really inauthentic, obsolete, irrelevant, or artificial. While we are well aware that the first feature of the social world is this constant tracing of boundaries by people over some other people, sociologists of the social consider that the main feature of the world is to recognize, independently of who is tracing them and with what sorts of tools, the unquestionable existence of boundaries. (28, my bold)

Groupings are always performatively enacted or the result of processes, whereby actors strive to form networks. They can be done and undone. They are the result of interactions among participants, and it is always possible for excluded participants to become missionaries after the fashion of Paul, seeking to produce a new furrow, that itself reorganizes the social. Yet none of these networks are ever formed without the activity of participants and acts of seduction.

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