July 2007

In a marvelous passage from Order Out of Chaos, Prigogine and Stengers write,

However, the question remains. We know that the builders of machines used mathematical concepts– gear ratios, the displacements of the various working parts, and the geometry of their relative motions. But why was mathematization not restricted to machines? Why was natural motion conceived of in the image of a rationalized machine? This question may also be asked in connection with the clock, one of the triumphs of medieval craftsmanship that was soon to set in the rhythm of life in the larger medieval towns. Why did the clock almost immediately become the very symbol of world order? In this last question lies perhaps some elements of an answer. A watch is a contrivance governed by a rationality that lies outside itself, by a plan that is blindly executed by its inner workings. The clock world is a metaphor suggestive of God the Watchmaker, the rational master of a robotlike nature. At the origin of modern science, a ‘resonance’ appears to have been set up between theological discourse and theoretical and experimental activity– a resonance that was no doubt likely to amplify and consolidate the claim that scientists were in the process of discovering the secret of the ‘great machine of the universe.’

Of course, the term resonance covers an extremely complex problem. It is not our intention to state, nor are we in any position to affirm, that religious discourse in any way determined the birth of theoretical science, or of the ‘world view’ that happened to develop in conjunction with experimental activity. By using the term resonance— that is, mutual amplification of two discourses –we have deliberately chosen an expression that does not assume whether it was theological discourse or the ‘scientific myth’ that came first and triggered the other. (46)

It’s all here: mixtures, the materiality of discourse, intensification. How does the relation of resonance differ from other forms of causality?… If, indeed, it can be understood as causality at all? What are the conditions for the possibility of resonance? What must being “be like” in order for resonance to be possible (here Deleuze’s cone of memory or pure past comes to mind)? At the heart of analysis lies the question of resonance and amplification. Why is it that some interpretations, some interventions on the part of the analyst resonate and others do not? Lacan always emphasizes that we should not jump into interpretation too soon, that we must wait for the transference to set in. Why does it matter who speaks as a condition for the possibility of resonance? Why is it that at certain points everyone in a social milieu seems to begin talking about the same thing, as if something is in the air? I feel, for instance, that a shift has taken place in the world of philosophy and theory, that certain discourses are now dead, that a new thought is emerging. I am powerless to articulate what it is, yet a whole host of figures and issues that might have captivated me a decade ago seem to have become cold. How does this occur? So many traces to be followed.

    In Which I Suspect a Larval Thesis

~I do not seek, I find. (Jacques Lacan channeling Picasso in an indirect discourse).

~The ‘bricoleur’ is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. The set of the ‘bricoleur’s means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project (which would presuppose besides, that, as in the case of the engineer, there were, at least in theory, as many sets of tools and materials or ‘instrumental sets’, as there are different kinds of projects). It is to be defined only by its potential use, or putting this another way and in the language of the ‘bricoleur’ himself, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that ‘they may always come in handy’. Such elements are specialized up to a point, sufficiently for the ‘bricoleur’ not to need the equipment and knowledge of all trades and professions, but not enough for each of them to have only one definite and determine use. They each represent a set of actual and possible relations; they are ‘operators’ but they can be used for any operations of the same type. (The Savage Mind, 17-18).

I suspect that there is an entire materialistic philosophy contained in these remarks, alluding to the emergence of constellations. I wouldn’t be the first. I shall proceed as a bricoleur, collecting what is ready to hand, without any particular project in mind. Perhaps one will emerge after the fact, apres coup, as a whole arising from the parts and existing alongside the set of parts which cannot themselves form a whole.

    In Which I Discuss Some Things So as to Avoid Getting to the Point

In Difference and Repetition Deleuze writes,

The Idea [multiplicity] is defined as a structure. A structure or an Idea is a ‘complex theme’, an internal multiplicity– in other words, a system of multiple, non-localisable connections between differential elements which is incarnated in real relations and actual terms. In this sense, we see no difficulty in reconciling genesis and structure. Following Lautman and Vuillemin’s work on mathematics, ‘structuralism’ seems to us the only means by which a genetic method can achieve its ambitions. It is sufficient to understand that the genesis takes place in time not between on actual term, however small, and another actual term, but between the virtual and its actualisation– in other words, it goes from the structure to its incarnation, from the conditions of a problem to the cases of solution, from the differential elements and their ideal connections to actual terms and diverse real relations which constitute at each moment the actual of time. This is a genesis without dynamism, evolving necessarily in the element of a supra-historicity, a static genesis which may be understood as the correlate of the notion of passive synthesis, and which in turn illuminates that notion. (183)

In many respects it was this very passage that first attracted me to Deleuze years ago. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we accept Saussure conception of language or Levi-Strauss’ conception of cultural. (I am not accepting either, but trying to pose or outline the contours of a particular problem that emerge whenever we talk about systems and structures). For Saussure language is defined as a system, as a set of differential relations between phonemes. A phoneme is not an individual sound, but is rather an opposition: thus, for instance, we have b/p/c. Much to my sister’s delight, my three year old nephew recently discovered Saussurean linguistics. “Mommy,” he said, giggling wildly, “isn’t it funny that if you use b instead of g you can turn ‘boat’ into ‘goat’ and if you use c instead of g you can turn ‘goat’ into ‘coat’?!?” My nephew, the bright young boy he is, had discovered the principle of differentiality. In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze will argue that sense arises from nonsense. It would appear that my nephew is very Deleuzian in the sense that he has discovered that nonsense or the meaningless oppositions among sounds can produce effects of sense. A simple substitution of sound can produce a different meaning.

Read on

Readers might be interested to know that the personae of Sinthome has now been featured as the hero of an online comic book. I suspect that this particular deterritorialization requires a good deal of reflection.

Today finds me teaching once again, back in the classroom, in an endlessly surprising dialogue with students. It seems that I persistently find myself trapped in paradox, yearning for time off when I am teaching, yet despondant and depressed when I have time off. I suppose I should just accept that I need some sort of minimal conflict, some sort of obstacle to complete satisfaction, in order to maintain my desire.

In response to my post on attractors and vectors, a friend angrily said that she does not believe that change takes place at the level of the human and that I am utopian. I was quite taken aback by this criticism as I couldn’t see where I had suggested that change takes place at the level of the human (presuming this to mean the human individual) or how I was being utopian. If anything, I worry that there might be a pessimistic undercurrent to these thoughts. I think this issue is brought out with relative clarity in my reference to the friend and the alcoholic:

I am not simply a friend, but rather I am made a friend and make myself a friend through my interactions with the other. The organization and identity is emergent and ongoing. This is one of the reasons why social change is often so difficult or why social systems are often so resistant to change. An agent might have made an internal transformation, yet the other agents composing the social system continue to relate to the agent in the same way. Thus, an alcoholic might have made an internal resolution to no longer drink, yet the alcoholic’s relations continue to relate to him as an alcoholic, steering him back into this activity.

What is at issue here is that the attractors defining subject-positions are never simply a matter of the individual occupying these positions, but are rather the result of ongoing processes of individuals in relation to one another, such that a change in subject position is not simply a matter of the individual decision, but of the ongoing processes by which the subject is produced as a subject in relation to other subjects. What I am trying to think through in this connection is the issue of the ontological status of social structures or systems. It is all well and good to study social structures after the fashion of Saussure or Levi-Strauss as a structure, but what, ontologically, are these structures? A language, for instance, is not in any particular individual. Language, as it were, is not up to me. Yet language nonetheless could not exist without individuals. It only exists in and through the individuals that use the language. As such, language only exists through the ongoing operations of language in its use by speakers. Ontologically there is nothing but individuals, nothing but bodies, yet certain relations of feeback emerge among these individuals such that language takes on an emergent reality.

Read on

From Michel Serres:

There, precisely, is the origin. Noise and nausea, noise and the nautical, noise and the navy belong to the same family. We mustn’t be surprised. We never hear what we call background noise so well as we do at the seaside. That placid or vehement uproar seems established there for all eternity. In the strict horizontal of it all, stable, unstable cascades are endlessly trading. Space is assailed, as a whole, by the murmur; we are utterly taken over by this same murmuring. This restlessness is within hearing, just shy of definite signals, just shy of silence. The silence of the sea is mere appearance. Background noise may well be the ground of our being. It may be that our being is not at rest, it may be that it is not in motion, it may be that our being is disturbed. The background noise never ceases; it is limitless, continuous, unending, unchanging. It has itself no background, no contradictory. How much noise must be made to silence noise? And what terrible fury puts fury in order? Noise cannot be a phenomenon; every phenomenon is separated from it, a silhouette on a backdrop, like a beacon against the fog, as every message, every cry, every call, every signal must be separated from the hubbub that occupies silence, in order to be, to be perceived, to be known, to be exchanged. As soon as a phenomenon appears, it leaves the noise; as soon as a form looms up or pokes through, it reveals itself by veiling noise. So noise is not a matter of phenomenology, so it is a matter of being itself. It settles in subjects as well as in objects, in hearing as well as in space, in the observers as well as the observed, it moves through the means and the tools of observation, whether material or logical, hardware or software, constructed channels or languages; it is part of the in-itself, part of the for-itself; it cuts across the oldest and surest philosophical divisions, yes, noise is metaphysical. It is the complement to physics, in the broadest sense. One hears its subliminal huffing and soughing on the high seas. (Genesis, 13)

Shaviro has a new chapter (warning PDF) up from his book on Whitehead and Deleuze. Well worth the read!

From a footnote:

My sense of Whitehead as a constructivist philosopher comes from Isabelle Stengers’ great book on Whitehead (2002). For Stengers, philosophical constructivism is non-foundationalist: it rejects the notion that truth is already there in the world, or in the mind, independent of all experience and just waiting to be discovered. Instead, constructivism looks at how truths are produced within experience, through a variety of processes and practices. This does not mean that nothing is true, or that truth is merely subjective; but rather that truth is always embodied in an actual process, and that it cannot be disentangled from this process. Human subjectivity is one such process, but not the only one. Constructivism does not place human cognition at the center of everything, because the processes that produce and embody truth are not necessarily human ones. For Stengers, as for Bruno Latour (2005), the practices and processes that produce truth involve such “actors” as animals, viruses, rocks, weather systems, and neutrinos, as well as human beings. Constructivism also does not imply relativism; in a phrase that Stengers borrows from Deleuze and Guattari, constructivism posits “not a relativity of truth, but, on the contrary, a truth of the relative” (Stengers 2006, 170, citing Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 130). In insisting upon the truth of the relative, and upon nonhuman agents in the production of this truth, constructivism is ultimately a realism, in contrast to the anthropocentrism and antirealism of so much postmodern, and indeed post-Kantian, philosophy.

I confess that I find this conception of constructivism extremely attractive. Those who followed the link to Luhmann’s brief discussion of sociological systems theory will recall that for Luhmann the elementary distinction operating systems theory is the distinction between system and environment. This, incidentally, is a distinction absent in most structural, post-structural, and a good deal of Frankfurt school theory. It could also be said that it is entirely absent in Hegel. Deleuze seems to be a unique case by virtue of his distinction between the clear and confused with respect to Ideas or multiplicities in Difference and Repetition. For Luhmann, the key point is that the environment is always more complex than the system. In a very real sense, a system functions to manage complexity. Stengers’ and Latour’s constructivism is interesting in how it works with this phenomenon. As Stengers argues in Power and Invention, constructivism is certainly an inventiveness, but it is not an artificiality. That is, we cannot say that there is one thing, culture, and another thing, nature, such that culture is always construction that distorts nature and prevents us from ever relating to it.

Construction, rather, is a slice of chaos, or the production of a zone of clarity amidst the buzzing confusion of the world. Take the chemistry laboratory. The chemist works with elements and compounds that literally do not occur in “nature” in this particular form. A good deal of the work undertaken by the chemist concerns the purification and isolation of particular compounds so that they might be investigated under specified conditions. This construction is not an artificiality, it does not produce something “unreal” or merely cultural, but reveals real features of the world. These features are revealed in interactions. Unlike the old Aristotlean conception of entities in terms of predicates that inhere in a substance, an entity is a pattern of interactions with other entities. We discover what something is by examining how it interacts with other entities (its dynamic relations) and intensities and how it interacts with us. In a very real sense it could be said that every entity is a field of entities, of relations, of dynamic interactions. The thought of a predicate is just the thought of an entity divested of its relations to its morphogenetic field (the milieu of individuation, or the context, in which an entity takes on its properties). It is an abstraction. I am inclined, for instance, to say that my coffee mug is blue. Yet my coffee cup only is blue in being perturbed in a particular way, i.e., in being stimulated by the light of my lamp and sun such that light comes to reflect in a particular way.

All of this should lead us to wrinkle our nose at the much ballyhood claims of quantum mechanics, where it is argued that quantum properties are a function of the measurements of the observer. It is not that this thesis is mistaken, not at all. Rather, the problem is that such claims assume that there is something like quantum particles in themselves. Rather, quantum phenomena, like anything else in the universe, take on their properties as a function of their interrelations with other phenomena: In this case, the observer. What is to be thought here is the primacy of relations and interactions over predicates, properties, and substances. Here a thesis that is all too often taken as epistemological (a thesis about what we can know about quantum phenomena) becomes properly ontological: A thesis about how entities are, not how we represent entities. I suspect that a good number of skeptics that claim the world can never be known implicitly continue to adhere to substance ontologies. They assume that knowledge, were it possible, would be a representation of the object as it is in-itself sans relation, and then rightfully point out that any engagement with the world involves relations that prevent us from encountering the object as it is in-itself or its self-standing substantiality. All that is required to overcome this position is to point out that the object is nothing but these relations, such that skepticism need only a slight shift in perspective to become an ontology and critique of an inadequate metaphysics.

Constructivism, as described by Stengers and Latour, can, I think, be understood as the analysis of the way in which various systems manage complexity in their interactions with other elements of the world. These processes hold as much for observers, agents, rocks, birds, stars, planetary systems, and so on as it does for observing agents. In all cases what we get is selective sensitivity to certain features of the world for the entity in question, such that the object can never be thought as an in-itself sans relation and the subject can never be thought as transcendent to world or divorced from a world.

Niklas Luhmann on some basic principles of systems theory. (very good despite its brevity)

Niklas Luhmann on the function of theory in relation to science.

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