April 2012


Drawing on Alfred North Whitehead, Didier Debaise made an interesting observation about the nature of propositions in his keynote at the Philosopher’s Rally (which was an amazing success and experience). While I do not share Debaise’s “subject-oriented ontology” where everything becomes a subject (rocks, planets, mantis shrimps, etc), I strongly feel that our difference is largely rhetorical rather than philosophical. I believe that there’s a strategic value to referring to all entities– including humans –as objects at our historical juncture, while he believes there’s a strategic gesture in referring to them all as subjects. In the end, however, we’re both making the claim that all entities are monads that integrate their world in their own peculiar and unique way. Our real difference lies elsewhere. He believes that every monad/subject/object expresses the entirety of the world, while I reject the thesis that every entity is related to every other entity. I think there’s a great danger in holding that things ontologically come pre-related. On the one hand, I think this view is just mistaken ontologically. As a materialist I take it as “axiomatic” that relations can be forged no faster than the speed of light. Indeed, in most cases relations and interactions don’t even move at this speed. Look into the history, for example, of constructing the great trans-Atlantic cables and all the constraints that emerged with respect to how quickly information could be transferred across these cables. Every entity, I believe, has it’s own openness to the duration of entities both above and below the speed of its own duration, such that many of these other durations cannot even be registered at all. The point is that relations must be forged. They aren’t given.

Politically, many of our problems revolve around non-relation or the fact that no relations are present between two or more regimes. In my own thought I distinguish between dark, dim, bright, and rogue objects (and perhaps gaseous objects as well, I’m still thinking on this). A dark object is an object so thoroughly unrelated that it is there in a situation but does not manifest itself at all in the situation. For example, my living room, where I’m now typing, might be filled with all sorts of dark objects that go completely unregistered in this situation. Perhaps me or my daughter will happen to perturb them in just the right way and they’ll suddenly manifest, pinning us to the wall or causing us to be pushed out the window. A dim object is an object that minimally manifests itself in a situation but only very dimly and in a marginally related way. Immigrants, the homeless, leftists (in the States), women at academic philosophy conferences, etc., are all examples of dim objects. They are there, they are manifest, but only dimly. Their voices go unheard with respect to majoritarian organization and policy. Bright objects would be those entities that strongly manifest themselves in a situation, exercising a strong gravitational pull on other entities. For example, white males and the 1% in the United States are bright objects. Numerically they aren’t majorities, yet they nonetheless organize a plurality of the social relations. The same could be said of certain technologies and foods that organize how we live. Rogue objects, finally, are objects that erupt within situations from without. Hurricane Katrina, the revolutionary, OWS, etc., were rogue objects that suddenly and out of nowhere manifested themselves in a situation, reconfiguring the relations of that situation.

The point is that politics is not so much about relation but non-relation. Hank Oosterling, in his media-ontology– what he nicely calls “radical media()crity” (“city of relations/mediums) –has it right in his focus on relation, but is wrong to ignore that these relations must be forged or engineered (he recognizes this completely, however, at the level of his practice). Like Oosterling, it is above all relations or what happens when things that relate that interest me; not individual entities in isolation. I just always make the caveat that things don’t come already related; they must be engineered, built, constructed. In this regard, leftist politics is always an engineering of relations through rogue objects for dim objects. It strives to more thoroughly relate the unrelated, the dim. By contrast, rightwing politics is a practice that strives to engineer relations that make bright objects brighter and to ensure that dim objects remain dim or minimally manifest.

Back to Debaise’s remarks on propositions. Following Whitehead, Debaise emphasizes that truth-functionality and entailment are not enough to capture the nature of propositions. In addition to this, we need a logic of events capable of capturing– what I would call, in my language or terminology –the situatedness of propositions in regimes of attraction. In other words, propositions resonate in very different ways depending on differences in the regime of attraction in which they occur. He gives the nice example of the proposition “Crossing the Rubicon” to illustrate this point. When I articulate this proposition and when Caesar articulates this proposition, logically the propositions are identical. The truth-value of the propositions “Didier crosses the Rubicon” and Caesar crosses the Rubicon are the same. But at the level of events, these propositions are quite different. When Didier crosses the Rubicon, nothing really happens beyond his own experience of crossing the Rubicon. By contrast, when Caesar crosses the Rubicon he himself undergoes an incorporeal transformation making him either a criminal general or emperor, and Rome undergoes an incorporeal transformation as well, shifting from being a republic to an imperial state. Truth-functionally and at the level of logic, the two propositions are the same, but at the level of events the entailments and logic are quite different.

My aim here is not to reject the formalisms of logic. Rather, the point is to indicate that formalism is not enough to account for the richness of worlds or logoi. The danger that resides in approaching situations purely in terms of truth-functional logic and structures of entailment is that it risks keeping dim objects dim and bright objects bright by failing to attend to the networks of relation and non-relation that organize the logoi of these situations. What we need is a propositional language rich enough to account for the richness of situations and the structure of events possible in these situations.

In response to a discussion unfolding in an earlier post, the always thoughtful Dan remarks:

Levi, you write: “Invariably I find some variant of the hylomorphic assumption in every argument against materialism. It’s always the same old saw: matter is un-form-matted or unformatted and thereby in need of form.” I am not even sure I share the terms of this discussion, so it’s hard to think that I will fall into this invariance even though I do not share all your convictions about ontics. “Form” is used here as if it had clarity and certainly the philosophical tradition seems largely in this mode where the arguments become — as here — about its existence or not or the relations between supposed “things” and forms. Since this site valorizes science, it might be worth mentioned that there are — depending on whom you ask — 3, 4, or 5 states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma, helium 2/Einstein/Bose condensate) and only one — a very unlikely one — corresponds to what individuals usually refer to under form. Indeed, some physicist comedians see the solid as just slow liquid. I am NOT contending — before I get help — that form is unavailable in the non-solid BUT that its attributes are more complex, dynamic, and open than most of the models that haunt philosophy. Further, I have followed to some degree your versions of more flexible form notions though they seem to share an intrinsic commitment to abiding integrity/coherence I see as imposed. If — as I believe — form “in nature” is transitional and interactive, permeable and unstable, and these are its usual characteristics, then the emphasis on a choice between form and formlessness is unhelpful.

Nicely put. I agree with all of this save the suggestion that I valorize science. I take science seriously and give it a place as something other than mere social construction. That’s different than privileging it or valorizing it. An interesting moment occurred with the final keynote speaker, Roland Breeur, in Holland on Thursday. He was giving a talk on Sartre, Bergson, and Flaubert on the phenomenon of stupidity. His thesis was that stupidity occurs when the living becomes material and mechanical. For example a cruise ship crashes overseas and the police officer won’t let anyone step on land until they show their passports. Clearly a law has become mechanical in rigid here in a way that is both inappropriate to the circumstances and that is stupid. At the end of his talk I objected to his use of the term materiality to describe this phenomenon. I claimed that it was perfectly appropriate to refer to this way of behaving as mechanism, but that mechanism and matter are not the same thing. In other words, he was working with a 17th century of matter that has been thoroughly abandoned in the last few hundred years as a result of findings in quantum mechanics, complexity theory, chaos theory, and dynamic systems theory. What we have seen, by contrast, in these last hundred years is the way in which matter is both dynamic and creativity (the emergence of life being the most notable example, but there being many other examples besides, viz. chemical clocks). He rather gruffly responded to me that he’s a philosopher and that as a philosopher he is working with a philosophical concept of matter. I asked him whether he believed life evolved from matter and he said yes, but never consciousness because consciousness, following Sartre, is “The Nothing”. I’m not sure what this could possibly mean, nor why I should embrace this idea of The Nothing (though I concede that I need to give an account of it).

At any rate, it seems to me that saying that one can simply ignore these developments in our understanding of matter because “one is doing philosophy” is intellectually dishonest. As a Portuguese architect– Francisco Vasconcelos –put it to me afterwards, this response was a a bit like claiming one can happily continue claiming that the world is flat or that the Earth is at the center of the universe after Copernicus. The point is not that science should trump philosophy, nor that science can replace philosophy. The point is that we can’t simply ignore scientific findings, continuing on as we did before, pleading that we’re working with a “philosophical concept of x”, rather than a scientific one. If science shows us that that philosophical concept of x was thoroughly mistaken, then this calls for us to revise our philosophical concepts. This, I think, is one of the strongest insights of Badiou. Badiou forcefully argues that truths never come from philosophy, but rather always come from elsewhere in other fields of practice and thought: science, art, love, and politics. The task of philosophy is to think these truths and the compossibility of truths. While I don’t follow Badiou completely in this thesis– I think philosophy has its own domain of concept creation following Deleuze –I do think philosophy always unfolds in dialogue with its others. Why continue to treat the concept of matter in terms of passivity, inertia, and brute mechanism when we live in an age that has discovered that it is anything but these things? If the task of philosophy is to think the present and the new truths that have appeared in the present, why not completely abandon this tradition of thinking matter that has been thoroughly refuted? Mechanism and inertia exist, to be sure, but they are the lowest degrees of matter; they are matter in its least energetic and creative state.

Responding to a post by Matthew of Footnotes2Plato, Michael of Archive Fire nicely critiques the notion that we must presuppose formal causality as a distinct sort of causality. Defending forms, Matthew writes:

Forms can have no cause or effect independently of their realization in and through some actual occasion. But still, form cannot simply be reduced to its material instantiations, either. Forms, in Whitehead’s terms, are possibilities of definiteness. They determine (or allow occasions to determine) how an occasion will be characterized. If we dispense with forms as ontologically basic, we have not at all sided with concrete reality over abstraction. On the contrary, without the participation of eternal objects (Whitehead’s term for forms in his reformed Platonism), “matter” and “energy” can take on no definite quality. They remain vague abstractions lacking all particularity.

To this, Michael responds:

Here I think Matt is presupposing the function of the term in dispute (i.e.‘form’) prior to explaining why “matter” is incapable of expressing structure of itself.

Quite right. The central assumption of Matt’s critique of materialism– which is one I see quite often and not unique to him –is that matter is formless. The argument runs that because matter is formless (though this assumption is seldom stated outright), form must descend from elsewhere and be imposed on matter to give it structure. Continuing the argument, if this is the case, then it is because having already established that matter is formless (and this is never established in an argument by anyone) it is chaos, and because it is chaos, it could not give rise to form out of itself. Therefore form must come from elsewhere. And since we cannot imagine how form might descend on formless matter of its own accord, we are led to conclude that matter must take on form through the agency of a Demiurge or God that both contains the forms in its intellect and imposes them on matter giving it structure.

Such is the theory of hylomorphism that originated with Aristotle. It’s likely that Aristotle himself was not guilty of this crass form of hylomorphism where form and matter get reified and treated as distinct entities, yet this sort of hylomorphism is perhaps one of the most persistent tendencies of all speculative thought. We can readily see how people arrive at this idea and why they find it so persuasive. When looking at someone making clay bricks (or the equivalent) they note that the clay takes on a new shape as a result of the wooden form that the clay is pressed into. They thus reason

See! the clay was formless and now it has form. That form could have only come from the imposition of a form from without, and that imposition required the agent that both fashioned the form– in his intellect when he imagines and then in other matter when he makes the wooden form –that then imposes the form on the formless matter.

The problem is that clay is not formless. In fact, clay has quite an exquisite and determinate form at the molecular level. Indeed, it even has form at the molar level as a heap of clay. It’s just not the form that we would like it to have. What takes place between the wooden form and the clay is not an imposition of form on the formless, but an encounter between structured matters that generates a new structure as a result of the interplay of both of the matters interacting with one another. It is not an “active principle” (form) being imposed on a “passive principle” (matter) from without. Rather, both matters are structured, and both matters are simultaneously active and passive in relation to one another.

Invariably I find some variant of the hylomorphic assumption in every argument against materialism. It’s always the same old saw: matter is un-form-matted or unformatted and thereby in need of form. The problem is that those who advance this argument never give us any reason to suppose that there’s anything like unstructured or unformatted matter. Everywhere we look in the world we find matter that is exquisitely structured. We never find anything like a pure hyle. This is one of the central reasons that I find the process philosophy of Deleuze far more persuasive than that of Whitehead. Deleuze is able to do more with less. He doesn’t make recourse to ad hoc transcendent entities (forms, Demiurge, God) arrived at through analogical reason to rather inaccurate observations of how craftsmen craft– inaccurate because inevitably these models of craft presuppose the myth of the author where the author has everything planned out in his intellect in advance and simply fashions matter according to the model in his mind –but rather Deleuze sees structure as immanent in matter. Matter is pervaded by structure and singular potentialities. It’s never unformed, though it is always formable… In and through encounters between matters.

If I had a list of top five philosophical errors to avoid in metaphysics, hylomorphism would be among them. Everywhere we encounter the hylomorphist temptation in philosophy, the humanities, and the sciences. We find it in the way that Kant talks about the relationship between concepts or the categories of the understanding and the sensibility. We see it in the way that Chomsky talks about deep grammar. We see it in the way that so many people talk about genetics as a blueprint of the organism and phenotype. We see it in the way that people talk about art and artists, implying that the meaning of the work is in the author and that he had an image in his mind that he merely “embodied” in the formless matter of paint. We see it in the way that many talk about society, suggesting that the social can only take on plan, structure, order, through the agency of a leader/king (the mirror of God on earth). We see it in the way that people often talk about society as a system of rules or laws, as if these rules and laws weren’t effects and formalizations of much fuzzier structures immanent to social relations. Examples could be multiplied endlessly. It’s extremely difficult to think in non-hylomorphic ways, but hylomorphism is certainly mistaken. And as the example of genetics, law, and the king indicate, it’s also dangerous. Matter is both structured and anarchic. Order does not descend from above, but is rather always a communistics or anarchistic result… Which is to say it is always the result of the collaborative interplay structured matters that are simultaneously passive and active. It’s hard to overcome our will to mastery (which is really, I think, what hylomorphism is libidinally about), but hylomorphism is metaphysically mistaken, epistemically mistaken, and politically and ethically dangerous. Bergson famously argued that there’s no such thing as disorder, but rather “disorder” is just the absence of order that we’d like to have for the sake of our own action or aims. Simondon and Deleuze make similar points, though in a far more refined way. These arguments continue to hold today, yet they still, I think, have not been heard. Ontology, politics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics have still not become flat… Which is to say, anarchistic and communistic.

There is a topology of objects. In mathematics topology is sometimes referred to as “rubber sheet geometry”. What is studied here is not the fixed metric properties of a shape– such as the degrees of each angle of a triangle –but rather the permutations a shape can undergo through operations of bending, stretching, twisting, and folding. For example, a triangle can be turned into a square by folding over one of its vertices. In topological language, triangles and squares are thus topologically equivalent because there is a series of operations through which the one can be transformed into the other. Likewise, an equilateral triangle can be turned into an right triangle by pulling and stretching one of its vertices. Topology is a dynamic geometry that thinks shapes in terms of movements and transformations.

The claim that objects are topological is the claim that they are subject to permutations that transform both their phenotype and their qualities. As I have argued in The Democracy of Objects, every object is characterized by an endo-structure and the exo-relations it entertains to other objects. The endo-structure of an object is its internal structure, coupled with the way its potentialities or attractors are related to one another (recall that I argue that the being of an object is not defined by it’s qualities but by its potentials or capacities, by what the object can do. The qualities of an object such as its shape, its color, its density, etc, are actions on the part of objects; events that the object produces as a result of what it does.

read on!
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One of the things that fascinates me about evolutionary theory– comprehended in suitably Deleuzian terms, though sans vitalism –is that evolution is not simply an evolution of bodily phenotypes, but is also an evolution of passive affects or modes of sensibility/perception. Perception doesn’t so much represent as invent through evolutionary processes. Bat sonar, the sensing of the world through electro-magnetic fields in eels and sharks, spectrums of color for different animals, spectrums of sound in dogs, humans, cats, the language of pheromones in ants, the language of vibrations for spiders on their webs, the language of colors in octopi and squid, the infrared vision of insects, the circular polarized vision of mantis shrimps, and all the action-schemas– or action oriented sign-structures of anticipation and body movement –that are built up around these things.

And there is a spectrum here from those inventions of affect or sensibility that are more or less “hard-wired”, to those forms of affectivity, those powers of sensibility, that are acquired in more complex organisms capable of learning. In creatures like dogs, horses, octopi, certain types of computers, etc., inventive affects are not things that are simply “hard-wired” and there from infancy (though there is this too). No. These passive affects, these forms of receptivity, are also acquired and invented over the course of the organisms life. The psychoanalyst has a different type of affectivity than the cognitive psychologist, and the wood carver has a different structure of affectivity than the industrial wood producer. The biologist has a different type of affectivity than the accountant or doctor. These forms of affectivity do not fall from our genes ready-made, but are inventions in the world. Before art, philosophy, science, and politics represent, “mean”, or make true or false claims about the world, they first invent new forms of sensibility. Virgina Woolf did not report how she sensed the world, she invented or created a new way of sensing the world. Freud did not report what he heard, but invented a new way of hearing. This is why there is a transcendental aesthetics where, to paraphrase Deleuze, aesthetics as the form of receptivity and aesthetics as the theory of art are united and are one and the same thing. Before we sense anything at all there is the formation of this power or capacity of sensing, this invention of affect, that is the genesis of something new in the world rather than the simple reception of what is already there in the world.

You can find my review of Livingston’s Politics of Logic here.

File this under the category of “no duh!” A while back Jon Cogburn mentioned that he has a long running debate with a colleague as to whether reading literature cultivates ethics. His friend denies that it does, both Jon and I hold that reading literature does indeed enhance our ethical abilities. I could see his friend’s point if the question were whether literature always teaches us positive moral lessons. Often the characters in novels are absolutely horrible and there’s little to admire in them ethically. Think, for example of Mersault in The Stranger or Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, or even Joseph K. in The Trial.

I think, however, that this is an extremely superficial way of looking at the question. The issue isn’t whether novels spell out ethical truths. Often they don’t. The issue is one of how novels cultivate ethical imagination. Prior to any moral rules or principles, ethical behavior requires ethical imagination. If we are to be compassionate and loving to others, we must be able to imagine the lives and universes of others. Our first person experience of the world makes it difficult to imagine the worlds of others because we always do so through analogy to our own universe. The wonderful thing about literature is that it allows us to enter the universes of others, encountering something like what it’s like to experience the world with these health problems, in these economic contexts, in these historical circumstances (war, the Inquisition, etc), with these religious beliefs, with this gender, as this ethnicity, etc. In this way our ethical imagination of enlarged and we are better able to conceive the circumstances of others. Reading literature is not just good for you, but it seems to contribute to making you a good person.

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