October 2015

A review of Onto-Cartography:  An Ontology of Machines and Media in Italian by Yuri di Liberto.  I’m also pleased to say that Liberto also just completed his MA at University of Palermo where he graduated with full marks and Magna Cum Laude with Mention, where he defended his thesis “One Thousand Machines:  Ontology, Critique, and Politics in Levi R. Bryant’s Deleuzian Realism”.  I ardently wish I could read Italian.


Vague thoughts at the moment:  to read the entire history of philosophy, premised on Presence, as an immunological response to media.  Everything in Parmenides and Plato suggests this.  It is all there in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: the opposition between rhetoric and philosophy, the denigration of labor, the strange suspicion of writing, the privilege of the subject over the collective, and the eclipse of the thing by the concept.  Clearly Derrida everywhere here.  Why this horror of mediation?  Why this horror of the material?

zero-tokyoPassages from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness always reverberate through my mind:  “Consciousness is what is not and is not what it is”.  “Consciousness is a being such that in its being its being is in question insofar as its being always implies a being other than itself”.  I remember the happy days reading this tom(e)(b) when I was young; diagraming these sentences, trying to decipher them like Zen koans.  I remember later reading Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic.  “Zero is the number non-identical to itself”.  How many zeroes are there?  Many!  But that can’t be right.  By Leibniz’s principle of indiscernibles, two things must always be distinguished by something.  Yet zero is nothing.  There can only be one zero.  All zeroes must be the same.  But if there were one zero, then zero would be something.  A paradox.  No wonder zero was received as a heresy in the theological community; like potatoes.  No, it can only be that which is paradoxically non-identical to itself.  It must be the object that is a non-object.  An object that is the shift or out of phaseness of a being with itself.

And that’s how it is with consciousness.  Consciousness is zero.  It is that which is non-identical to itself and that is condemned to be non-identical to itself.  I wonder if this is how it is for my dog and my cats and for octopi?  Is it like this for elephants?  Do they experience themselves as a non-identity with themselves?  Consciousness is a razors edge, a perpetual shift.  Consciousness is not a substantiality, the ego, or an identity.  It is the non-identity that is in excess of any mirror image, ego, or identity.  It is the perpetual failure of these things.  J.A. Miller.  Suture.  Matrix.  This is the burden of the past.  The past weighs on us because of what we have done, who we have been.  It’s etched.  But there would be a comfort in being able to be our past like the grape that has grown from its soil.  No, perhaps the worst thing about the past is that we are zero or the number that is non-identical to itself.  Difference.  We always fail to be our past.  I will never be as great as I was in my past, nor as terrible. I will never be that person that wrote those things, said those things, thought those things, did those things.  That was another self.  I will always be fallen from that past, and each time yet again.  Will I ever write as well again?  I am this strange zero that both is this past, but is not it.  We can eat our madeleine cakes, yet we will not regain the past.  We are that past, yet are not it.  It weighs on us, instituting a gravitational pull.  We are caught in our signifiers, in what we have said.  Yet we somehow can’t be them.  We are a shift, a perpetual disadequation, a being non-identical to ourselves.

Last week I stopped to pick up a pizza after a long day.  When I entered the restaurant the young woman working the counter looked up at me and said “you have blue hair!”  Hating such observations I responded, “yeah, I had an accident with some paint.”  Knowing this was a joke, she responded “are you a rock star?”  I smiled, flattered, even though I knew fun was being poked at me, and said “kinda.”  “Oh”, she inquired?  In a completely pompous moment, I responded “yeah, I’m a philosophy professor” (I never feel worthy of calling myself a philosopher, so I cringed inwardly).  “What’s that”, she asked?  “Well, we try to figure out the meaning of life, what the nature of reality is, how we should live our lives, what counts as knowledge.  Things like that.”  Immediately interest flashed across her face and I realized the mistake I’d made.  “So what’s the meaning of life?”  Walking out of the store with the pizza, I responded with a smile:  “42”.  “Wait, don’t leave”, she protested, “that makes no sense!  What do you mean”?  Flippantly, and with an utter sense of failure, I responded, “exactly”, and left.  Rock star no more.

I’ve been troubled by this little encounter ever since.  It seems to me that contemporary philosophy has utterly abandoned the question of wisdom, of sophia, of what it means to live well.  We have given it over to the religious obscurantists, the new age, pop psychology gurus, and the advertising executives.  Oh sure, we find nuggets of wisdom here and there in the works of philosophers; but largely we hide from the question and pretend that it is non-sensical.  Perhaps what terrifies us is that the horizon under which the question must be posed today, in the anthropocene, has fundamentally transformed the nature of the question.  Philosophy opens like a blooming flower, where the bloom (or is it the soil that allows the flower to bloom?) responds to historical conditions.  The Greek begins with the question of wisdom, of what it is to live well and of what that special sort of knowledge would be that would deliver such a life.  The flower unfolds:  we must know something of the nature of reality to live well, so we get metaphysics or ontology.  We must be able to distinguish between knowledge and opinion, because opinion or ungrounded belief leads to tragedy.  Hence we get tragedy.  We must know what is truly of value, what is truly of worth, so we get ethics and aesthetics.  Ethics is not a set of rules to blame or condemn others, but is rather a map to flourishing.  And we must recognize that we live among human, animal, and mineral others without whom we cannot live (metaphysics), and therefore we get political philosophy.  A flower blooming.  Yet somehow we’ve abandoned this and can only respond “42”.

The question for us today is antiquated and entirely new:  what is wisdom today?  Knowledge can no longer attain presence to consciousness or mastery.  It is a collective enterprise that no one can master.  Ontology must recognize the flowing and aleatory nature of reality.  Ethics and political philosophy must recognize that it is anonymity, not small, that characterizes our social existence.  Today a non-ideological (religious obscurantists, pop gurus, and ad men) σοφία must begin from the premise of non-presence, of densely packed networks, of vortices, of a world characterized by the incalculable, aleatory, and perhaps hopeless.  It must begin with a world that has no transcendent guarantees and where chance is the strange inverse or companion– like a two-faced coin –of all knowledge.  It must begin with a circumstance or strange situation where it is not– as it was for Epicurus and Lucretius –the arrows of nature that we must come to terms with, but rather the anthropocene as this strange, alien mirror that we made but can never master.  What is wisdom in the age of the anthropocene?  That is the question we recoil from today.

I’ll be giving a seminar on Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus through The New Centre beginning October 13th.  Enrollment is open to anyone.  Come join us!  Enrollment information can be found at The New Centre website.

Deleuze and Guattari were exceptional among the French thinkers of 1968: they did not embrace the linguistic turn, correlationism or anti-realism, nor did they champion social constructivism. Rather, they developed a robust realist and materialist naturalism that spoke profoundly to science, ethics, art, and politics. However, the realist singularity of their thought in a setting dominated by anti-realist, linguistic idealism has often been overshadowed by attempts to assimilate their work to postmodernist thought. With the advent of New Materialism and Speculative Realism, it has become possible to read their thought anew through a realist lens. Through a close reading of A Thousand Plateaus, this two-part seminar does just that.

Part 1 is devoted to Deleuze and Guattari’s naturalist ontology of existence. Throughout the history of Western philosophy and culture, nature has been understood as the domain of essence, and the natural as ineluctable and deterministic. By contrast, culture has been understood as the domain of freedom and creativity. Deleuze and Guattari develop a realist ontology of nature in which nature is understood to be the domain of the singular and creative and where culture is continuous with and constitutive of nature.

Part 2 is devoted to their politics and ethics. Unlike so much political theory of this period where power is seen to reside solely in the ideological, signifying, and discursive, Deleuze and Guattari develop a rich political theory that also explores the role that non-human material agencies play in social assemblages.

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