My good friend Carl has started a blog devoted to the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann. A number of excellent and illuminating posts so far. I’m exceedingly pleased to see this as I believe that Luhmann’s systems theoretical framework is extremely powerful and doesn’t get nearly enough attention in the the English speaking world. Check it out!
February 27, 2016
February 26, 2016
In Plato’s analogy of the divided line we’re told that we can only ever have opinions or doxa about the physical world. What is fascinating here is his reasoning. The reason that we can only have knowledge of the physical world, according to Plato, is not because everyone perceives or interprets things differently. The issue here isn’t about some subjectivism or relativism at the heart of how minds relate to reality. Rather, it is built into the very fabric of physical reality, not the mind that regards to that reality, that it can only be a domain of opinion. Because everything in physical reality is doomed to change or becoming, what is true of a physical being now becomes false later.
I say “the rose is red”. This can only ever be an opinion, according to Plato, not because someone else might see or interpret it differently or because I might be color blind, but because the rose is condemned to turn brown and die. Truth, for Plato, must preserve itself. If the truth value of a proposition changes with time, then it is not genuinely knowledge, but opinion. Consequently, the entire world of physical beings will be reduced to appearances, a sort of veil of maya that we must pierce to get to true reality. There is no truth to be found in this world of appearances, of physical objects, because this world that we dwell in, this world that is the world of our embodiment, is a world of change that fails to preserve truth.
Lurking in the background here is the imperative of Parmenides. Parmenides’s declaration is not simply that being is and non-being is not, but also that being is knowable. The great and disturbing poem of the Eleatic Stranger does not merely observe that being is, but also seeks to establish that being is identical to thought. Thought in being must be identical for being to be knowable. Otherwise we are left with nothing but a skepticism. If we make the claim that being is identical, we are also implicitly claiming that being must be rational. But what does it mean to say that being is rational? It means that it obeys the following two principles:
The principle of identity or A = A
The principle of non-contradiction or ~(A & ~A)
The structure of reality must mirror the structure of thought and the structure of thought must mirror the structure of reality. Anything less and we fall into a skepticism, says this tradition. If, then, we must reject the thesis that physical objects have being, says Plato, then this is because they fail to meet the requirements of the principle of identity and non-contradiction. In changing, physical beings are non-identical to themselves and contradict themselves. Henceforth, Plato will say that the number 17 is more real than a rose, because the number 17 is always the number 17 and never becomes anything else. The entire world of becoming will be demoted and treated as unreality. And do we not witness echoes of this initial philosophical decision in both Badiou’s mathematization of ontology that effectively reduces, again, appearance to a sort of surface-effect or in object-oriented philosophy’s doctrine of withdrawal that “rescues” entity from change?
So much of Plato falls into place in this moment. Plato’s strange denunciation of writing, so profoundly explored by Derrida, will be seen to arise from how the written is always non-identical to itself both in the differentiality of the signifier, but also in its difference from what it signifies. Writing will everywhere harbor violations of the principles of identity and non-contradiction, and above all, will create the possibility of rendering formal paradoxes material or embodied. “If the Barber of Seville cuts everyone’s hair except those who cut their own hair, who cuts the Barber’s hair?” Clearly the real barber never has trouble getting a haircut. This is a paradox that is only capable of existing in the symbolic, in a signifying system. It will mark Plato’s hostility to art and the simulacrum as something that competes with the self-identical real. It is the underlying rationale for Plato’s denigration of the body and the senses.
Much of the history of philosophy will be an attempt to reconcile being with these two principles of thought, which is why it is led to such strange places. Everywhere philosophy will seek a sort of parallelism of thought and being that arises as a demand that being obey the principles of non-contradiction and identity. Again and again this requirement will lead to denunciations of the body, materiality, difference, the physical world, and appearance or phenomenality. Lurking behind all of this will be a will to power and a denial of death, for where thought is identical with the thing, where the concept can replace the thing, we have escaped the constraints of embodiment and materiality. Given the deep price we must pay to formulate a theory of knowledge and reality consonant with these principles, we must raise the question of whether we don’t get further with difference than identity.
February 26, 2016
A few years ago I was honored to give a keynote address at a design conference hosted by Noam Toran Media Design Practices in Pasadena, California alongside DreamWorks digital animator, Rob O’Neill. This was a truly remarkable symposium that opened up an entirely new world for me and that introduced me to new ways of thinking about objects and the production of objects. There was the foley artist, Amy Kane, who spoke of the work she’d done on Deadwood and other television shows and films. There were digital novelists, directors, and artists creating open ended virtual worlds such as Gary Westfahl and Margo Bistis, and then there were the students: designers, directors, animators, and artists of all kinds. While, on a couple of occasions, I had spoken before audiences of artists, this felt like something new to me. I had, to a certain degree, broken out of the world of academia, of only addressing other scholars, and was now entering into dialogue with those that make and produce things. It was an entirely different way of thinking, a different set of questions, a different set of practices; yet also uncannily resonant with my own work. Since then I’ve been fortunate to work and dialogue with designers, artists, and architects more and more. I love it.
In the last three years I’ve thought often about Rob O’Neill’s talk and our conversation over lunch and between the other talks. O’Neill worked on films such as Shrek 2, Turbo, and Madagascar. At the time, my daughter was going through a Puss in Boots, often dressing up like “Kitty Soft Paws”, and he kindly offered to send me some film posters. Sadly I was too intimidated to follow up. In his talk O’Neill spoke of the aspiration, as he understands it, of contemporary animation. If I remember his terminology correctly, contemporary animation aims for what he called “zero resolution”. Zero resolution would be a form of animation that would be indistinguishable from reality. Given public reactions to the bear scene in The Revenant, it would seem that they’ve come close to achieving this.
The fascinating thing about zero resolution animation is that it has led these animators to develop an entirely new science that could be called “meso-science”. We have the science of the very small in quantum mechanics, and the science of the very large in relativity physics. Meso-science studies the between or mid-range beings such as the movement of skin across bones and muscles, clothing across the body, or hair on the head or arm. To program the real, the animators have had to understand the physics of how fabric, hair, skin, blades of grass, and leaves move. They’ve had to develop a physics of the between, of humble things; and they’ve truly done it. Equipped with meso-physics, the animators then devise programs that simulate the behavior of these things. This perhaps is the most astonishing thing of all. There’s a sense in which the animator relinquishes control of his animation, letting the computer do part of the directing; for these programs are autonomous and make their own decisions. O’Neill, for example, talked about how, when doing the famous battle scene for The Two Towers, they had to run the program hundreds of times because the humans, elves, and dwarves were so out numbered by orcs, trolls, and ogres that they kept running away. The computer programs, not the directors, were calling the shots.
There is something like the materialization of a ghost here. A ghost or spectre is a sort of idea that persists after the destruction of the body. It is the idea of the body, the pattern of the body, that continues to move about in the world. This is part of what makes ghosts so uncanny. With zero resolution animation we get this process in reverse. The ghostly idea– the program, the zeros and ones –becomes material. It forms a body for itself that now occupies the physical realm and circulates throughout it.
Baudrillard famously said that we live in the age of the simulacrum. By this he meant the virtualization of reality. Increasingly, he thought, the world was being overtaken by the virtual image. However, in reality it seems something quite different is taking place. It’s not that reality is being virtualized, but rather that the virtual, the ghostly idea, is being materialized. This, perhaps, is the limited truth of correlationism and idealism: that we materialize ideas in matter, that we form matter giving it the shape of an idea in writing, movement, gesture, art– above all art –tools, and technologies. These things are the ideational become real. Plato, a philosopher of presence, gave the copy a derivative status and was suspicious of all simulacra because he held that the copy is always a distortion of the original, of the model upon which it is based. If he was so suspicious of the simulacrum, then this was because the simulacrum, as a copy without an original, competed with reality. As Deleuze argued, the simulacrum, the work of art, is something real, but without correlate. Such is the hole in his ontology. Today the copy is increasingly indistinguishable from the original.
Everywhere today we encounter the reign of the idea that has become material. The idea has achieved zero degree reality, not just as images on the screen as in the case of The Revenant, but also in the case of the thing. With GMOs, three-dimensional printing, and even atomic elements, we now have an entirely new class of entities that are both simulacra and real. The modern strawberry is Frankenstein, a composition– in the sense of musical composition –composed of genes spliced together; some from strawberries, others from fish, perhaps a bit from tomatoes, a little bit of frog here, a little bit of bird there. Who remembers anymore what strawberries used to taste like? Did they used to taste different? Are these strawberries or are they something else? They are materialized ghosts of ideas; ideas that have formed a body for themselves.
I’m not sure why I marvel at three-dimensional printing of ears out of living cells or genetically modified organisms or hyperreal animated images or the invention of entirely new atomic elements. Why should I be surprised, as we’ve always done this with art and the creation of tools, technologies, and buildings within which to dwell. Nor do I know whether this is a good or bad thing. I am making no moral or political judgment here. I am not denouncing the age of simulacra, nor celebrating it. Still, something seems different in all of this and this new age of design seems to call for a new ontological thinking where categories such as the real and the unreal, the material and the ideal, the natural and the fabricated no longer do justice to the world within which we live. This is a Promethean age for good or for ill; an age where ghosts now have bodies and walk the earth.
February 24, 2016
February 24, 2016
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Levi, it’s fascinating to me how you quickly go “elsewhere” after you publish a book. What’s up with that? Do you mean to be a moving target? Whatever the motives, it’s been great to go along for the ride.
I wish I had some sort of elaborate and philosophically rich response to this question, but it’s something I wonder about myself. Each time I write a new book and often even when I write articles, I feel compelled to build things from the ground up. In my article for The Speculative Turn, “The Ontic Principle”, the key concept was affirmative difference. Where the philosophical tradition has largely thought the being of being from the standpoint of the principle of identity (A = A), and its entailments– the principle of non-contradiction, ~(A & ~A), and the principle of the excluded middle, A v ~A –I wanted to see where thought would be led if we began from the premise that there is no difference that does not make a difference or that to be is to make a difference. In The Democracy of Objects, the key concept was “objects” and, in particular, the relationship between what I called “virtual proper being” (the powers or potentials of an object) and local manifestations (the way in which an object is actualized in a particular ecology. In Onto-Cartography, the key concepts are machine, gravity, and world. Now I am on to folds which have a logic and ontology very different from– even if continuous with, perhaps –the ontologies I proposed in “The Ontic Principle“, The Democracy of Objects, and Onto-Cartography. The attentive reader of “Radiant Things” will notice that it is an implicit critique of the ontology I developed in The Democracy of Objects.
February 24, 2016
For anyone who’s interested, here’s Zizek’s article on my earlier work, The Democracy of Objects. I confess that I haven’t read the entire thing yet as I find it somewhat surreal to be “Zizeked” or run through his interpretative apparatus. What I have read so far seems very interesting and insightful. Once I get passed my sheer terror, I’ll read the rest.
February 18, 2016
For anyone who’s interested, here’s the text of my keynote address for the MICG at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee tomorrow: milwaukeetalk.