August 2022

Aristotle associates potentiality with matter. Here I am not endorsing Aristotle’s four causes, nor his hylomorphism, but simply thinking about the category of potentiality. If matter is associated with potentiality, then this is because is teeming with possible forms. Clay is the classic example. The lump of clay can take on many forms. It can, through the agency of the efficient cause, become a bowl, a plate, a cup, a sculpture of Zeus’s face, etc. While the clay already has a form– actuality –of its own, it is subject to further becomes through which that form is transformed and mutated. Here, pushing back against Aristotle’s hylomorphism– or maybe not! –it should be said that the distinction between form and matter is a formal distinct rather than a numerical distinction. Two things are numerically distinct when they exist independently of one another. Two things are formally distinct when they are really and truly different– as in the case of color and shape –but nonetheless cannot exist independently of one another. They are always attached to one another. They can be conceptually distinguished, but can never exist independent of each other. Consequently, while form and matter are distinct from one another, there is no such thing as formless matter, nor matterless form. They are inextricably wed to one another.

Perhaps we can think of the relationship between form and matter therefore as a sort of continuum between potentiality and actuality. Pure matter– which is a concept, not something that really exists –would be absolutely plastic potentiality, while pure form would be absolute actuality without any residual potentialities. Matter, perhaps, should be thought as plasticity in this connection (notice how hesitant I am in all of this; so many “perhapses”). Matter would be that which is latent within entities harboring the possibility of mutation or transformation. Here it would be a mistake to treat potentiality and possibility as synonyms. As Kant noted in the first critique, there is no conceptual difference between 100 imagined farthings and 100 real farthings. This is why, he argues, the ontological argument for the existence of God does not work. Through the concept alone we cannot deduce actuality. Deleuze will later vigorously distinguish possibility from virtuality (and here I’m running together potentiality and virtuality, though there are some differences). The possible, says Deleuze, resembles the real. Again, there’s no conceptual difference between the two. By contrast, there’s no resemblance between the virtual and the actual. And this is how it is with potentiality; at least to my thinking. The potential does not resemble the actuality it will become. It is a sort of wildness at the heart of matter, at the heart of things, a metastability (as Deleuze will say in The Logic of Sense), a plasticity, a capacity to produce new form.

It does not seem to me that we should treated the potential as a fixed quantity within matter. Rather, potentiality seems to be variable. Not only can potentiality perhaps be exhausted such that no further becomings are possible, but the nature of potentiality also changes under different conditions. Returning to the clay with which I began, the potentials of that lump of clay are dramatically different depending on its state. If the clay is dry its potentials for mutation are limited. It will break and flake apart. If the clay is too wet it turns into a soupy mess. It is only at a certain point of moisture that the clay can become the bowl or the sculpture. The clay as mud and the clay as flakes is a sort of fatigue of the potentialities of the clay. Yet sometimes, in states of fatigue, our greatest becomings overtake us, almost as if there’s been a loosening of the grip of actuality holding potentiality at bay, allowing potentials to swarm and begin to grow.

Recently I have taken up cycling. I used to take great joy in this all the way up through graduate school until my bike got stolen. I wasn’t a serious cyclist. I used my bike simply to get places and often to just cruise about. I loved jumping off of curbs or taking turns at breakneck speeds. This time around I’m taking it more seriously, riding for fitness and mental health. I’m not a beast like some of my friends who are avid cyclists, but every day I go a bit further, a bit faster, and get more endurance.

I’ve named my bike Spinoza. Why? In Part II, Proposition VII of the Ethics, Spinoza says that “the order and connection among ideas is the same as the order and connection among things.” This is Spinoza’s famous parallelism. Unlike dualists, he does not claim that there is one order of the body ruled by extension and cause and effect interactions and another of thought governed by different types of relations (it would be odd, perhaps, to say that one idea causes another in the way that one billiard ball hitting another causes it to move in a particular direction). Unlikely the materialist he does not say that thought is an expression of neurological events like the Churchlands claim. For Spinoza, thought does not cause bodily events, nor do bodily events cause thought. Rather, they run parallel to one another. Perhaps we can even say they are one and the same thing expressed through different attributes, now seen under the attribute of thought, now seen under the attribute of extension. As such, while they are the same, they do not resemble each other. Nothing about my thoughts as I write this rather vapid post resembles neurological events in my brain, nor does anything about neurological events that resemble my thoughts, but for each thought I have there’s a neurological event (along with other bodily events) and for every bodily event there’s a thought. Our thoughts might not be at all veridical in many cases for this reason. For example, I might be irritated by another driver on the road (a thought). I think the other driver is the cause of my ire. But maybe I’m just hangry (hunger + angry) and am suffering a deficiency of various nutrients in my body that makes me especially sensitive to stimuli from my environment such as the other car seeming too close to me. Perception is as much about filtering stimuli out as it is about sensing stimuli. When we are tired or our chemistry is off kilter, that ability to filter stimuli comes painfully flooding in. We are overwhelmed by the world. Notice how well this accords with Deleuze’s account of desire where there is no lack. At the bodily level there’s no lack, just gradients and differentials.

These thoughts are what have led me to name my bike Spinoza. There’s a sort of experiment here. If parallelism is true— a big if —then what becomes of my thought as I live my body in this way? As my body undergoes transformations, becoming stronger, having more endurance, breathing better, etc, will the nature of my thought change as well? Already, in the weeks I’ve been cycling, I’ve begun getting the exercise high. I find myself less irritated in the evenings. The horrors of the world and the mundane frustrations of daily life seem more muted, more distant. Will there be other changes? Will there be new lines of thought running parallel to the becomings my body is undergoing? In Part III, Proposition II, Spinoza says we don’t know what a body can do. I certainly don’t know what my body can do and experience wonder as it does more and more. But if parallelism is true, then we also don’t know what thought can do and discover more and more of the power of thought as we discover the power of our bodies.

Recently our daughter has gotten into ballet. It’s nice seeing her so excited about something and dancing about the house, looking forward to her classes each week. And maybe I’m just a proud father, but I think she’s quite good at it for a beginner. I’m endlessly fascinated by things like ballet. During the high point of the pandemic I took up in-line skating. I became obsessed. When I wasn’t skating I would watch videos of people skating. What struck me was how effortless and graceful it looked, despite the fact of the intense strength and muscle control those movements take. We all have, I believe, two bodies. On the one hand there is the surface of the body, the body as it presents itself to the world, the body that is seen. Then there is the dynamic body that is composed of forces and movements. This is how it is with ballet. There is that body given to be seen that looks so delicate, graceful, and fragile, and then there is the intense body of forces and pure strength that brings forth those movements. Ballerinas are tough.

Last night, after class, she was excitedly talking about how she perfectly executed her first “combination” without looking at any of the other dancers. “I just counted”, she said. For me this was revelatory. Her dance movements are a kind of mathematics. Here I could not help but think of Whitehead’s “eternal objects”. The eternal objects, he says, are pure potentialities like numbers, patterns, a particular shade of green, etc. They are atemporal— hence their eternity —indifferent to “actual occasions” (events, things, bodies), and “ingress” into actual occasions. There is a sort of origami at work here. My daughter’s dance is a sort of folding of numbers into herself. Those numbers are always numerically identical to themselves— which is why they are eternal objects —but as they ingress or fold into her muscles, nerves, tendons, and the architecture of her skeleton they are actualize themselves as something singular to her. This too is true when the dancers dance together, folding the movements of their bodies into one another, as well as those eternal objects. There is a sort of incorporeal force here, a force of the eternal objects, that is compounded with the intense forces of the virtual body and it is beautiful.

For me the main thing that’s important is understanding that reality is not the real. Reality is a synthesis of the symbolic (how we categorize and synthesize things) and the imaginary (how they phenomenologically present themselves in lived experience). The real is what disrupts all of that, what evades categorization, what evades phenomenological description. It’s precisely what escapes, what is indigestible. It’s what makes trauma so traumatic. We just can’t articulate or digest it. Words don’t work. We were completely unprepared for it. There’s no formula or equation for it. It’s wild and undomesticated, as well as being undomesticatable. And that’s materiality. Not the formulas for what we symbolically grasp of matter, but that which disrupts any formulation.

Despite being a realist of sorts, I’ve never been able to shake myself of the Lacanian category of the symbolic. There are real, material things out there that are independent of mind and society, of course. I even lean towards realism where mathematical entities are concerned (maybe Whitehead does this best with his eternal objects). Nonetheless there is the mesh of the symbolic thrown over the world like the lines of longitude and latitude. There is the field of signifiers structuring how we categorize things. These signifiers are not in the things themselves. For example, between me and an undocumented migrant there is no marked material difference qua our status as human beings. She’s as smart as me, has the same anatomy and biological needs, etc. But there is a deep symbolic difference arising from the signifiers that we’re enmeshed in and that befall us: in my case, /citizen/ and in theirs /non-citizen/. The gruesome anatomist would look in vain to find this difference (though the eugenicists certainly tried as Stephen J Gould chillingly recounts). These are differences that aren’t in the things themselves. In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze describes it as a sort of mist that haunts the surface of the earth. The symbolic is incorporeal and is everywhere and nowhere. This category is indispensable to thought.

I really don’t think we can cleanly separate ethical questions from ontological questions. For the last few years I’ve pulled away from my prior ontological commitment to the thesis that objects are withdrawn from one another, instead proposing an ontology that conceives entities as pleats or folds (I do think my formulation is significantly different than Deleuze’s inasmuch as I can understand what he’s arguing, though maybe not. At a certain point you just have to get to work and not worry over such things…. I would like to see a new translation of his book on Leibniz by someone competent in the mathematics that is central to his project). The idea is basically this: the minimal unit of being is not individuals (things, substances, or objects), but rather things and fields. Things are something like waves flowing across fields. As such, they pleat or fold features of those fields into themselves. In a way that would make Plato or Hegel frown, I always think in terms of examples or concrete cases from which I make abductions or arrive at more general categories. I’m guilty of what Hegel called “picture thinking”. It is always concrete cases that are most important to me conceptually.

So in this case I think of my grandfather. He had a very unique walk. He was a walking wave. I mean this literally, not metaphorically. You see, he had spent much of his life at sea on tugboats and barges. His walk was the result of how he had pleated the rhythmic waves of the ocean into his body. Similarly I think of the trees about my house. Their canopies grow in a northerly direction. We get strong winds here that come from the south. The trees pleat that wind into themselves determining the direction the grow. They’re a sort of “en-wood-ened” wind. So there is the individual (my grandfather, the tree) and the greater than individual field (the ocean rhythms, the wind) that gets folded into the individual leading it to form the characteristics it has. The features and events of the field are folded into the individual and unfolded in unique characteristics that are a sort of synthesis of the individual and the field. This is why entities are waves. Every wave is a singularity, a unique ongoing event, that emerges in dialogue with ocean currents, the features of the sea bed, wind, and the shoreline. And, of course, folding works in the opposite direction as well. The field pleats the individual, changing in its encounter with the individual. Beaches are dynamic and ever changing in their encounters with each wave. We should not think things as individuals, but as dividuals because they are always intertwined with fields that exceed them.

The ontology of the fold is an ontology of of things intertwine. One might here think of Whitehead’s prehensions. I find the language of pleats and folds more poetic and think poetry, as that which strives to capture what is singular and irreplaceable in language, is important. I’m leery of philosophy that thinks the concept can replace the thing. If somewhat correct, then this means ethics must be rethought as too much ethical thought focuses on the individual. But if we’re all incredibly complex assemblages of pleatings of the larger than individual world, we must be mindful of intertwiningsof our lives with all the rest spanning the entire globe.