From the beginning there is a curious horror of materialism.  Legend has it that the Platonic school strove to destroy the writings of Epicurus and his followers.  Later there was a concerted attempt to destroy Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura.  This assault was so successful, that only one copy of the book was ever found by Poggio in the 15th century.  Before proceeding, I should be clear that I’m not advocating for any particular form of materialism (e.g., classical atomism).  For reasons that I hope will become a bit clearer in this post, the concept of matter must necessarily remain underdefined, such that the materialist must necessarily become comfortable working with what I call “anomalous concepts”.  At most we can say that materialism is the thesis that being is essentially composed of physical stuff.  What that stuff might be—indivisible atoms in a variety of shapes, energy, something else besides –remains open.

From a religious point of view, it is easy to understand hostility towards materialism.  Materialism undermines and challenges the immortality of the soul, along with the idea nature is providential, reflecting the will and plan of the divine.  However, these considerations aren’t sufficient to explain widespread opposition to materialism, for we find widespread hostility towards materialism in secular circles as well.  It is not at all unusual to hear those who would never dream of claiming that the soul is immortal or that nature reflects a divine plan hurling epithets at materialist thought accusing it of everything from mechanism (modern science, I think, has safely undermined the thesis of mechanism advocated by thinkers like Laplace), to claiming that the concept is fundamentally incoherent such that we should abandon the idea of matter altogether, e.g., Ladyman and Ross’s Everything Must Go.

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Let’s return to the case of Plato.  Philosophy has often taken mathematics as its model of knowledge.  “Let none enter here who have no knowledge of geometry!” it says over the doors of the academy.  The mathematical presents us with the clarity of the pure concept—one itself and not one orange or person or star –and its claims are deductively demonstrated without remainder (at least until Gödel came along).  Math, as Serres points out in Geometry, attains true universality overcoming the indeterminancy of difference and interpretation, and attains certainty.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re Greek or Persian, you cannot fail to come to the same conclusions when confronted with the Pythagorean Theorem.  It’s not that the content of geometry is particularly important to the philosopher, but rather that geometry gives the philosopher the ideal of knowledge and the method of how to attain that knowledge.  We see much later the fruition of this ideal in texts like Spinoza’s Ethics.

In the open to Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates asks what piety is an Euthyphro responds, “piety is doing what I’m doing now; prosecuting the wrongdoer.”  Socrates responds that that’s not what he asked.  Euthyphro is confused.  “Well suppose, Euthyphro, I asked you what oikonomia is?  And you gave me a list of things like knowledge of how to cook, maintain a home, maintain finances, etc.  That would not answer the question, because I didn’t ask for a list, but for that common feature that all of these things share in common.”  Perhaps we could call this the function that haunts all of the instances of oikonomia, in the sense of the mathematical function.  This is the concept of oikonomia.  Cooking, managing a home, and household finances are all very different from each other, but they must nonetheless share a common concept (form) or essence that makes them what they are.  5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15…  All of these numbers are very different from each other.  A list tells us very little.  Yet when we know the concept or function behind the list—f(x) = 2x + 3 –we know what is common to them all and how to proceed to find the next in the series.  We even have a rule that allows us to determine whether the new thing that we haven’t encountered before belongs to the series or not.  This is the mathematical ideal in philosophy.

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Returning to my meditations on examples

Psychoanalysis, at least in its Lacanian formulation, promises a form of theory that aims not at the reduction of the patient to a particular of a universal, an instance of a kind, but rather that strives to reach the singularity of the patient or that which is without equivalent.  The degree to which it is successful in this endeavor is another question.  In this regard, psychoanalysis is—at its best –the opposite of a university (universal) discourse.  In the university discourse, the anomalous (a) is subordinated to a classificatory scheme (a system of S2’s).  Everything must find its place within that classificatory scheme.  In pre-Einsteinian astronomy, the irregularity of Mercury’s orbit (an a) must be made to fit with Newtonian theory (S2).  The irregularity is a secret regularity.  There must be a moon or other astronomical object that we haven’t observed that accounts for its irregular orbit.  Perhaps we can even calculate the missing mass that would be required to explain Mercury’s orbit.  In the case of psychology, we have the DSM-V, a bestiary of symptoms that function as signs for an underlying pathology and its etiology.  Symptoms for this or that disorder are this and have this or that causation.  The very idea of disorders is itself a university discourse.  Symptoms are conceived on a medical model indicating a specific underlying pathology.  Fever, vomiting, weakness, etc., are signs that stand for the flu.  This is the model in psychology as well.  We are told that we can read the underlying pathology off from the symptoms.

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If it didn’t risk raising the ire of my archeologist friends, I would say that  what I am after—in part –is an archeology of things and matter.  More properly, I am after a theory of forgetting.  However, the forgetting in question here is not an empirical forgetting.  It is not the sort of forgetting involved in misplacing your keys or forgetting what you did on a particular day last week.  No.  The sort of forgetting I’m referring to is an a priori forgetting.  It is a forgetting that is something like a Kantian transcendental illusion, where there’s a certain inevitability to these illusions of thought, and where there’s a sort of inevitability to this sort of forgetting.  In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze argues that philosophy needs to free itself from the idea that the greatest danger of thought is error.  “It is noteworthy that the dogmatic image, for its part, recognizes only error as a possible misadventure of thought, and reduces everything to the form of error” (DR, 148).  He continues,

…there are facts with regard to error, but which facts?  Who says ‘Good morning Theodorus’ when Theatetus passes, ‘It is three o’clock’ when it is three thirty, and that 7 + 5 = 13?  Answer:  the myopic, the distracted and the young child at school.  These are effective examples of errors, but examples which, like the majority of such ‘facts’, refer to thoroughly artificial or puerile situations, and offer a grotesque image of thought because they relate it to very simple questions to which one can and must respond by independent propositions.  Error acquires a sense only once the play of thought ceases to be speculative and becomes a kind of radio quiz (DR, 150).

In contrast to the puerile misadventure of error, Deleuze dreams of misadventures internal to thought such as Kant’s transcendental illusions, madness, stupidity, monstrosity, Hegel’s concept of alienation, the 18th century concept of superstition, and so on.  These are not simple errors, but are things that haunt thought from within.  The sort of forgetting I’m after would fall into this class.

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5, 8, 11, 14, 17…  What’s the rule?  What’s the concept?  That’s the question that Socrates asks Euthyphro and perhaps repeatedly the question of philosophy.  “What is piety?”, Socrates asks.  “Piety is doing what I’m doing now, prosecuting the wrongdoer”, Euthyphro responds.  “But I didn’t ask about this or that version of piety, but piety itself!  Certainly there are other things that belong to piety!”, Socrates rejoins.  He wants to know the rule behind all the instances of piety:  prayer, sacrifice, prosecuting the wrongdoer, funny hats and outfits, treating certain things as sacred, observing certain sacred days, dietary requirements, and all the rest.  5, 8, 11, 14, 17…  “You’ve given me a list, what’s the concept?”  Knowledge for Socrates (or Plato?) is the concept.  What’s the concept behind the diversity of 5, 8, 11, 14, 17…?  It’s a simple rule:  F(x) = 3x + 2.  Plug in a value 3 into x and you get 11.

Now we know the concept.  If I plug in 6 I can play the game.  The result will be 20.  The prisoners in the cave play the guessing game.  What image will appear in the wall next?  The prisoner escapes and returns.  He can guess the next image in the series with uncanny accuracy because he knows the concept behind the images, the rule.  Plug in 7 and you’ll get 23.  20 came before, so now we get 23.  There’s a sort of Lacanian Real at work, a repressed.  The secret number of the game is always repressed:  first 6 and then 7 (generating 20 and 23).  They never appear.  But they’re the cypher that functions as the input that generates the output:  20 and 23.  A whole hermeneutics of suspicion!  A secret number that makes another number manifest.  So there are two features of the concept:  the function that is the rule and the secret number put into the function that generates the outcome of the rule.  4 and 14.  Socrates (in Plato’s version) wants to know the rule behind the series and the secret cypher or input that generates the result.  That’s the dream.  That’s the reality/appearance, essence/existence distinction.

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What is a space of visibility?  We should not think visibility in a naïve empiricist fashion as something that is merely given to anyone.  We should think visibility as Heidegger thinks it with his aletheia, Foucault with his visibility produced in the clinic or hospital, Ranciere with his politics of aesthetics, or with Badiou and his appearing, or yet against with Butler and her logic of that which can appear.  The visible is never merely given.  Perhaps Heidegger is the launching point here.  Things become manifest or withdraw from hiddenness in terms of our concernful dealings with the world.  The garage is a very different place for the person dropping their car off and the mechanic.  To the person dropping their car off, the garage is a sort of bewildering chaos.  Attention is directed at the mechanic and the car.  The rest lacks meaning and significance.  To the mechanic, by contrast, all of the tools and places are imbued with meaning and function with respect to the dealings she has with cars.  Certain things come into relief that are invisible to someone who is not the mechanic.

There are regimes of visibility everywhere and in all aspects of our lives.  When Butler speaks of appearing, her point is that a people might be there, but they are unable to appear for that society.  The structure of society is coded against their appearing; against their membership in the society.  Yes, the homeless are there.  We might even see them.  Yet for a particular regime of appearance, for a particular society, they do not count as members of that society.  As I argue elsewhere, they are “dim objects”, beings that are there but that don’t appear.  Or rather, they appear not as what they are, but as what they are not.  They are coded as the negative of society, as that which should not be there, as that which does not belong.  One speaks of a plague of homeless people in San Diego creating a health crisis through the spread of hepatitis b.  Democracy is said to be the rule of the people, but who the people are is always in question.  There is always a set of distinctions, a semiotic sorting machine, determining who is and who is not the people.  This sorting machine, in its turn, decides who and what can appear; who belongs.

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Working notes on an article on examples I’m working on:

I would like to know what it means to think from the example.  In the university discourse, the example is always a particular of a universal.  It exemplifies the universal and is only of interest insofar as it exemplifies the universal.  A particular is an individual that exemplifies or embodies the features of the universal.  It is in this sense that the example becomes an ornament.  Since the universal already contains all of the essential content, pointing at a triangle does nothing more than allow the student to discern, in the flesh, a specific case of the universal.  “See here, it has three sides.”  In the university discourse, the example, as a particular, serves a dual function.  On the one hand, the particular allows the student to discern the essential features that define the essence of the universal (a triangle is a three-sided figure).  However, on the other hand, the particular only functions to illustrate the universal by way of also indicating the accidental or the non-essential.  “This triangle is made of wood.  That triangle is made of steel.  This triangle is graphite on a piece of paper.  This triangle is equilateral, while that triangle is scalene.  Despite these differences, they’re all triangles.”  The particularity of the individual lies in it embodying what is invariant in the universal despite its individuality.  The university discourse is essentially classificatory.  It aims by making sure that everything is placed in its proper box or category.  Let us never forget that there’s a place for the university discourse.

Aside:  Let us call theory done in this way imperial theory.  An imperial theory is a theory that only acknowledges cases or examples insofar as they exemplify the universal comprehension of the theory.  This was Deleuze’s criticism of Hegel and his “insipid monocentering” (the same could be said of Kierkegaard’s criticism of Hegel).  Hegel endlessly finds the same thing again and again, revealing that he is incapable of thinking the singularity of the singular.  This attitude towards the singular is already foreshadowed in his critique of sense-certainty in the open of the Phenomenology.  We wish to say that everything begins with the individual, with the “this-here”, with this specific triangle, only to discover that we can only ever speak the universal (cf. Hyppolite).  However, lest we make Hegel out to be the bad guy, we must also remember Badiou’s critique of Deleuze and the sheer monotony of his work.  Here we must raise the question of whether this critique is valid.  As Deleuze argues in DR, it might be that the singular always erases itself in its actualization or movement into extensity.  This would also be why a philosophy that begins from existence or the singular must always proceed based on an encounter.  (In this connection, it bears recalling Derrida on how the “origins” are always effaced and erased).  Another instance of imperial theory would be Luhmann, who always and everywhere finds the same thing in the phenomena he investigates.  The individual, the singular, is always erased in the name of the theory.

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