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Thursday, October 25, 2007

vibrational man

My Name Burned In Your Skin
I Am Your Nasty Sin


LI has been mulling over the chapter on the sponge in Bachelard’s “The Formation of the scientific spirit”, because I think Bachelard is on to something that I want to steal.

A little backstory: Bachelard,in his book, distinguishes the scientific from the pre-scientific spirit. The latter is a grab bag of epistemological ploys, although the dominant ploy is the ‘they said” – the notion that knowledge grows out of authority, intuition, common sense. Images of that authority can be varied – it can be the Bible, or it can be Aristotle, or it can be your grandmother, the witch – but the causal structure is subordinate to an essential social fact: respect for authority. Scientific experiments do not occur in the pre-scientific framework – that is, there is no latent sense of tying trials to variations of the elements of the trial, and the comparisons engendered thereby – but are replaced by ‘common sense’ observation. This doesn’t mean that the pre-scientific spirit is a concatenation of untruths – far from it. It does mean that these are the truths of what Bachelard calls ‘general knowledge”:

“Nothing has slowed the progress of scientific knowledge more than the false doctrine of the general which reigned from Aristotle to Bacon and which remains, for many intellectuals, a fundamental doctrine of knowledge. Listen again to the way philosophers speak, among themselves, of science. You will soon acquire the impression that Mach was simply being malicious when he said, in response to William James’ statement, “Every expert has his philosophy”, with the reciprocal observation, Every philosophy has its very own science.” We would say more freely still that philosophy has a science which is only a philosopher’s science , the science of generality. We are going to strive to show that this science of the general is always a frozen bit of experience, a check on inventive empiricism.”

Taking a look at how the pre-scientific spirit views the world involves looking at those generals, as well as the system of images and associations within which those generals work. Which is why Bachelard took the examples of philosophical and scientific writing seriously (for it is important to note that the ‘scientific spirit’ as Bachelard construes it is not just science – rather, actual science often involves hybid products of the pre-scientific and the scientific). Thus, Bachelard takes us through how the ‘sponge’, interposed as an illustrative metaphor, can throw scientific discourse off the track – or at least point to the track in which that discourse flows. “Whether we like it or not, metaphors seduce reason. These are particular and distant images which by insensible degrees become schemas.” So the sponge – to take Bachelard’s particular tracking of an pre-scientific object – becomes, in the eighteenth century, an illustration of how the atmosphere holds moisture. But – to use a word Bachelard doesn’t use – every illustration has ‘affordances’ that are not under the control of the author. Bachelard cites Reaumer, who uses the atmosphere as a sponge image to explain the relationship between air and water, and, without noticing it, goes from on affordance of the sponge – that it can absorb water – to another – that it cannot absorb metals, or salts. And thus, Reaumer corrupts the level of abstraction that he is working on with the attraction of a concrete image - a seduction by sponge.

A derridean such as LI can’t resist pointing out that the chapter on the sponge generates, even in Bachelard’s criticism of using that image, a number of spongy terms, revolving around absorbtion. But I will not go into that, for the fun, here, is about the “generalized image”- the “leitmotiv of a valueless intuition.”

All of which has a bearing on the way LI has been trying to sort out Hartley’s vibrationism and the Lockean dispensation. As I’ve pointed out, Hartley took his suggestion from Newton. Newton explicitly wanted to replace the animal spirits of the Cartesians with vibrating chords. Now, this tells us, already, that we are talking about substitutions within a functional space. In a sense, you could say that the animal spirits had staked out an epistemological territory – a space which had to be filled in order to have a theory of the consciousness – and that the vibration theory took over that space.

Before I go into the implications of vibration as a generalized image – and why it is important to understanding this seemingly eccentric bypath to grasp the development of the culture of happiness – I need to reconstruct, briefly, Hartley’s theory of affections. Following Locke, Hartley does not find the principle of the affections to be radically different from thoughts, i.e., both are ideas. Affections are ‘aggregates of simple ideas united by association. For they are excited by objects, and by the incidents of life.”

That excitation is the clue to the core of the passions, which is pleasure and pain. There is a long philosophical tradition that makes this conjunction between pleasure, pain and emotion, as though a distinct emotion were a sort of cloud around a general nucleus of sensation. Hartley takes the pleasure/pain distinction to be a warrant for using love and hate as the primary emotional categories. Love and hate can be translated, in acts, to attraction and aversion. Yet there is a small gap in this series of associations, for love is taken to be the affection aroused by what pleases, and hate the affection resulting from pain, and yet pain and pleasure seem to be, simply, states of hate and love on a primitive level. Hartley doesn’t want us to make this identification. Pleasure and pain are primitives insofar as they are the primitives of association – they are the associative form in which the sensations are organized. That difference between love and pleasure and hate and pain gives us a psychology of the will – with love pursuing pleasure, and hate counseling us to fly from pain. And so the gratification of the will, associated with pleasure, should be the very mechanics of love. Yet it isn’t. For there is, it appears, a limit that emerges in sensation itself, or rather two limits: one is an upward bound, in which gratification makes us so hypersensitive that it makes disappointment intolerable. And there should be a lower bound, too, a descent to a null state, but Hartley doesn’t talk about that. Rather, he uses this schema to explain that “because mankind are for the most part pursuing or avoiding something or other, the desire of happiness, and the aversion to misery, are supposed to be inseparable from, and essential to, all intelligent natures. But this does not seem to be an exact or correct way of speaking. The most general of our desires and aversions are factitious, i.e. generated by association; and therefore admit of intervals, augmentations and diminutions.” By the logic of association, that second nature that usurps sensation itself, we can sometimes find ourselves pursuing what is painful. And, as Hartley puts it, “in the course of a long pursuit, so many fears and disappointments, apparent or real, in respect of subordinate means, and so many strong agitations of the mind passing the limits of pleasure intervene, as greatly to chequer a state of desire with misery.”

Now, myself, reaching for the “they’ in this story, I am very tempted to see the replacement of one body – the body in which animal spirits, hybrids of liquid and non-substantiality, quest about – with another body – the vibrational one, which folds, by the end of the 18th century, into the electrified one – as having some underground connection to the great transformation of the European economy. It is, in a sense, the body’s own industrial revolution. And yet there is a recognizable mythical narrative here, too. The animal spirits dry out, recede, before the mechanical spark. We are emerging from the flood, here.

But does symbol call to symbol, they to they, generalized image to generalized image, quite the way I am putting it here?

Hartley, in constructing the affections, found reason to think that man doesn’t have a natural tendency to happiness. If so, this would profoundly question the inference from the hedonic fallacy – that one should construct ‘happy’ social conditions – since those aren’t even in synch with what humans naturally pursue. Unhappiness can as naturally emerge from the associative mix that gives us love and hate in our happy circumstances.


Well, I want to return to that in a post on Madame Chatelan’s essay on happiness. But let’s return to the pleasure/pain schema in Hartley. Richard Allan, in his book on Hartley nicely summarizes how Hartley conceives of pleasure and pain:

“Hartley begins his discussion of sensate pleasure and pain (OM 1.1. 1.6) by observing that “the doctrine of vibrations seems to require, that each pain should differ from the corresponding and opposite pleasure, not in kind, but in degree only; i.e. that pain should be nothing more than pleasure itself, carried beyond a due limit.’ Vibrations, according to his theory, differ from each other in four ways: degree (i.e. amplitude), kind (i.e. resonant frequency), place of origin and “line of direction” (i.e. through which part of the nervous system they are received and travel to the brain). (121-2)

This view of pleasure and pain is, by the way, somewhat different than the way it was constructed by the Epicureans. That difference explains the place of non-activity in the Epicurean system – for if the quantitative view of pleasure and pain being on a continuum is true, and if it is also true that pain is on the side of heightened sensation, than one logic would imply that the highest degree of pleasure should be the lowest degree of sensation. This isn’t the modern view, though. One way of thinking of this is to think of the continuum, the sensation substrate, in terms of self organizing criticality. As pleasure increases, it approaches a critical cusp – a non-linear moment when it becomes pain. Actually, Hartley’s work sometimes still contains legacy traces of the Epicurean view, but on the main he conceives of pain and pleasure in the modern way.

I’ll use Henrik Jensen’s book to explain what I mean by self organizing criticality. According to Jensen – who is repeating the work of Per Bak, the grandfather of SOC – those systems that tend toward the extreme limit of their equilibrium are SOC. These systems tend to pass through metastable states – and Jensen has a nice illustration of that (ah, the images of general knowledge! kill me with this if you can, dear reader) in the moving of a piano over a floor. At first, if you are pushing on a piano, it resists – the friction forces between the piano and the floor are stronger than the force you apply to move it. But as the force continues to be applied, that stability of friction forces is broken. At a certain point, the piano moves forward. But it is not possible to calculate with certainty either the exact moment it will move forward nor the distance forward it will dart. It will, however, dart forward to another stable state, and so on. Hartley’s description of pleasure and pain gives us a similar picture. Thus, the Epicureans, who want a straight up and down continuum, misunderstood the operation of pleasure.

Admittedly, I am being a bit anachronistic to speak of metastable systems, a language that Hartley was unfamiliar with. But this language does stem from Newton, and it is basically what he is getting at.

2 comments:

roger said...

PS - I think the Herr Doktor encased in this wretched LI form has made definite progress with the patient in this post. Ho ho!

northanger said...

fascinating