Saturday, November 21, 2009

Weekend croaking

There is enough gloom outside my window to delight the heart of Poe's raven. I'm going to go on to the artificial paradise via Baudelaire, next. But not in this post, where I will simply suggest that everybody watch Les Rita Mitsouko videos, like this one. Even Poe's raven liked it - croaking, ever more, cheri!

Friday, November 20, 2009

hide and seek and ontology: SR II

Deep Blue I wanna give it all to you
Deep Blue I know that scares you - Ladytron



What was in the beginning? Who was in the beginning? It was in the beginning. It (which comes back to us, as children, as the one who finds the ones who are hiding and tags them – making them it) must have been there – for if it wasn’t there, was there a non-itless world?

“Love overcame it in the beginning, which was the seed springing from mind; poets having searched in their heart found by wisdom the bond of what is in what is not.

Their ray which was stretched across - was it below or was it above? There were seed bearers, there were powers - self-power below and will above.

Who then knows who has declared it here, from whence was born this creation? The gods came later than this creation who then knows whence it arose?

He from whom this creation arose, whether he made it or did not make it, the Highest Seer in the highest heaven he forsooth knows - or does even he not know?” – Max Muller’s translation of verses from the Nasadiya hymn of the Rg Veda.

Prajapati floats in his golden egg. This egg gave birth to him. And then he impregnated the egg. In order to be given birth to. There is no “then”. There is no story here.

Hide and seek may be long ago, but the cosmological shudder, the story of the very beginning, is always a cue for the highest seriousness. In a sense, what is serious is defined by this story. We are all intrinsically interested in it – every eggfucking one of us.

LI has long sought to understand the permutations of the human limit, which is what the last two years of posts here have been largely about. During that time, the school of Speculative Realism has also made it a point that, in thinking through the human limit, philosophy can finally once and for all understand the absolute finitude of the human. O happy days! Thus, I thought, vaguely, that I was on side. But since IT’s post about SR politics, or lack thereof, I’ve read a bit more of the SR literature. Not, by any means, enough to become conversant in it, but enough to form a few opinions. I have long lost the passionate interest in ontology. I understand it, however. And insofar as SR conveys the excitement of something new, it is seductive. But its revolutionary truths come clothed in some very traditional terminology, much of which serves it badly. Myself, I was struck by how much work is done for the SR theory by that enduring trope, independence vs. dependence. Here are a few quotes:

“Science speaks to us of a time that preceded not only the relation of consciousness to the world, but any relation to the itemized world [monde repertorie]- any form of life. But since Hume and Kant, every philosopher knows well that the idea of a knowledge of things in themselves supposed to exist in an absolute fashion, that is to say, independently of the subject, not relative to it- that this conception of knowledge is floated by a realism that is dogmatic and worm-eaten (always according to the expression of Kant).” Meillassoux, Contingence et absolutisation de l’un.

“Correlationism insists that there can be no cognizable reality independently of our relation to reality; no phenomena without some transcendental operator – such as life or consciousness or Dasein – generating the conditions of manifestation through which phenomena manifest themselves. In the absence of this originary relation and these transcendental conditions of manifestation, nothing can be manifest, apprehended, thought or known. Thus, the correlationist will continue, not even the phenomena described by the sciences are possible independently of the relation through which phenomena become manifest. (51)

“For Meillassoux, the possibility of non-correlational reality – i.e. of an objective realm existing independently of any transcendental conditions of manifestation – finds its ontological guarantor in the structure of absolute possibility concomitant with absolute time.” – Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound 85.

What is striking about these passages from Meillassoux and Brassier is the thematic weight that accumulates around the dependence/independence relationship. Seemingly, this binary allows us to do any number of things. For instance, it produces sides, a versus: the correlationists and the non-correlationists. And it allows us to disregard, as inscrutable local politics, differences within the correlationist camp such that those suspects, consciousness, dasein and life can all be rounded up as co-conspirators. Of course, the idea that consciousness and dasein are mere substitutes for each other might disappoint their promoters and authors, and that, in turn, they could substitute for life seems a little odd – life here taking on qualities it isn’t normally associated with in biology - but so the reckoning goes – all of them exist as machines with a function. That function is to pump out possibility. They are transcendance producing machines.

Still, what manner of thing is this parameter, dependence/independence?


“There was no death, hence was there nothing immortal. There was no light (distinction) between night and day. That One breathed by itself without breath, other than it there has been nothing.”

“An axiom A of a logistic system is called independent if, in the logistic system obtained by omitting A from among the axioms, A is not a theorem.” – Alonzo Church, Introduction to Mathematical Logic (quoted by the OED)

Dependence is certainly not determination. Nor does it seem to be a cause. The thing that hangs from another thing, the child or wife that is under the authority of the father – such things are not necessarily born from the father, and certainly not made from the noose – criminals make themselves. They are independent, until they are de-pending.

Let us then roll over in the egg, the egg upon the cosmic sea, and consider some substitutions. Is, for instance, the universe dependent on time? Is it dependent on matter? In one sense – the sense in which it all begins in the big bang – the answer is no. In another sense – the sense in which the ‘laws’ of space and time organized the IT that is the universe – it is.

In this example, we sound much like Gooodman’s worldmakers. There might be a deeper point here for philosophers, which is that one of the puzzles of science is that we don’t understand what we understand. Our understanding has outstripped our imagination. This does not mean that we lack a vocabulary – it simply means that vocabulary lacks an imaginary correlate. Its correlate simply is the frame of reference as an artifact – the formula, the Feynman diagram. And, surprisingly, the things that we understand that we don’t understand we can operationalize. To reintroduce history into a narrative that wants to refuse it entrance, this is why the correlationist, the anti-realist, or whoever we have under surveillance, here, returns to histories.

Thus, it does seem like a revolutionary turn that, out of the field that one associates with an anti-foundational bias, there should arise a school which claims that It is no mystery or monster. We can meet IT and shake its hand. Come out, come out wherever you are.

When we speak of independence or dependence in philosophy, and especially the idea of mind-dependence, we are actually abridging a long and complex metaphysics. It is an abridgement that has, of course, its politics. By the time a certain idealism reached the West, in Berkeley, there was already various ideas floating about concerning the inferiority of the East. There was something distasteful about Irish prelates throwing themselves about like Eastern fakirs, no doubt. Thus, idealism assumed the cloak of the most advanced businessman, who spoke in clear, pure Locke.

It is a good question – why was the idealistic moment so late in arriving in Europe? But it is a question that goes against the grain of universal history, which asks the question, why is x (some European thing) so late in arriving in one of the non-European places. Europe cannot, after all, be dependent.

However that history goes, the Lockean context is still a good one. However bad a tutor Locke was to Shaftesbury (whose journals are an almost psychopathological cry against the man), he was very good at assuming that all men are awake – if you aren’t awake, how can you hear me? – and thus have some business at hand. Here the idea of mind-dependence and mind-independence seemed easily to be settled. Kick a rock. Or you can think of all the things that don’t depend on you thinking of them. Name what is under your power. (To use Shaftesbury’s method – the man was always writing philosophical memoranda to himself). Name what you can do nothing about by thinking. Think of the name. Think of the name as an instrument. Think how, as you take up the name, you take up a thinG that is not in your power. Recall a moment when you, your self, your thinking self, had any power over anything. But to think it is to name it, and to name it is to take an alien instrument into your hand that burns right through the ego, whether it erects itself as the very possibility of experience or as another miserable hider in the game of hide and seek.

At this point, Hume traded Hindoo depths for Lockean commerce and chose convention and habit. (There was then neither what is nor what is not, there was no sky, nor the heaven which is beyond. What covered? Where was it, and in whose shelter? Was the water the deep abyss (in which it lay)?

The SR philosophers pursue Hume on this point – but not far enough to ask questions about their dependent/independent parameters. And it is here that one feels that a certain eagerness has crept in – that the tables have turned on IT and the dogs are lose. But IT is the finder, remember – not philosophers who don’t even remember breathing when there was no breath.

The eagerness comes, perhaps, from the same direction as the rafle that brought in consciousness dasein and life as versions of the transcendental machine – alpha, beta, zeta, perhaps. Or Curly Moe and Larry. For surely it is not consciousness that forms or even dasein that forms the anti-realist core. It is, rather, just those things - convention, frames of reference, language, math – that seem happy to operate without the cogito. To conflate those things with correlationism is not just to mistell a history, but it is, shall we say, a typical philosophical mistelling, one that drops the process of production and holds to the marketer's abstract. Surely the reason that these artifacts have had such a damaging effect on the philosophical faith in realism is that they produced what realism had tried to deny could be the case – for instance, inconsistent worlds. Or rather worlds that could only be made consistent by adopting a number of bridging principles that were so cumbersome, and did so little work, that the task of creating them is slowly dying off with the last of the old logical positivists. Ernst Nagel’s pupils, salut! Instead, to understand them – that is, to operationalize them – we embraced Bayesian probabilities and world making.

Now, I am not an ontologically committing man. I strongly suspect that it is not on the level of ontology that I am going to find answers to my questions about the human limit – or at least that those answers will come from social ontologies that I will, as happily, not commit to. However, I must admit some distaste for a certain moment in Brassier’s program: ‘Nature is not our or anyone’s “home”, nor a particularly beneficent progenitor. Philosophers would do well to desist from issuing any further injunctions about the need to re-establish the meaningfulness of existence, the purposefulness of life, or mend the shattered concord between man and nature. Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem.”

On the one hand, I could just classify that as typical philosopher’s obliviousness. In the age of the last terra seizure, that of the atmosphere by the CO2 emitting conquistadors, what we really need is not to mend any shattered concord. Right. In the larger sense, health has nothing to do with whether you stop cigarette smoking or not – and really, philosophy of health should be more than a pathetic twinge to help the anti-smoking lobby. Etc. The idea that nature is not our home is correct, in that home is an intensional concept which references the place from which we dump our garbage, and nature is the referent meaning, the place into which we dump our garbage. A happy arrangement, as every yahoo knows. And certainly it is going to be most unpleasant when we are thrust out of our home into our garbage, although other yahoos who aren't so lucky have certainly been on the other side of the garbage spilling, boy howdy. So it is hard to tell if SR is being tone deaf, here, to the one truly planetary issue, or if this is spoken out of some deep unconsciousness. But in any case, there is something tawdry about this ‘demystification.” It is heresy in support of orthodoxy, a very gated community paradox. It is the perfect Hummer motto. And it stinks.

We get a signal to leave you alone
Alone's where we leave you
Alone's where we find you

Thursday, November 19, 2009

SR prehistory: Scheffer vs. Goodman



In the 80s, Israel Scheffer and Nelson Goodman engaged in a long polemic about Goodman’s anti-realist claims. Goodman was a robust relativist, Scheffer, a pluralist-realist. Scheffer asked how it was possible, in Goodman’s schema, to account for stars, for instance, which long preceded the existence of man. Did men make up stars? Goodman, in “Starmaking” replied:

“Let's begin by acknowledging that a right version and its world are different. A version saying that there is a star up there is not itself bright or far off, and the star is not made up of letters. On the other hand, saying that there is a star up there and saying that the statement "There is a star up there" is true amount, trivially, to much the same thing, even though the one seems to talk about a star and the other to talk about a statement. What is more important, we cannot find any world-feature independent of all versions. Whatever can be said truly of a world is dependent on the saying - not that whatever we say is true but that whatever we say truly (or otherwise present rightly) is nevertheless informed by and relative to the language or other symbol system we use. No firm line can be drawn between world-features that are discourse-dependent and those that are not. As I have said "In practice, of course, we draw the line wherever we like, and change it as often as suits our purposes."

And a few paragraphs later: “Scheffler contends that we cannot have made the stars. I ask him which features of the stars we did not make, and challenge him to state how these differ from features clearly dependent on discourse. Does he ask how we can have made anything older than we are? Plainly, by making a space and time that contains those stars. By means of science, that world (indeed many another) was made with great difficulty and is, like the several worlds of phenomena that also contain stars, a more or less right or real world. We can make the sun stand still, not in the manner of Joshua but in the manner of Bruno. We make a star as we make a constellation, by putting its parts together and marking off its boundaries.”

I’ve always loved Goodman’s insouciance. He is touching here on a hidden semiotic that, as a matter of fact, has much to do with the human limit: one of the crucial binaries in the life of the educated class in the West is that of making/discovering. Discovery, as I have mentioned before, oddly escaped the epistemic grid that Foucault uncovers in early modernism. Goodman is, of course, correct that science is made. But science is made to discover. The realism of the scientists is the realism of the Atlantic voyagers – it is the realism of discovery. Goodman’s notion that the star in the sky or the movie star on the screen is relative to the frame of reference is, I think, easy to mischaracterize. We are drawn by tradition into thinking that making comes entirely from the maker – but this is not Goodman’s idea. Indeed, the maker is continually resisted in the making, which is why we can talk of right versions, of rightness with regard to the frame of reference. A frame of reference will forever be both made and beyond the power of the maker. It doesn’t refer to any particular cogito – geometry is not Euclid’s secret autobiography.

Scheffer, in an essay entitled Plea for Plurarealism (2000) – so many kinds of realism! – returned to this controversy. Goodman, he claimed, was strongly motivated by the idea that there are many worlds. He was in revolt against the idea that all worlds could be reduced (theoretically) to the picture given by physics. Scheffer contends that this is not a feature that is intrinsic to realism (and confesses that he has been influenced, on this point, by Goodman). And he brings up the example of the arche-fossil:

“In a third anti-realistic argument, Goodman denies that there can be perception without conception, concluding as follows, "Although conception without perception is merely empty, perception without conception is blind (totally inoperative). Predicates, pictures, other labels, schemata, survive want of application, but content vanishes without form. We can have words without a world but no world without words or other symbols". Now the final sentence just quoted seems paradoxical as it stands. For it seems to imply that there was no world prior to human speech or symbolism.” And, taking this a step further:

“In defending the "no world without words" doctrine, Goodman argues that "talk of unstructured content or an unconceptualized given or a substratum without properties is self-defeating; for the talk imposes structure, conceptualizes, ascribes properties". But if we assert the existence of trees in the primordial past, we are affirming trees after all, not a bit of unstructured content or an unconceptualized given. Those ancient trees that we now describe by using the word "tree" surely did not require this word in order to have arisen and flourished. It is of course self-defeating to call something a wordless word or a non-descriptive description, but it is not self-defeating to describe something in words which neither contains nor is a product of words.”

It is interesting to see how this dispute – without, as far as I can tell, being specifically referred to – has been recoded in the continental idiom recently by the Speculative Realism school. There, the key binary (independence vs. dependence) is, again, an idiom that returns us to the trans-atlantic world in which one nation “made” itself through a declaration of independence. I’ll do another post about the role of 'independence' in the SR discourse.

Monday, November 16, 2009

From the foot of versus

“Yes reader countless are the mysterious handwritings of grief or joy which have inscribed themselves successively upon the palimpsest of your brain; and like the annual leaves of aboriginal forests or the undissolving snows on the Himalaya, or light falling upon light, the endless strata have covered up each other in forgetfulness But by the hour of death, but by fever, but by the searchings of opium, all these can revive in strength They are not dead but sleeping.” - De Quincey, Suspira de Profundis

The palimpsest section of Suspira de Profundis operates according to the dysfunctional logic, the white mythology, that Derrida finds in Plato’s Phaedrus. There are two series of terms, here, in which writing finds its tenement, its power. In one series, the tenement is cursed – literally, this is the series of the witch’s portion, and potion. Like the contract that is written in blood and signed by Christoph Haitzmann, the painter who was the object of Freud’s essay, writing here misuses its fluids, its graphemes, it is the bad counselor, it is the evil vizier, it undermines memory, it is a voodoo-ed copy of the living word (half dead in the dead media to which it is assigned, stone, wax tablet, sheet of parchment, sheet of paper). But another series makes writing the good counselor, the wise vizier, the repository of memory, and, indeed, memory’s natural metaphor. Writing as pharmakon here creates the very power that distinguishes the animal from the vegetable: the animal has a past. The presence of the past – the present within the past – is, metaphorically, just this writing, this inscription. In the vaults of history, we take history to be a matter of records, a matter of leaving a trace.

Derrida is often read as a defender of writing against its accusers, from Plato to Rousseau. This reading comes about so automatically because, I think, philosophy has come to mean automatically taking a side. But I don’t read Derrida as ascending to the summit of some great “versus” – rather, he stands at the foot of it. Of the versus itself, of forward and backward, of the wolf going down the path of pins and the girl in the red hoodie going down the path of needles (“Le loup se mit à courir de toute sa force par le chemin qui était le plus court, et la petite fille s’en alla par le chemin le plus long, s’amusant à cueillir des noisettes, à courir après des papillons, et à faire des bouquets des petites fleurs qu’elle rencontrait.). And it is my contention, of course, and in fact my single insight into universal history, that these are the same paths, one going to, one coming from – eternally the same and different path. In this, I am unoriginal in the extreme. I follow Red Riding Hood, Michelet’s witch, Derrida, the Dao. The good counselor writes the social contract, and his brother, the evil vizier, writes the sealed message carried by Bellerophon – as you love me, kill the messenger.

Your options tonight


You should simply skip from Limited Inc tonight to News From the Zona, where I'm proud as a little peacock of my Leskov post. Since I said what I wanted to say there. And, campers, it is all about SEX! (which I hope brings in the punters).

Otherwise, go here and listen to Mudhoney.

The synthetic progressive

I have been searching for a term to encompass one of the great features of capitalism – the non-necessary synthesis. I guess I will call it ...