Nihilist Optimism: on horse meat, onto-cartography, and case studies.

by Arran James

If we wish to summarize in a few words the meaning of a nihilistic hermeneutics—one that is, after all, an entirely open enterprise—what I myself see in it at this moment is a confirmation of Heidegger’s thesis on being as ‘event’, and not as a stable structure given once and for all (what Heidegger calls ‘metaphysics’). An event that is possible only on condition that being ‘is not’, or is no longer—on condition that God is dead and that the eternal structures of values have been unveiled as a lie. Only on condition of traversing the experience of nihilism understood in this way is it possible to plan a society where freedom will not be an empty term: truth is always ‘to be made’, and thus values are always to be invented anew. It is in nihilism thought in this way that equality finally establishes itself, and what Richard Rorty calls solidarity becomes possible—or better necessary—for life, the only possible basis for a truth that does not claim to evade the historical conditions in which existence is always ‘thrown’. (Gianni Vattimo, 2006. Nihilism as Empancipation).

Not only do the objective conditions change in the act of reproduction, e.g. the village becomes a town, the wilderness a cleared field etc., but the producers change, too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language. (Karl Marx, Grundrisse).

In the comments to my post ‘Corporealism is a transcorporealism’, dmfant responded to my question as to whether something like an onto-cartography had or could be undertaken in relation to the horse meat scandal that dominated British news media for months. This is a story has been an emotional story, but this serves- in part- to occlude a view of the very materiality of our reality. In this post I’ll discuss that materiality a little, and respond to/make use of dmf’s objection to map making of such a situation. I want to elaborate on why between onto-cartography and a kind of onto-political atomism we can situate dmfant’s idea of the case study. In no uncertain terms, this post owes its existence to the conversation with dmfant. It also owes its existence to a trip to the museum that I’ll reconstruct a little below.

Flogging a dead horse.

I didn’t quite notice when the story broke that retail giant Tesco had been selling mass produced ready-meals that contained horsemeat. As the story unfurled it soon became apparent that Tesco were not the only big trading culprit. It also came to light that some meat products contained 100% horsemeat. While the story followed the usual massified emotional morality play structure of victim (the consumer) being lied to by the bad guys (food producers and sellers) with the good guys (the media and select politicians) crusading on our behalf, the real story was much more materially focussed. News media, new and old, print and broadcast, were filled with stories and images of the material production of ready-meals. The Guardian newspaper produced an online interactive map featuring the trade distribution routes of equidae (horse and horse-like meat) in Europe. This map also featured the question ‘what does this all mean? Can you tell us?’, vindicating Adam Curtis’s critique of the eclipse of expertise in the media whilst also showing us that we ourselves have become the subject supposed to know (hysterics yelling in a mirror, online newspaper comments sections; is there a massive difference here?). The Guardian also provides a handy timeline of how the story played out should you be interested.

I don’t have a TV but as I’ve commented before, it is nearly impossible to enter (what used to be called) a third space without being met by the unblinking, high definition glare of one or more giant plasma screens. These are invariably tuned to some 24 hours rolling news network, such as BBC24 or Al Jazeera. At some point I began to notice what was being delivered into the majority of British homes like a continuous intravenous feed: graphic images and videos of food production, documentary footage of farmers rearing animals for slaughter, talking heads with small-scale localist food-producers (also assigned the status of unquestioned “good guys”). Suddenly the global material network that had receded from the consumer’s view is made to stand in stark relief. Exposed, the multitude of bodies that form the intermatrices of the food-production network, itself a loose ensemble or assemblage, lay open before our eyes. It’s an almost Christ-ian moment of revelation, ‘he who has eyes let him see’: the farmers, the farms, the pig feed, the grass grown for cows to graze on, the fences delimiting the farmers field from the field surrounding them, the cow sheds, the milking machines, the tractors, the lorries that transport the animal to the abattoir, the abattoir itself, the men and women employed therein, the instruments of slaughter and clean-up, the machines, techniques, chemical processes and so forth needed to preserve the meat, the agencies involved (or failing to be involved) in assessing the standard of the quality of the meat, the lorries to distributors, the cross-border roads (and the implications of the European Union allowing freedom of movement and so on), the companies that are paying for this processing and packaging of the ready-meals, the supermarkets who sell them to the consumer (both the corporation “Tesco” and the brick-and-mortar Tesco down the road where I buy my bread and milk, and the “…”. This “…” is stolen from the underappreciated philosopher and psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin. In his work the ellipse conveys a quality of what he calls the ‘felt-sense’ that exceeds the capacities of language to capture. Here, I mean the ellipse to indicate the inexhaustibility of this network of particular bodies and particular ensembles of particular bodies. No list could list everything included in the food-production network that the horse meat scandal has delineated. The territory is too big to map; indeed, the map would need to be significantly larger than the territory it was supposed to be mapping.

Another upshot of the horse meat scandal and its media coverage has been its Baconism. Consider the reaction Bacon might have had to the idea of images such as the one below being exposed to people in every humble and stupid corner of their lives. Imagine the family sitting down to their TV dinner, the material assemblage that produced that meat disappeared from view for the time being, the awareness that this hamburger used to be a sentient cow capable of suffering and enacting a world safely pushed to the boundaries of consciousness. Imagine that same family, that same scenario, and then this image appears on the TV. Francis Bacon would delight.


Capitalism, onto-cartography, and the case of the case study.

Things have been exposed. We have collectively had to pay attention. This is the experience of living in a country where there might be horse meat in your hamburgers. The banality of the phrase is as hilarious as it is telling: so obvious a revelation after all. And there has been a collective response of sorts, an emotional one in the first instance. People were angry. They felt lied to. They felt as though the people providing food for them had broken their trust. Personally, I’m not sure of this. I haven’t met any of these angry people, but then my friends are largely people who either don’t eat meat or wouldn’t care a less if they were told they’d just finished all the soylent green in town.

The people wanted lamb and instead they got horse. This speaks to the different places these animals have in our systems of signifi-cance as much as anything else. Beef and lamb are for eating, horses though…these were once loyal co-workers (they were vital to canal-building, among many things); they provide us with entertainment and means of showing how skilled we are (horse-racing, dressage, and show-jumping); they give us spectacular means to extend our capacity for mobility (they can carry us further than we can walk); they give us access to unparalleled vistas (the beauty of horse rides in the mountains); and they are bearers of great majesty, pride, beauty, and dignity. Sometimes it is as we considered horses to be ensouled in a way we don’t extend to any other animal. Yet of course, other nations eat horse meat and make no bones about it. Meat is meat, as long as it is nonhuman. So the emotions ran high. Tesco apologised in huge full page black text on white background sincerity. Angry debates were had, and continue to be had. In the background of all of this one senses the figures of Paul Virilio or Bernard Steigler, muttering about the synchronisation of emotions and the birth of ‘a communism of affects’.

Other responses have been registered as well. It is changing the buying habits of retailers. It is hard not to think that this will alter the material distribution of production and consumption in Europe, producing a redistribution in the material mechanisms of the assemblage of assemblages, system of systems, that has escaped accusation and exposure in this story: capitalism. Op-eds from experts predict the collapse of some of the attractors that capital flows toward- through-and-out of that we call companies or corporations. National and local news and trade outlets have featured a variety of articles (lifestyle, news, editorial, even style features) on why we should shun the global food production market and turn toward the local producers. Some sources say we ought to do so because it will bolster the national economy (a strong argument in Scotland given we are gearing up to a referendum on independence that will larger be determined economically), others because the local producer is more trustworthy, reliable, and “knows you”. These seem to be the two biggest demands then. 1) Reject globalised capitalism in order to revalorise a beleaguered nationalist capitalism, or 2) Reject globalised capitalism in favour of a nostalgic village capitalism. The debate surrounding potential versions of localist food production models that might run along socialist, autonomist, or anarchist lines seems not to have erupted. I might be wrong (and would be more than happy to be corrected) but it seems like the radical or revolutionary voice has ceded an issue on the material organisation of the present to an internal dialogue between representatives of variants of capitalism. I’m sure I must be wrong on this…yet if the debate is going on its doing so in the places it always does rather than out in public with a population that might be more receptive to broadly eco-anarchist ideas. This possibility is evinced by the very material effect of this news story: a sharp rise in the sales of vegetarian alternatives to meat products. Although, as the populist left Red Pepper magazine points out, vegetarianism isn’t any grand solution because the ‘global supply chain’ that this story has exposed also demonstrates to people, even as the BBC or SKY News aids in the occlusion of, operates transversally. That is, the model of a global supply chain applies to clothing, footwear, and electronics just as much as it does to food production.

This story has literally shown people the operation of capitalism, even as the mechanisms that do so in such a way as they attempt to contain that showing. To paraphrase Judith Butler [1], the media narratives take part in the active interpretation of capital compelled by capitalism and the state. In my own life, it has reinvigorated my own self-accusation regarding veganism. If I think a core ethical principle must be acting so as to reduce the suffering endured by suffering-beings then how can I justify my omnivorous diet? I’m not sure that I can…all I can do is fall back onto the rather pathetic excuse that veganism is “too hard” or pull some Zizekian bullshit about vegans being perverted that no one buys, not even Zizek. At any rate, I hope the importance of this story is coming into focus and that I haven’t overplayed or underplayed its significance to anyone interested in materialism, object-oriented philosophy, or socialist politis.

In his reply to my original post on the possibility of an onto-cartography of this story, dmfant said that he was

not sure how available such widespread phenomena would be to research, so many variables in motion with all of the people affected not to mention their environ

and I have to agree. That was certainly my feeling when I was first introduced to the idea of onto-cartography. A few months back I attended a talk at Dundee University at which Levi Bryant introduced the idea of onto-cartography and its attendant practices to his audience [2]. Bryant was more elaborative on what onto-cartography consists of in that talk but here I can only give a brief snapshot of what he means by this evocative term. For instance Bryant calls states that an ‘onto-cartography would thus be a map or diagram of things’ in a given world. Briefly, a world is ‘is not something other than the externally related entities and signs within it’. Onto-cartographic space is thus a kind of choreographic space, structurally related to and materially sculpted by the movements, positions, dispositions (both actual and virtual) of bodies. I prefer this idea of choreographic space because of its immediately embodied connotations, but also because one can understand it more easily: anyone who has ever danced, no matter how well or how badly, has understood that space is choreographic rather than a container or static. In Levi’s terms:

Onto-cartography is thus not a map of space or geography—though we can refer to a “space of things and signs” in a given situation or field and it does help to underline the profound relevance of geography to this project insofar as ontocartographies are always geographically situated –but is rather a map of things or what I call machines. In particular, an onto-cartography is a map of the spatio-temporal gravitational fields produced by things and signs and how these fields constrain and afford possibilities of movement and becoming.

Examples that Bryant gives in his paper of pre-existing elements of an onto-cartographic approach include Bruno Latour, Fernand Braudel, Marshall McLuhan, Manuel DeLanda, Stacey Alaimo (from whom I have stolen the term transcorporeality to better express my own ideas around corporealism as a body-oriented-ontology, with bodies being roughly exchangeable with “object” or “machine”, and audaciously Marx himself. For Bryant the theory of onto-cartography is only an aspect of its appeal, with its real value lying in its empirical expression. Bryant again:

The project of onto-cartography is massive and likely not to be the work of any one person because it is profoundly multi-disciplinary, requiring knowledge of the natures of the things that inhabit the situation, their specific properties, literature, mythology, semiotics, political theory, history, various sciences, technologies, etc

This is an expansive, ambitious, and supremely vertiginous undertaking, and as a sufferer of recent bouts of vertigo I say that with no irony. What is supremely attractive in Bryant’s formulation of onto-cartography is precisely that it requires a ‘multi-disciplinary’ approach. As a nurse, I work in multidisciplinary teams constantly, sometimes leaving the team I am attached to (ward or community staff depending on where I am working) to form another “temporary ongoing” group (such as a MAPPA or CPA group). There is a sense that this immediately makes sense to me. I work alongside psychiatrists, physicians, clinical psychologists, peer-support workers, voluntary befrienders, support workers, healthcare assistants, pharmacologists, porters, ambulance drivers, occupational, physical, speech and language, sexual health and a range of art therapists, and a host of organisations within the voluntary, governmental (including the police), and wider mental health sectors. There is a sense in which as a nurse I already feel like an onto-cartographer whenever I try to tell people what it is that a psychiatric nursing is. Really, I need to return to my misappropriation of Gendlin’s “…” in order to suggest what I want to suggest about the nature of my profession. All this is to say that the work of onto-cartography is too big. Where would we be happy to finish making our map? At what point would our diagram be exhaustive? We might want to suggest that this isn’t really Bryant’s point; really, he only means to orient us to the things that co-produce the space of a co-enacted world, not to trick ourselves into thinking we have an epistemic masterpiece or a political ideology that can explain a situation in advance of the situation itself (this feels like a Badiouian moment). Yet as I sat in that lecture hall that Bryant walked about in as he read (a more engaging style than people who prefer to just sit, I think), I had then and still have now the sense that this is a form of fieldwork of the present that is just too big, too much, too demanding.

This is precisely the reason why dmfant says that he is ‘trying to pitch the idea of case-studies as perspicuous re-presentations via Wittgenstein’. I have no desire to tread on dmf’s toes or to appropriate someone else’s obsessions. Likewise, I am not even sure I have understood what dmf means. I am not very familiar with Wittgenstein, having only read secondary sources and attended the odd lecture on ‘picture-thinking’. Nevertheless, the idea is one I want to work out, respond to or at least use as a way to push my own thinking. This is proper to the working of an intellectual conversation. With those heavy caveats out of the way, I’ll go on.

The reason the “case study” appeals to me is, once again, practical. I am a nurse. I occasionally write case studies and I certainly read them, especially those from nursing, psychiatry, social work and counselling. The case study presents its reader with a caricature of a situation that was once live to the worker-author. Usually, if the case study is to have any value, it will be illustrative of a complex or challenging clinical situation. The worker-author will explore that particular situation in as much detail as space and the pragmatic orientation of the case study allows. This will be done in order to analyse the actual particular decisions made and actions taken. This is not done (or not exclusively at least) to justify what the worker-author decided and did but also to scrutinise those outcomes from a variety of perspectives in order to come to an understanding of whether better alternatives could have been taken and why they were not selected at the time. In other words,

‘this pragmatic reasoning allows for clinical hospitality to presenting individual differences, rather than a theory based clinical stance which assumes to know better before the actual case is at hand’. [3]

The case study caricatures the material complexity of intermatrices in order to ‘test and re-test’ decision making and intentional action. The case study also wants to keep possibility alive, even in the instance where the particular set of possibilities has died along with the situation that they referred to. It is likely in health and social care that one will encounter similar, although never identical, situations that also presents with a similar, although never identical set of possibilities. The case study serves as a kind of critical reflection and heuristic. It also has the function that is more familiar to philosophical audiences through psychoanalysis, as dmfant points out: it is a means of constructing a working theory through an interrogation of one’s practical engagements.

Weaving Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty

dmfant suggests that the case study can be conceived of as a species of perspicuous representation [PR]. Wittgenstein tells us that
A perspicuous representation produces just that understanding which consists in ‘seeing connexions’.Hence the importance of finding and inventing intermediate cases. [4]

From this definition it follows that a PR is a specific kind of understanding. As far as I can tell, understanding in Wittgenstein’s philosophy is a kind of a tacit, spontaneous, and immediate agreement among those who share a practical community on the mutual immersion in that practice; it recognises a shared world of concern; a shared ethos; it is an intelligibility prior to intellection. In this sense it is not, as dmfant reminds me in the discussion that has sparked this post, ‘cognitive-behavioural’ and is ‘non-conceptual’. The kind of understanding that PR produces then is the kind of understanding that happens pre-cognitively, pre-conceptually but transindividually. The specificity of this understanding thus lies in its being part of our primordial embodied being. In particular, given that Wittgenstein’s understanding is linked in my view to a community, it must be of the order of embodiment that it is transcorporeal. In Merleau-Ponty’s terms it belongs to the flesh which is

A new type of being, a being by porosity, pregnancy, or generality, and he before whom the horizon opens is caught up, included within it. His body and the distances participate in one and the same corporeality or visibility in general, which reigns between them and it, and even beyond the horizon, beneath his skin unto the depths of being. [5]

There is a sense in which a being that lacked the kind of understanding that PR generates would be an autistic being. It might have cognitive, conceptual knowledge of such and such a situation, but it would lack a carnal knowledge, if you’d pardon the pun. This idea of a ‘being by porosity’ is also the mode in which I discuss the stoic’s concept of God. In that discussion, I went to pains to show that there God is immanent- like Spinoza’s- but in as a material ontomorphological principle-unlike Spinoza’s. I also showed how this stoic concept of bodies (which is at the heart of my own body-oriented realism) is a matter of weaving- the weave, or the enmeshing, is the mode of porosity. I highlight this here in order to promise to return at some point to the idea of the weave-mesh-flesh.

So we get the understanding Wittgenstein is alluding to, but he also tells us it consists in ‘making connexions’. This is ambiguous. To make connections might mean precisely to weave or mesh things together in the same way that we do if we braid our hair: it might also mean “seeing” connections. I would conjecture that it’s something between these two. I think this is the way you see it anyway, dmf? We not only make connections in the world through our structural relations but also in the realm of theory and how we see the world in our epistemic relations. There is thus a sense in which the horse meat scandal story has structurally produced a change in our epistemic frame; it has made new connections by showing us what connections are already here.
The production of new PRs is thus the production of new ways of seeing and enacting the world in an embodied sense. In previous posts I have casually used the term ‘disposition’ to describe this action-orientation of our epistemic maps. As dmf has said, it is also about approaching matters in ways that people can cope-with and be moved-by them ‘and in ways that allow us to do things differently’.

If this makes sense as a reading of PRs then I think it is because of an experience I had yesterday. A friend and I were walking around Dundee. We needed to kill some time before a lecture by Pierre Cassou-Nogues that we were going to attend started. We decided to drop in on the McManus Gallery, an art gallery and museum about and situated in the heart of Dundee. As we strolled around the exhibits in glass cases we played at a little ‘alien’s phenomenology’. A taxidermy fox with its front paws on a cornflakes box, clearly a scene demonstrating our wasteful society and the porosity of the urban-rural distinction, was looked at from an alien’s point of view. Suddenly the fox became a sacred animal, why else would these “humans” preserve it? And clearly its prey was this strangely coloured rectangular being, spilling its crispy flaked innards onto the display’s reconstructed floor. I became embarrassingly excited at the sight of a huge harpoon that had been mangled, the twisting of its iron shank the corporeal evidence of a probably long dead whale’s attempts to escape from its killing point. The experience that I want to relay, though, happened as my friend and I discussed Dundee’s industrial past.

red in tooth and corn

Dundee was once a thriving industrial city. It was strategically important to the expansion of British capitalist power. Home to the Jute industry (an industry that involved industrial processes of weaving), dock-yards, one of the biggest news publishers, and confectionary producers Dundee was a rich, powerful, booming town full of possibility. It is also true that Dundee had huge and hugely obvious class disparities with the bourgeoisie and the working class living at extreme ends of the spectrum of life. Yet even in this, Dundee has a worker’s movement to be proud of, and a remarkable history of suffragette actions. My point is that although I didn’t live in Dundee then, although I am not Dundonian or Scottish by birth, and although I don’t have much fondness for contemporary Dundee, I had an urgent affective relationship with that city in that moment as I looked down at the exhibits. One exhibit in particular pushed this feeling, almost a physical agitation, to its height: a model of the city centre as it was at its industrial zenith. I could feel the excitement of that city, and I could feel the disappointment at its loss. Dundee never became what it might have, but more than that it also lost the set of possibilities it had open to it then. I can’t remember where it is, but in one of his text’s Virilio sums this up perfectly: ‘the city is not itself’. I was also left with the question of the relation of a city to its own destruction, or partial destruction I suppose. Does a city have a sense of its possibilities? Can a city ‘die’? Can it be a being-towards-death? An open question. As Levi Bryant has it in ‘The Gravity of Things’: ‘a city is not merely an entity, a thing that sits there, but is rather a machine or organism that faces the problem of how to produce and maintain the elements that belong to it…’.

Here it is that I was thinking about what it would mean to ‘find or invent’, as Wittgenstein says, new PRs. It was in this museum artefact that I got the very kind of felt-sense of what a PR is that the idea of the PR pertains to express. Or at least I think I did. What I sensed was that the relation of the artefact to myself as the relation of the ‘perspicuous representation’ to myself. The artefact as PR is also the artefact as case-study. As if an archaeological find, from the artefact I could reconstruct or vicariously feel what was at stake in that city. In that case, the artefact, that little model of a set of possibilities closed down, was a model for that network of possibilities. It was a model but it was also a real, corporeal object. It captured something of the transcorporeal, something of the whole range of possibility, and something of the story of a city without attempting to be an exhaustive onto-cartographic survey.

Just as the case study isn’t simply an obsession with particularities of specific clinical situations for their own sake, and just as it is not an attempt to generate a universal or ideal state, the perspicuous representation is also a kind of production of genericity. Onto-cartography is extensive, too long, too distant, and possibly leads to the generation of a map that is bigger than its terrain. Meanwhile, a focus on particulars alone leaves us unable to join the dots; we can never see the horse meat scandal as anything but a particular case of a bad thing happening floating freely, uncoupled to any other structure and therefore never take advantage of it. Yet, if the horse meat scandal is a case study that manages to ‘make connexions’ without having to make all possible connections then we don’t have to exhaust it or leave it floating in an uncritical space. As Wittgenstein says, PRs involve ‘finding or inventing intermediates’. This would allow us to orient and re-orient ourselves to what is revealed. We wouldn’t be “autistic” to the world we live in, but would understand it in the same way that we do the look on the face of someone we love. A kind of instantaneousness that requires no language to be communicated but that serves as the basis for any possible language. It is the freedom to invent new forms in the knowledge that the old forms were prosthetic after all. We have moved from a world full of matters of fact, to one full of matters of concern [6]. What let’s us see better? What let’s us hold one another better? We could be, as in Francis Bacon’s aporetic phrase, ‘optimistic and totally without hope’.

[1] Judith Butler. 2007. Torture and the Ethics of Photography. In: Environment and Planning: Society and Space. Vol. 25, No. 6, pp. 951 – 966. Link.

[2] Levi Bryant. 2012. The Gravity of Things: An Introduction to Onto-Cartography. Link. All references to Levi Bryant in this post are to this paper.

[3] Dirk Felleman. 2005. Pragmatism and Clinical Practices. In: The Socialworker. Vol.2. Link.

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein. 1973. Philosophical Investigations.

[5] Maurice Merleau-Ponty. 1968. The Intertwining- The Chiasm. Link.
From: The visible and the invisible.

[6]. Bruno Latour. 2013. War of the worlds: humans against earthbound. Fifth Gifford Lecture. 26.02.2013.