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Tag: Levi Bryant

Levi Bryant’s ‘Axioms for a dark ontology’

There is nothing to disagree with in Levi Bryant’s short nihilistic manifesto. In fact, all I can add is that Levi has summed up the nihilism that opens us up to the necessity of developing a post-nihilist praxis. This is the important work ahead. The post-nihilist impulse is born out of agreement and recognition with the points that Levi lists, but instead of considering them a form of darkness it considers them causes for celebration and for the movement out of constant mourning towards the joy of finiude. This world is all we have; but that is a super abundance more than we readily recognise. Read the mini-manifesto here.

On the first axiom (Life is an accident and has no divine significance), I am convinced that this is still to be thought through. In order to think this we ought to return to Paul Virilio, this time not as dromologist but as the thinker of the accident. If life is an accident, indeed, if creation itself is an accident, then within all temporalities is the one temporality, the overarching cosmological rhythm of that accident working itself out: creation is catastrophe, the moment everything begins and ends are immanent, and so there is no need to mourn or weep. All we have is this world: a world that is in free play, that has absolutely no reason to be this way or that beyond the reason we give it. This is the emancipatory quality of nihilism that opens us up to euphoric visions.


A brief remark on a brief remark

‘No one has ever experienced metabolism, though everyone has experienced wakefulness and fatigue, and no one has ever felt their brain or the impact of omega-3 fatty acids on their body’, as Levi Bryant states in one of his most recent posts.

Couldn’t I also say that no one ever experienced vision, though everyone has experienced seeing and not seeing, that no one has ever felt a punch to the guts but that they have felt pain. This is just absolutising the separation of experience of the thing and the thing itself, as if it could ever be possible to experience the source of experience except as an experience. Sure, when I experience tiredness and wakefulness I don’t experience every single part of metabolism, but in order to experience metabolism it isn’t necessary that I experience all of it, only part of it. After all, I have been to Ypres in Belgium, so I experienced Belgium…but it would be ludicrous of me to claim that I experienced all of Belgium in all its possible modes of being experienced. But if I say “I have been to Belgium” or “I enjoyed visiting Belgium” I’m not really making a claim of that order of intensity.

To agree within a disagreement: it is entirely possible for people to experience other depths of the body, to enact a phenomenological embodiment that exceeds the everyday embodiment of most people. There is a wealth of research into the hyperreflexive and hyperautomated experiences of the body in people diagnosed with schizophrenia, experiences of organs in people with eating disorders and starvation syndrome. These people enact their own ‘alien phenomenologies’ that deviate from what gets- ludicrously- called neurotypicality and what we could call the normative body. In suggesting that people do not experience the real of their bodies at all, Levi is at risk of engaging in a kind of idealism, even in the name of materialism, that cancels any non-normal experience of the body out from consideration. Only the healthy body exists, and only this health experience of the body matters, while of course the experience of the body is not the body, is a translation of the body. Between the text and the translation the materiality is lost: what do I experience if not the materiality of my body?

There is almost a temptation to ask whether, given Levi’s understanding of phenomenology (which he seems to conflate with phenomenography) as ‘constitutively unable to think the real of the body’ that there is anything that can think the real of the body. After all, any science that we might develop, any materialist naturalism, is a materialist naturalism that at the very least has to be understood by, be intelligible to, a human consciousness. Doesn’t all scientific experimentation and truth have to appear to a consciousness. They may well be true even without that consciousness, but truth and being registered as true in the organised form of knowledge called science are not identical. For instance while the theory of evolution may also have been a truth, its appearance to a living consciousness made a difference to the nature of that truth in relation to those for whom it was disclosed as a truth. If there is no way to experience the body at all then aren’t we back in Cartesian territory?

To suggest that one doesn’t experience ones own body is to think in terms of the disembodied society that we are living in; the society that can’t take up sensibility, that takes the body to be a fleshless becoming-immateriality that can only know itself as carnal in violence and disease. To suggest that there is no experience of the body but only its effects is also to separate what a body is from what a body is capable of and to set up some eternal body behind the body in interaction and interoaction. Pain, no longer to be considered an experience of the body but an experience of its effects, is rendered as a stereo-reality; carnal on the one hand, ghostly on the other. There is a risk that this is insulting to people who suffer from their bodies, people who are always aware of parts of their body that happily recede for others. It is also to suggest that pain and pleasure are matters not of the body but of effects of the body and so of certain inscriptions of the body onto consciousness and so we remain within a kind of textualism.

Finally, at the pragmatic level, if I am working with someone who is suffering from pain what tools am I offered by the thought that pain is merely an “effect”; I knew that already, it is an effect of the body on itself. Being able to phrase this from within a machine-oriented ontology gives me nothing new to offer the patient in pain, save to assure them all they are experiencing is an effect of the body, not the body itself. Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, continues to be a source of pragmatic value for medicine and nursing. This pragmatic concern links with the earlier question of whether this is a new Cartesianism. After all, to say that the body does not appear to consciousness is to set up a separation between these two terms so that the body can be conceived of as material, while consciousness is something that is not material. This is to shy away from the findings of the embodied cognition wing of cognitive science.

These are brief questions, my immediate response to Levi’s post. I’d go on but its a little too hard to be a very serious theory blogger while listening to a five year old shouting at 101 Dalmatians.

Levi has another interesting post up that opens with a quote from Serres

The theory of simulacra [Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book IV] is a theory of communication: edges, envelopes, wraps, flying through object space, as objects or from transmitters to receptors. We know how these skins are shed, how these delicate carapaces become detached at transmission. And we know how, that is, at what speed, they cross the space of communication. At the end, at reception, the sensory apparatus enters into contact with this delicate film. Thus, sight, smell, hearing, and so forth, are just senses of touch. The theory of simulacra is a singular case of the general theory of flow, communication is one circulation among others, knowledge is no different than being.

Like all philosophers passionately concerned with objective reality, Lucretius was a genius of touch and not vision… Knowledge is not seeing, it is entering into contact, directly, with things [sic.]; and besides, they come to us. (

I wanted to add to this that touch is the primordial sense out of which all other senses develop. I’ve been bogged down but I hope to write something soon on this. Touch is the first sense insofar as at conception we are already touching another body. It is from this symbiotic touching that all other differentiations that will result in an organism capable of all the other senses takes place. Touch is also the primordial sense in so far as it is the case that bodies are not completely withdrawn objects. It is my contention that whatever exists is a body and that all bodies are open to all other bodies in partial and diverse ways; corporealism is transcorporealism and thus no body is ever not interpenetrated by other bodies. Bodies may not always have the cognitive mechanisms for experiential contact with other bodies such that we think of in phenomenological terms, but they do nonetheless make material contact with one another in such a way that we can call all bodies transcorporeal; they become structurally coupled, nested, and or form intermatrices that are, in turn, new bodies. This is to say, with Mereleau-Ponty, that bodies are interwoven in such a way that the flesh of one body is bound up eroto-ontologically with the flesh of other objects. In their instituting interactions bodies of a particular kind, bodies that we call organisms, make contact with one another through various senses but these senses, when actively grasped and affirmed, are nothing more than the sensibility of flesh to itself. It is for this reason that for me all senses are tactile: they are always about ways of making direct contact with other objects. Even smell, though I might be smelling the scent of some no absent flower, is a mode of direct ontological contact between me and the particles that carry that scent, mediated through all the neurophysicological and anatomic matrices that occur in between. Contact does not allow, however, the complete identification of this body with that: the lovers never really dissolve into one another. The at of contact (a term I am taking from the dance world, in the sense of “contact improvisation”) is always an act of negotiating distances and proximities.

In Levi’s post he also points out that a materialist must pay attention to what he calls the thermodynamics of communication. To pick up on this thermodynamic point, I would prefer to stress that bodies- no matter if they are human, mineral, or machine- always have a particular metabolism. This is a thought that first occured to me when I was working with people with eating disorders. Usually, in biology, metabolism refers to the life-sustaining exchanges. Yet can’t this be extended to non-living bodies as well? For instance, the way that capitalist accumulation functions is to metabolise labour power through living bodies in order to generate value. Metabolism is the system of exchanges that any body uses to maintain, expand and reproduce itself. Metabolism involves the bringing into a complex system elements outside of it, whilst generating waste. In capitalism, from its perspective, waste is generated as unnecessary abundance (through the maintenance of artificial material scarcity) and in the production of superfluous bodies and subjectivities: the homeless, the unemployed, the illegal person and so on.

Just quick thoughts for the night before I turn in. Night all.

Toward a theory of ‘the new symptom’

Levi Bryant recently wrote a post outlining a paper he will be delivering to practicing Lacanian psychoanalysts, on ‘the new symptom‘. In this post I want to address his idea of “the new symptom” and its relationship to an interruption in the symbolic order produced by the shift from a paternal to a maternal superego. This is not so much a critique of Bryant’s position as it is a use of it to launch my own examination of an intuition I’ve had for some time regarding the superego. It is my contention that the superego is no longer maternal or paternal but bipolar: the superego of the capitalist present is ‘matripatriarchal’. Following Gregory Bateson, I provisionally explore the thesis that “the new symptom” is a frustrated and failed response to the exposure to a double-bind produced by a bivalent imperative: Enjoy Responsibly! In general terms, this post is best understood as contributing to a possible political therapeutics.

Politics and therapy will be one and the same activity in the coming
time. People will feel hopeless and depressed and panicking, because
they are unable to deal with the post-growth economy, and because they
will miss the dissolving modern identity. Our cultural task will be
attending to those people and taking care of their insanity, showing
them the way of a happy adaptation at hand. Our task will be the
creation of social zones of human resistance that act like zones of
therapeutic contagion. The process of autonomisation has not to be
seen as a Aufhebung , but as Therapy. (Franco Berardi. 2009. Communism or the therapy of singularisation).

As usual, what follows is provisional and very open to criticism. All references to Levi Bryant in this post refer to the post I’ve linked to above, unless otherwise stated.

Bryant suggests that the emergence of the new symptom is the result of a transformation of the symbolic order. He identifies three traits of the new clinically hegemonic disorders:

1) they are asignifying ; that they don’t contain a ‘veiled demand’ to the Other;
2) their jouissance doesn’t ‘pass through the battery of signifiers’. It should be remembered that these are Lacan’s terms and as such preserve a technical meaning. I don’t pretend to be a Lacan expert so my attempt to get to grips with these terms probably falls far short of Bryant’s intended use of them. That said, what is important here is the sense in which signification is identical with significance and meaning. When Bryant suggests that the “new symptom” is asignifying, that it ‘attempts to repress signification altogether’, he is putting forward the idea that it refuses to be meaningful to such a degree that it is not even meaningless. Instead, the new symptom doesn’t even appear on the horizon of meaning at all, not even as an empty space. At least, in his ginger repressive hypothesis, Bryant is stating that this is the “new symptoms’” goal: addiction aims at a disappearance from meaning and significance.

Insofar as there is no signification there is also no address to the other that is being hidden. The idea of a veiled demand implies that the demand made is not explicit. In a psychoanalytic frame, Lacan speaks about the hysterical demand. Accordingly, the hysteric demands that the analyst tell her who she is and in so doing asks an infinite demand that the analyst can’t possibly meet, any response failing to capture the inexhaustible field of the question ‘who am I?’. In making such a hysterical demand of the analyst, the hysteric is placing it in the position of subject-supposed- to-know that can simply give to her what is missing (the absent knowledge of self). This is always the demand that the analyst occupy the position of the master. This is an argument retraced in the Zizek-Critchley debate of a few years ago in which Simon Critchley suggested that politics should consist of a chain of such infinite demands, such as the demand for justice or equality, and that ethical experience is similarly structured by the imposition of such a demand. I invoke this moment because it is telling: Zizek’s reply consisted of suggesting that this is really a capitulation of political agency to the state, asking it to deliver for one what one wants. The anarchist demand for the abolition of the master, as Lacan himself pointed out, is actually a demand for a true master. It is a disavowed demand for a master who could deliver one’s desire without any gap, into whom one could dissolve in identity (a la a certain mystical understanding of god).
In truth, the demand to be told who one is translates as ‘I am whatever you say I am by virtue of you having said it’. In the psychoanalytic example, the analyst occupies the space of the Other. In the political example, the state occupies the space of the Other.

The Other in Lacan is not a human other. Although the Other can is approachable through another individual human being (ie; the analyst) its being Other exceeds that intersubjective relation. The individual other becomes Other when they are identified with the Symbolic order. More, the person of the analyst is the particularisation of the symbolic order for the subject that addresses it. The analyst embodies the symbolic order, and the symbolic order is the order of meanings without referents. In the proclamation, ‘the King is dead, long live the King!’ the term “king” signifies both the embodiment of the symbolic and the Symbolic itself. The first “king” is the physical person, Richard III for example, and it is identified as having died. A corpse can’t be king, it is not a person, it can’t exercise power or preside over court, and it can’t issue edicts or engage in the other practices that constitute the pragmatic reality of kinghood. The second king, the King, is the Symbolic King. This is the King without referent, the king which exists without any particular king physically occupying the throne; it is the office of the King that can’t be reduced to the carnal being that bears its title. “The king is dead, long live the King” can formally be translated as “the other is dead, long live the Other”.
So we have a very brief treatment of the demand and the Other, all that remains is the ‘battery of signifiers’. The battery of signifiers is a network of mutually determining terms that constitute a description of the structure of knowledge. In other words, the “battery” is a linguistic set that allow the articulation of knowledge. Even more simply, if the Symbolic can exist apart from its embodied manifestation (its signifier) then the “battery of signifiers” is what allows us to say so; it is verbal language itself, parole. The subject of the “new symptom” doesn’t have to pass through the web of words in order to get at its jouissance.

To define this last term, let me remind you that Freud thought that human being want both to reduce suffering and to increase intense feelings of pleasure but that it can only achieve one of these goals. In Freud’s treatment, unenlightened hedonism recedes into the background so that we can focus on the goal of avoiding pain. Jouissance is precisely the intense pleasure to be found in the recklessness of the pursuit of the repressed pleasure-seeking behaviour. What we have come to know as pleasure in the everyday sense doesn’t compare to the eruption of jouissance that, capturing its danger, Lacan said ‘starts with a tickle and ends up bursting into flames’ [1]. Jouissance is fundamentally an experience anchored in the transgression of this pleasure-principle. The pleasure-principle seeks only to satisfy need, operating as it does within the scope of the reality-principle’s recession of unabashed hedonism. Far from being an affirmation of instant gratification the pleasure-principle is in fact a limit on pleasure seeking that prevents an excessive amount of pleasure flooding the subject. It is this flooding that flows from the transgression of the dam constituted by the pleasure-principle that exposes the subject to an experience of too much pleasure. Jouissance is the eruption of pleasure that the subject can’t handle. As such, jouissance is suffering.

Returning to Bryant’s post we can see what is at stake in his description of the “new symptom”. It refuses signification, makes no demand of the Other, doesn’t enter the battery of signification, and therefore

3) has ‘a direct jouissance’.

Usually jouissance is blocked by the pleasure-principle which is immanent to the symbolic order, as is clear from that principle’s consisting of a prohibition. Lacan identifies the symbolic order with language and law. The symbolic is thus also that which structures what can be experience and what can’t, providing a regulatory function that operates through a system of prohibitions. We can think here of the Ten Commandments being a specific form of the symbolic that has passed through the battery of signifiers, with God as the Other and Moses as His embodiment as other. As far as “the new symptom” goes, we can think of the alcoholic in this way of ordering experience as the subject whose jouissance is dependent on the transgression of the prohibition on excess alcohol consumption, the prohibition on intoxication also being a transgression of not succumbing to base appetite. In other words, the alcoholic has jouissance only insofar as it is mediated by the symbolic. In the new frame, Bryant says, things are radically different: the subject has direct jouissance.

Bryant follows Lacan in describing a collapse of the discourse of the master, identifiable with the old frame, and its having been supplanted by the discourse of the capitalist. I won’t repeat Bryant’s retracing of that move here as I think the picture it produces is one that is instantly recognisable. Suffice to say that in the old frame the subject’s symptom was an attempt to signify something, to articulate some meaning that couldn’t be articulated. This last point is structural in Lacan, as the signifier can never signify the subject: ‘the signifier (S1) represents the subject ($) for another signifier’. In the new frame, this attempt at signification is abandoned. In a sense, this transition might be summarised as an obliteration of the Socratic frame, with its ancient injunction “Know Thyself”. It is here that Bryant makes the claim that I am keen to address.

In place of Know Thyself, Bryant states that there is a new ‘maternal superego (S1) that commands the subject ($) to enjoy in the form of commodities’. If the old discourse of the master (“Know Thyself”) has disappeared then it has been replaced by the new discourse of the capitalist (“Enjoy Thyself”). Bryant goes on to state that for Lacan no commodity can ever satisfy the enjoyment that the subject has been compelled to seek for structural reasons. Jouissance requires transgression of prohibition in order to be attained or even aimed at. In the absence of a prohibitive superego there is nothing for the subject to transgress. The enjoyment that the subject is compelled to seek is thus impossible owing to the very operation of that which compels it. For Bryant, insofar as we follow this pleasure imperative we are disappointed, frustrated, and wracked with guilt and anxiety as regards our failure. Bryant wants to suggest that the “new symptoms” are products of this new superego, raising the hoarding and compulsive shopper as its exemplars par excellence. They consumer and accumulate without end, with no eye to use-value. On the other end of the scale, the anorexic and the bulimic ‘refuse the command’. For Bryant, the addict is exemplary of capitalism because she does not require a master (God, state, nation- some Other to figure the symbolic) because the addiction-object occupies the empty space that the master would have been required to fill. In other words, we no longer have hysterics demanding the analyst constitute them through the psychoanalytic (linguistic) relationship, but addicts who attempt to constitute themselves through their addiction. The new symptom can’t be read metaphorically as they have been in the past because they do not address and do not pass through an Other. They are marked by a kind of ‘solipsistic autonomy’ where there is no positioning of the analyst as subject-supposed-to-know: the work of analysis reaches an aporia.

There is a lot in Bryant’s post to agree with but I want to suggest that this isn’t the full picture. I have had the sense that there is something missing from this picture of the maternal superego since I first read Zizek declaring that the prohibitive imperative has been replaced by one centred on enjoyment and consumption. I agree that the superego today compels the subject to enjoy but I don’t think it can be characterised so unilaterally. Instead, I want to put forward that the superego issues a double-bind. The double-bind was the theory put forward by psychologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson [2] to explain the development of schizophrenia. The essence of the theory is that the subject finds is located within a communication environment that is characterised by contradiction. For Bateson this environment was constituted by the contradictory communications issued within a family system. There are several elements to the double-bind that I will slightly modify for my own concerns:

1) It occurs within a system that is composed of at least two persons.
2) The experience that produces the symptom is a repeated activity that generates a primed expectation.
3) An explicit prohibition is issued (do/do not do x or you will be punished)
4) A contradictory injunction is issued that negates the prohibition but which is communicated implicitly.
5) A limit injunction is issued that prevents the subject from escaping the situation.
6) The establishment of the double-bind means that not all elements of that communication pattern need to be in place to generate the symptom.

Bateson never intended the theory of the double-bind as a complete aetiology of schizophrenia. Originally, the theory was meant to stand as the organising principle of all communication in the schizophrenic’s (familial) system. Conceived of as privileging the mother-child dyad, the image of a maternal superego remains apt. I am not attempting a full account of the production of the “new symptoms” (most of what Bryant says stands, and a number of other elements- such as embodiment- contribute). Similarly, I am not attempting to outline a general semiotic theory. This is a specific case, circumscribed to the present concerns, and only partial in its elaboration. This is less a full blooded theory and more the articulation of an intuition.

My intuition is that there is a version of the double-bind operating under capitalism. To explore this I need to map the algorithm of the double-bind map onto capitalism:

1) Capitalism is a system composed of multiple communicative agents (human and non-human).
2) The communicational pattern that produces the symptom is a repeated activity that generates a primed expectation.
3) An explicit imperative to enjoy! is issued (enjoy or you fail as a subject).
4) An implicit injunction is issued that contradicts the injunction to enjoy (the police, don’t steal, go to work, be cautious, vigilant, and so forth).
5) A limit injunction is issued that prevents the subject from escaping the situation (pay your rent, ‘that’s just the way it is’, ‘life is unfair’, ‘one man can’t do anything’ etc.).
6) Once the communicative pattern is established any one of these elements can trigger the double-bind experience.

There are several elements here that I need to justify. By communicative agents (communicants) I mean anything capable of engaging in communicative action towards the subject. In this way I am not invoking a notion of a moral agent possessed of a more-or-less freewill. Similarly, I don’t mean something like a political agent that has rights and responsibilities. In a much more straight forward way I am referring to anything with the capacity to communicate something to the subject. To illustrate this I will briefly discuss advertising.

Advertising is a form of communication that dominates the semiotic horizon of most cultures. I was born in an era already colonised by advertising and have grown up surrounded by jingles, images, billboards, chatter, pop-ups and so on and so on. Like most people living in affluent parts of the world today, I am saturated by advertising, my capacities for attention crowded by its hydra of messages. (I have a joke I tell people; I will remember my first advertising jingle long after dementia has eaten away the memories of my first love). Advertising as an industry is certainly a communicant in the sense I am proposing. However, most of us have a more immediate relationship with adverts that. There are material and semiotic communicants, although none exemplify advertising so much as television. In today’s digital culture the ”recommended for you” function of sites like Amazon is increasingly hegemonic. It almost goes without saying that human beings and nonhuman animals are also communicants (whether or not they have access to verbal language).

In this definition it could be said that I’m making everything into a communicant and therefore evacuating the concept of any meaning. There are two possible responses to this. First, communication is always the communication of information. To return to Bateson, we can add to this that communication is as he defined it ‘a difference that makes a difference’. For something to count as communication rather than simply noise (or movement) it has to make some kind of difference: it has to have an influence on that medium that receives it. Some change takes place in the receiver, a change that alters or maintains the receiver’s form. This second sense of influence is the same as in the case of the sudden disappearance of DNA. Were DNA to disappear, the organism would cease to exist; its presence makes the difference.
Even this isn’t enough though. As Bryant states in The democracy of objects [3], objects always have to bring something new into themselves in order to continue existing. He gives the example of conversation in that discussion: if conversational partners keep repeating the same thing then the conversation has ceased. The process “conversation” needs novelty to maintain itself. In the case of advertising, new adverts have to be produced all the time in order for the communicants to remain communicative (new adverts have to be produced; new consumer objects have to be produced), to keep making a difference that makes a difference. Information is thus something that communicants enact. As long as something is enacting an information exchange it can be called a communicant.

In my advertising example, it is clear to me that a billboard can be a communicant if it enacts an information exchange with its intended recipient, the consumer. A further complication here is whether or not the consumer is a communicant. Doesn’t communication require at least some kind of mutuality between parties? No, simply because we don’t expect to be able to enact an information exchange with a billboard. The consumer can’t exchange his information with the billboard and thereby influence that billboard as he walks by it (although he could certainly vandalise the bill-poster, altering its signification). It would seem that this would mean that the human being can’t be a communicant, but we know that humans communicate with one another all the time. This counter-intuitive non-communicativity of the human consumer (nations and corporations are consumers too) is strictly delimited within his relation to the billboard. When he talks to a sales-rep (a corporeal advert) he is certainly able to communicate and be communicated with; he may not be able to communicate with the car radio or the internet stream but these modes of transmission do allow the consumer to feedback about the advertising, and the amazon example is clearly one of (involuntary) information exchange from the human to the nonhuman. The point being, whether something is or is not a communicant depends upon the particular network of relations it is enacting at that time, and the direction of those interactions. The problem of communicative agency is a local, non-linear, one.

The second response to the claim that I am making everything into a communicant is based on the first. If my first response states that anything could be a communicative agent but that it is not necessarily one at this time, given these relations, then my second response would be: so what? No one is claiming that all communicants are equal. A cup might be capable of communication but I can’t conceive of a reason why I should want to devote time to finding out. For the same reason, I can’t imagine being upset by this claim. I grant that there are consequences to a position like this but at the moment I have already travelled further away from the double-bind than I intended. For now, I want to claim that the ‘so what?’ response is justified by thinking of communicants as dual, as either active or inactive. When a person is not engaged in the production of information-novelty, it is not the case that they have ceased to be a communicant merely that they have ceased to communicate. In other words, it is the capacity for communication that grants the status of communicant.

Capitalism is a system composed of multiple communicants. This is not to say that it is only composed of communicants. It is also not a claim circumscribed to capitalism. Under capitalism some communicants are more active than they have been in the past; new communicants have been produce; and others have become inactive or destroyed. Communicants are what lay down the communicational pattern of a given situation, thereby giving rise to ‘expectation’. I feel that expectation is a crucial and underexplored concept for understanding ourselves and the world around us, and I would like to elaborate on it here only very briefly.

In Luhmann’s [4] work expectations are not just anticipations regarding the future. Expectations form a structural part of the communicative process. When an agent communicates with another agent it must assume that each of them have a shared world of meaning. In Lacanian terms the assumption is that their battery of signifiers is structured around the same master-signifier or Other. In making this assumption the agent is able to formulate an expectation that the communication will succeed. This is clearly at odds with my own view of communicants: a billboard could no more expect a subject to understand it than it could give birth. This only means that expectations only belong to some communicants. Expectations have a second role in Luhmann’s, they modify the behaviour of the agent. When I meet my doctor and I give her a list of my symptoms, I expect that she will listen and prescribe an appropriate treatment regime. This is an example of a situation with pretty high ‘expectational security’. This picture can be complicated if we include the doctor’s expectations of my expectations of her. This is what Luhmann refers to as ‘expectation-expectation’. Here, there is clearly more room for things to go wrong with the communicative relationship. If I came to my doctor and proceeded to eat a tin of dog food with sex toys for cutlery it would be fair to say my doctor’s expectations would have failed. Should she respond by joining me, clearly my expectations of her expectations would have failed. At a socio-political level we can detect in this a possible theory of international law, for example. What I want to emphasise here is that it is clear that these expectations are structural units of engagement in the world for the subject. The subject simply couldn’t go about its daily life without expectations that structure its behaviour. The point is, expectations are action-oriented. A further point is to emphasise that expectations are expectations: there is no reason to think they correspond to reality. Actually, they regularly fail to correspond to reality. This allows us to be shocked, surprised, informed, intrigued, delighted and seduced. It is also a source of certain experiences of disappointment, disenchantment, hopelessness and loss.

With Luhmann, we see that expectations are based on a more fundamental assumption. It is the assumption that (a particular set of ) communicants have a shared world of meaning. This returns us to Lacan. The idea is that we assume that the symbolic order is operative and efficient. Rather than following Lacan, I want to deploy the psychiatrist C.M. Parkes [5] concept of the assumptive world. This assumptive world was developed as a way of talking about core conceptual schemas that persons develop in order to organise their experience on the world based on past experience. I would propose that this ‘assumptive world’ is what gives rise to the ability to build expectations. To mark the difference, let’s consider what happens when expectations fail. We can be surprised or embarrassed or disarmed or endangered. When the assumptive world fails, as Kaufman’s ‘Safety and the assumptive world’ points out, ‘All is lost. Hope is lost’. Whilst expectation is action-oriented, the assumptive is the subjective condition for the possibility of expectation formation. Essentially, the destruction of the assumptive world injects nihilism into the game, and the ability of certain systems to form expectations is destroyed.

Alongside the breakdown of the prohibitive superego we have also seen the re-composition of the assumptive world. This is another way of phrasing the liquidity of liquid modernity, or the idea that all that is solid melts into air. I am not claiming a causal relationship here, just stating that these two moments occur at the same time. Just as the superego doesn’t disappear, I am also not stating that the assumptive world has disappeared. Where the paternal superego forbade, the maternal compels enjoyment.
I want to suggest that the maternal and the paternal actually operate in tandem. The maternal voice is clearly the dominant one in today’s capitalism, but it is too much to suppose that the paternal voice has disappeared or that we can let it disappear from our discourse. The current communicational pattern of capitalism, as a system of systems, as an intermatrices, is one in which two messages circulate at the same time and directed toward the subject. We could identify the maternal superego with the kind of capitalism that Bryant points to, whilst the paternal voice would be (porously) confined to the biopolitical and the juridical.

In Bateson, the three moments of the communicational pattern can all be made to coincide. I think this happens in the phrase that we see a lot in advertising here in the UK: please enjoy responsibly. This is a clearly not a prohibitive statement: It does not say, do not enjoy. It says enjoy, but do it within the limit. Yet the superego which issues this paradoxical injunction ‘enjoy responsibly’ does not set the limit. Yes, there are official alcohol limits and this phrase does come in the small print of screen adverts for alcohol. But it is small print; the subject is not encouraged to look. The subject isn’t really meant to know how much the healthy limit is. He is supposed to enjoy, but he isn’t meant to really enjoy. This is less about jouissance as the transgression of the pleasure-principle and more about a perversion of the pleasure-principle itself. The twin imperatives are launched at one and the same time: hedonic abandon and responsibility. Enjoyment does not become the coincidence of pleasure with duty, as in certain strains of Roman thought, but because the continuous wrenching of pleasure from itself. It is in this sense that the “bipolar superego” produces a disjunction within the subject. It occupies the subject through the endocolonisation and structuring of her enjoyment. If we turn to Epicurus we are told that

The body receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, grasping in thought what the end and limit of the body is, and banishing the terrors of futurity, procures a complete and perfect life, and has no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless it does not shun pleasure, and even in the hour of death, when ushered out of existence by circumstances, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life. (Epicurus, Principle Doctrines).

In the present historical juncture, Epicurus would have to restate this for a subject exposed to the erasure of an understanding of ‘the end and limit of the body’. Today, one must enjoy but without knowing how much and how far to go…what is the end of pleasure for us? What is too much?

It is in this context that I think Bryant is correct in asserting that there is something particular to the present about the OCDs, the eating disorders. The question is not the question of a binary choice between the absolute affirmation and the absolute negation of the superego’s injunction. The question that “the new symptom” is a frustrated and failed attempt to answer is that of this bipolarity and the disappearance of the limit of pleasure and with it, control. None of this is to say that these symptoms are new, but that the novelty of “the new symptom” is constituted by the hegemonic presence of these symptoms.
I want to suggest that the actual clinical subjects of these “new symptoms” are subject to an infinite responsibility. If Adrian Johnston’s [6] characterisation of the prohibitive function as serving to produce ‘external barriers to impossible jouissance to relieve the subject of the burden of having to discover that enjoyment fails, that drives are constitutively dysfunctional’ then the anorexic, the hoarder, and the compulsive shopper are exposed precisely to failure, dysfunction, antagonism. They live this ‘plaguing’, as Johnston calls it, by enact ‘plagued’ ways of coping with that exposure. The rich and invaluable autobiographies and phenomenographic studies into anorexic experience reveal again and again the dimension of it as an illness that enacts a failed attempt to control the body, to find the limit of the embodied experience of enjoyment, and the dual “daemonic voices” of self-loathing and perfectionism. When we work with hoarders, we are working with people unable to stop themselves from consuming economically but unable to consume actually. With the obsessive-compulsives disorders we have people unable to prize apart what is information from what is noise (I once worked with a person who drove for hours to return to a billboard he had passed but not paid “close enough attention” to).

The novelty of “the new symptom” isn’t to be found in the emergence of these symptoms as new but in their origination as a partial response to the double-bind experience that I have been outlining. As a word of caution, I don’t think we can use a model like this one to explain all symptoms. The attempt to provide a single, coherent aetiological theory for the origin, development, and maintenance of any psychopathological experience is bound to fail and to limit our possible therapeutic horizons. The situational embeddedness of each person displaying or giving voice to these symptoms has to be given serious attention. We have to also consider the corporeality of these symptoms: the material body, the material spaces and places of enactment (cf. Megan Warin’s brilliant 2009 Abject Relations: everyday worlds of anorexia), and the question of whether these symptoms can be considered a kind of material-semiotic that doesn’t require a passage through language to be communicative. This last point is the reason I have reservations about including self-harm (“cutters”) in the chain of symptoms nominated as “the new symptom”, as their communicative appeal to others is often vividly emphasised (cf. Marliee Strong’s theoretical and phenomenographic A bright red scream: self-mutilation and the language of pain). As a practitioner, it is important to me to remember that each individual presentation, each individual experience, requires is its own. This theory is therefore a kind of perspicuous representation of the situation at large. I hope to approach the question of treatment in a future post. I hope it is clear by now that I consider the question of treatment not just within the clinic but also as politics. The task is to unite names like Marx, Kropotkin, and Foucault with those of Epictetus, Epicurus, and Wittgenstein.

[1] Jacques Lacan. 1991. Le séminaire. Book 17: L’envers de la psychanalyse (1969-1970). Paris: Seuil.
[2] Gregory Bateson. 1953. Toward a theory of schizophrenia. Behavioural science. 1953:1[4].
[3] Levi Bryant. 2011. The democracy of objects. Open Humanities Press.
[4] Niklas Lurmann. 1995. Social systems. California: Stanford University Press.
[5] C.M Parkes. 1988. Bereavement as a psychosocial transition: process of adaptation to change. Journal of social issues. 1988: 44]. pp.53-65.
[6] Adrian Johnston. The forced choice of enjoyment. The symptom.

Between Epicurus and Epictetus

The contents of this post were originally a comment on Levi Bryant’s latest post. For whatever reason, my posts aren’t displayed on Levi’s blog. Most likely, its because he doesn’t feel my comments add much to the conversation or because they’ve been accidentally filed in ‘spam’. Whatever the reason, I’m putting them up here in case someone finds them of any interest.


Hi :Levi,

I’ve been spending sometime exploring pre-Socratic and Hellenistic schools of philosophy and I have to say I agree with you (with a disagreement). I’ve come to think of the Stoics as providing the basis that you feel Epicureanism provides…although on the understanding that the two schools were involved in a dialectical process of formation and that the later Roman Stoics (Seneca especially) was open to Epicurean principles that he felt didn’t contradict the prime goal of attaining equanaminity. Indeed, in modern times EM Cioran seems to have been among the philosophers to hold each up as describing worthy modes of being. The core tenet shared by both the Stoa and the Epicureans was the alleviation of suffering through becoming psychologically unperturbed. Although there physics were different and they stressed different routes to the Good Life there is no reason a Lucretius and an Epictetus might not be set into meaningful dialogue.

On those Kantian questions, I can give my reading of a Stoic’s answer…I don’t know the degree to which the Epicurean would agree. First of all, we establish ethics and engage in normative politics because of we recognise the potentiality to inflict suffering that the human being is inclined towards. There would be no reason to set-up so exacting a regulatory principle as the Stoic Sage and to seek to quieten the negative passions, if people in their “natural state”, their spontaneous state, didn’t cause themselves and others so much harm.

I very much like your formulation of the questions “why won’t we kill each other?” as a historically determined question dependent on material conditions for its occasioning. I think the Stoics had an answer to this as well in their principle of “fittingness” or “aptness”. Human being are social animals to the Stoics, so it is “apt” that they behave according to that sociality. For Epictetus this meant children respecting parents, for Marcus Aurelius it meant fulfilling his duty to Rome as emperor whilst also remaining committed to his stoical principles. For us, in our own historically contingent material social conditions, aptness might retain features of old but it might also include new features. On killing, it isn’t apt for a social animal to kill without very good cause (and even when such cause is presented, we don’t always accept it without critical scrutiny- as in the case of police or military actions). On power, whereas for Marcus it meant accepting his fate as the embodiment of Rome, for us, with the historically accrued knowledge and awareness we have about the operations of power, its ability to produce suffering and undo serenity, it is fitting that we challenge power to the degree that such is in our control. This is admittedly broad because it is in my control (against Epictetus’s absolutism regarding control), in the social order in which I live, to sign petitions, to read and produce texts on overcoming voluntary servitude and becoming ungovernable, to attempt to establish a political or labour organisation, to undertake projects of directly establishing zones of counter-power with other, ranging from community projects like allotments to occupations and autonomous institutions. Zeno of Citiium’s Republic was supposed to have verged on an anarchist utopia.

Returning to the question of the psychopath and the sadist, the limit-subjects of ethico-political discourse, I agree totally that they are presented as cases where ethics fails then we’re left with an argument against ethicity and politics. I agree that these questions ignore essential parts of your Borromean social theory. As a psychiatric nurse the question of “what to do with the psychopath?” is one I’ve had to consider and had cause to discuss. From the perspective of nursing, this Borromean theory is a way of thinking thus far always absent (except in rhetoric) biopsychsocial model of healthcare. I can’t speak to the sadist’s experience being a necessary limit to ethics, simply because their are too many variations of sadism (many of consensual) but the psychopath…

First of all, if the psychopath makes challenges our ethics, if it makes our ethics blush, if we can’t decide then aren’t we in the undecidable? The very condition of the possibility to make an ethical decision? Otherwise, we’re just technicians applying principles of technocratic social engineering.

Secondly, if the psychopath is materially, neurologically unable to recognise the affectivity of others or to introject an ethics then it is not the fault of others and of ethics. There is a sense in which the limit-figures of ethics are left outside of it. It seems to me this is what places them directly at its heart, if part of our ethicity and social organisation is to take-care of those who are incapable. I would suggest that it falls to us, and perhaps specifically to an enlightened psychiatry, to care for those unable to care. Aptness can even play a role here. It is is not fitting (or rational, or just) to punish dementia patient’s for their violent outbursts, young children for their tantrums and assertions of independence, or to knowingly engage in sexual relationships with people in a state of mania. Similarly, how can it be fitting to punish a psychopath for breaching an ethics she can “know” but not “from the inside”?

In another sense, doesn’t the psychopath deserve our compassion simply for being so close yet so distant from full integration into a vibrant community?

Political plasticity: part one.

Thus, even more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation; it is, as its common name indicates, ubiquity made visible; and it is indeed in this aspect that it stands as a miraculous matter: the miracle is always a brusque conversion of nature. Plastic has remained totally impregnated with this admission: it is less an object than the trail of a movement.-Roland Barthes.

Recently there has been something of a disagreement going on in the philosophical blogosphere that revolves around Alex Galloway’s accusation of the capitalism inherent in object-oriented thought and certain people close to speculative realism. This disagreement has produced a few interesting comments, not least among them Levi Bryant’s post Pluripotecy: some remarks on Galloway. I don’t want to dwell on the specifics of that disagreement but I do want to elaborate some kind of commentary on a part of Levi’s post dealing with Galloway, and an earlier post entitled Networks. I want to talk about, in a modest way, political plasticity. In order to talk about political plasticity I want to get more intimate with the idea of plasticity as such, and in order to do so I want to outline a story. In Adam Curtis style, this is the abbreviated story of how neuroplasticity came to be our dominant conceptual frame for talking about the brain.

At this point most people know that neuroscience has undergone a shift in its understanding of the brain. The brain used to be thought of as having all of its basic organic units, neurons, from birth and that these units were organised and fixed in that organisation within the developmental period of infancy and early childhood. The brain was seen as a three pound mass arranged in a static manner that did not elaborate beyond that early development. What a brain was, what it could, was fixed and any further changes in neuroanatomical structures and functions were those produced by psychiatric conditions and trauma or disease mediated impairment. If what a brain could do changed, if it deviated from its fundamental wiring, this could only be conceived in terms of aberration, deterioration, and degeneration. The brain was rigid, total, and closed. Maybe the most extreme example of this comes from the work of the man who has been seen as the father of modern psychiatry, Emile Kraepelin. It was Kraepelin who first documented the existence of what would come to be known to this day as the schizophrenias but which he tellingly named dementia praecox. This earlier name meant that the brain of the individual who suffered from the so defined psychotic illness had entered an inevitable decline in its capacities that could only result in death. ‘Dementia praecox’ translates as ‘premature dementia’ and a dementia is an organic brain disease in which cognitive capacities are progressively and irreversibly eroded. For Kraepelin the essence of the disease lay in its incurability. Much can be said about this conception of a form of distress that remains controversial today, especially in regard of how it shapes and legitimises so much of psychiatry’s power whilst revealing the paucity of scientific authority that justifies and naturalises that power, but this is not the place for such a discussion. The point here is that Kraepelin, a well respected empirical scientist who sought to alleviate human suffering, could not conceive of what some would now call an example of neurodiversity (or brain difference) as anything but a tragic affliction that moved only in the direction of increasing madness that resulted in an inevitable death. If the brain was static than any variability was evidence of, and constitutive of, pathology. The brain could not differ from itself. I would also contend that contemporary psychiatric practice, despite changes in its theoretical pronouncements, remains utterly Kraepelinian.

The paradigm shift alluded to above, and with which most people concerned with the mind in any sense are now familiar, was enacted by the discovery of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Neurogenesis refers to the fact that brains produce new neurons throughout the life of the organism, and neuroplasticity refers to the fact that both new and existing neurons and neuronal circuits continually undertake restructuring and changes to their function in response to interactions with the environment. Much more can be said about neuroplasticity and the way this dynamic is embodied, and how this relates to our evolutionary becoming as a species, but for our present purposes the important thing to note is how this discovery fundamentally alters how we conceive of what a brain can do. The brain is not a fixed unit in the way that Kraepelin would have understood it in the 1800s but is open and responsive to experience. The brain, in a popular phrase, is plastic.

The picture elaborated here that sees a historical shift in our understanding of the brain might not be as significant as this brief sketch of the story makes out. It is not so much that the story is inaccurate as it is that some voices have been raised to ask to what degree the transition between these two pictures of the brain are ruptural, and to what extent the plasticity story has become a rhetorical narrative without content. First of all, and this is nothing revelatory to say, the idea of the brain being plastic is not entirely without precedent. In William James’s landmark text The principles of psychology the pragmatist philosopher postulated that the brain was capable of reorganisation in response to experience as early as 1890. Again, in 1896 George R. Wilson published a text on the roles of what would later be called neurogenesis and neuroplasticity play in psychiatric disorders. Indeed, work can be found that discusses plasticity of brain tissue and function from the 1890s onward, with the term ‘neuroplasticity’ being coined in 1948. The second point concerns the way in which plasticity is regularly deployed popularly without much in the way of explanation or specificity, becoming a kind of empty signifier that merely means that the brain is capable of change.

There are several ways in which the brain is considered plastic. For instance, the connections between neurons can change in strength becoming stronger or weaker, more or less effective. In this instance, known as synaptic plasticity, the quantity of neurotransmitters release to a synapse across the gap between two neurons can be higher or lower and this, in turn, can alter how receptors respond to that neurotransmission. Synaptic plasticity can also refer to how many receptors are available to receive a given neurotransmitter that has been released. This is effectively a material change of the way in which parts of the brain communicate with one another and it underlies the so-called dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia, which is that either a change in the quantity or in sensitivity to the neurotransmitter dopamine produces psychotic symptoms that lead clinicians to diagnose someone as schizophrenic. I will not run through all of the ways in which neuroplasticity can be conceived but I will point to a recent study that is indicative of a new form of plasticity that is a candidate for showing how social isolation can affect the brain such that the form of experience we call depression emerges [link
The point of these examples is that when we discuss how the brain can be plastic we are referring to specific material processes in the biology of consciousness. A further point is the way that when we pay attention to the specifics we discover that our experience shapes our brain which shapes our experience. We could go on here to discuss the example of depression I link to and how this shows that all this is an issue of embodiment for social isolation means nothing if it does not mean the withdrawal of a body from interaction with other bodies in a shared social space. However, that would be to wander to far from path I am treading. To summarise, the discovery of neuroplasticity is a real and important contribution to neurology and to its contribution to how we understand ourselves, but it is one that has been seen as creating an abyss between historical and contemporary brain science and, by extension, an analogous abyss between one conception of human nature and another. Instead, there has been something of an evolution in the understanding of neuroplasticity even if it is one that stumbled forward without having always enjoyed the status of mainstream banality that its rhetorical use indicates its conceptual handling currently enjoys. This is not dissimilar to something I want to talk about under the name political plasticity. This kind of plasticity is not new, and I am not sure I can do justice to it in what follows. All the same, I’ll go on.

I want to turn to Catherine Malabou’s way of talking about plasticity, a concept she derives from both neuroscientific discourse and Hegelian dialectical philosophy and which she has been developing throughout her philosophical career. For Malabou neuroscience seems to have done what Foucault thought that theory had failed to achieve; to cut off the king’s head. Anyone reading this is probably familiar with the idea of the head as a metaphorical stand-in for the sovereign in political philosophy, especially in Rousseau and Hobbes’s Leviathan. The sovereign is usually thought of as the head, the mind, the brain, the organ that co-ordinates, dominates, originates, and typifies the state in these discourses of the body-politic. The brain is thought to make all the decision and this translates in a way that is immediately understandable to the justification that the sovereign is the one who makes all the decisions, who keeps the rest of the body in line and making sure the hand performs the job assigned it, while the stomach performs the job assigned to it. The head maintains order. This is the idea of the brain-sovereign. I make no claims to originality when I say that this is the statist body; the body determined by the head. One of Malabou’s claims in What should we do with our brains? is that the science of neuroplasticity exposes the error of this organising conceptual metaphor. We might think that this opens up a space to think about a non-statist political philosophy but Malabou doesn’t follow that route. She goes on to instead draw parallels between the neuroscientific and the post-Fordist discourses of flexibility, of the ability to infinitely reorganise, and to hierarchies that don’t localise or ossify but remain open and nodal. Foucaultian power, the society of control, neoliberalism look just like the supposedly new image of the brain that neuroscience has discovered. To this list of terms for palpating late capitalism Malabou adds that what she is discussing, this decentralised acephalic body-politic, is ‘neuronal ideology’. The plastic brain does not have fixed centres, it does not have permanent circuits without their continual activation and reactivation, and it is always open to new circuits and pathways being forged. So to the plastic society and the plastic market. (Here one might legitimately ask if this hadn’t already been described by the Marxist observation that all that is solid melts into air). In her own words:

Employability is synonymous with flexibility. We recall that flexibility, a management watchword since the seventies, means above all the possibility of instantly adapting productive apparatus and labor to the evolution of demand. It thus becomes, in a single stroke, a necessary quality of both managers and employees. If I insist on how close certain managerial discourses are to neuroscientific discourses, this is because it seems to me that the phenomenon called “brain plasticity” is in reality more often described in terms of an economy of flexibility. (Malabou 2008, What should we do with our brains? p.46).

What Malabou is talking about here is the well established identification of the condition of labour as one of precarity. The history of precarity is the history of the rise of neoliberalism and carries us into the current condition of austerity, the nostalgic retrofitting of neoliberal policy and aesthetics. Of course we should be careful to note, as Mario Tronti and others in the autonomist tradition have, that the production of precarity was not the nefarious design of a contingent of ruthless venture capitalists but also depended upon the demands of an increasingly powerful labour movement (although capitalists do not escape the circuit, to continue the neuronal metaphor). In the 1970s labour figured flexibility as a kind of decoupling from a life dominated by work, by its patterns, space, places, and routines. Flexibilisation meant a degree of autonomy. The shift from such an autonomy to the conditions of neoliberalism and austerity have been well traced at this point and don’t bear repeating here. Suffice to say, the power of workers to live independently of capital’s demands was directly translated into one of capital’s most potent modes of organising labour and life thereafter. It is in part because of this translation and domestication that Malabou wants to redeem what is plastic from neuroplasticity and late capitalism’s alleged convergence, and to activate political and neuronal circuits that break with those responsible for our domestication. As she puts it the goal is to ‘refuse to be flexible individuals who combine a permanent control of the self with a capacity to self-modify at the whim of fluxes, transfers, and exchanges, for fear of explosion’ (ibid. p.78).
Against the neurocapitalist picture of plasticity as an infinite flexibility, of being an ever ready to be modified subject, happy to fit itself to whatever market produced social conditions it finds itself in by seeking the most adaptive and well regulated affective, existential, and social responsivity, Malabou wants to think plasticity differently. Malabou again:

The word plasticity thus unfolds its meaning between sculptural molding and deflagration, which is to say explosion. From this perspective, to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in not only the creation of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model”

(ibid. p. 6).

I have admittedly glossed over several steps in Malabou’s argument in order to arrive at a point where we can talk about plasticity in a different mode. The point isn’t whether or not Malabou’s account of plasticity is true but whether it can be used as an organising metaphor for thinking politically. In this last quote plasticity is not meant to be received by us as the idea of an infinite flexibility or as a naturalisation of that same flexibility but rather as a name that gives expression to a dialectical tension between creation and destruction. Plasticity is the name of a process of creative refusal, of a kind of wilful divergence from typicality or the same. As such that which is plastic is understood as that which produces itself and simultaneously undoes itself, that which denies its own stasis and sets itself again in motion, a kind of restlessness. In the same text Malabou will talk about the plastic brain as ‘formable and forming’. To be the kind of thing that is formable is to be the kind of thing that has as its condition the capacity to be given form but at the same time to be the kind of thing that is forming is also to be the kind of thing that has as its condition the capacity to form itself and its environment. Essentially, this is a dynamic dialectic that occurs within and outside of the plastic thing. The plastic has no essence outside its giving and being given form. Between the thing and its environment there is an agency that cannot be located in one of these terms but arises out of the interaction of their separate agencies. Malabou uses the example of clay in order to talk about things that have the capacity to be given form. Let’s consider that.

In pottery one begins with clay. The potter is presented with a lump of earth, a malleable lump of wet, cold clay. This clay is not presented to the potter without form. It looks like a lump of clay; it is a block of brown, yielding but resistant, solid matter. As a block it has a shape and has dimension in three dimensional space. It feels cold in the potter’s hand, and when wet it will feel slick and slippery. It smells a particular way and is mottled in particular ways. Some of those mottles were there when it was presented to the potter and some may have been caused by her fingers pressing in as she examined its dimensions. The clay is a material thing with a form the potter has not bestowed on it. The clay must be wedged, either by hand or by machine, in order that air bubbles that would cause cracks in its surfaces in the kiln are removed. Next, the clay is made into a ball (or a series of smaller balls maybe) and thrown onto the wheel. Now on the wheel the intended form is moulded by hand and maybe with the aid of other tools. A number of other steps might take place before it’s fired in the kiln but it is at the point of throwing the clay that we’ll stop. Things can go wrong at the throwing stage. The potter, if inexperienced, might fail to produce the shape they wanted to or, as can happen, the intended shape may be abandoned out of a sense that it is not ‘in’ the clay, that some other shape is ‘in’ the clay. What is the point of this? That clay, Malabou’s example of a formable thing, is already the kind of thing that can partake in its being given form. The potter’s autonomy is not absolute, she must work on a pre-existent form, with the use of multiple other objects, and learned techniques, and, even if she is an expert, the clay might resist the model of her intended product. Between her imagination, the material ensemble required, her eyes and hands and the clay itself, interactions take place. It might well be that this is not so dramatic an example as we could think of but I like it for its modesty. Were this a post on ontology I would be tempted to pursue the notion that substance is itself plastic.

A quick summation of the plastic: the plastic is something that forms and is given form, or more importantly has the capacity to form or be given form. The plastic can form and can be given form. Plastics are thus always open to environmental others. They are also the kind of thing that in activating their capacity to provide themselves form, to do forming, are also engaged in a process of un-forming. Plastics as I am discussing them are neither static nor infinitely flexible, neither ossified and rigid, nor flowing and nebulous. Plastics are also able to resist and maintain their form under pressure; what enters into relations with them does not necessarily re-structure them. Plastics are therefore constitutively resistant or autonomous materials. It is here that I want to turn to Levi Bryant’s recent response to Alex Galloway’s criticism of object-oriented thinkers like himself, Timothy Morton, and Graham Harman. Levi writes that

If everything is defined by the historical setting in which it emerged, if things– above all people –are not pluripotent such that they harbor potentials in excess beyond the way they’re related and deployed in the present, then there’s no hope for ever changing anything. Everything will be tainted through and through by the power dynamics in which it emerged. Everything will be but an expression of those networks of power. It is only where relations can be severed and where entities are pluripotent that emancipatory change is possible.

What I take from Levi’s remarks here, and it is a point that he has stressed on several occasions, is that emancipatory politics, a politics that still identifies itself with revolution and at least a spark of utopian hope, can only exist where things (social systems and all their constituents, including individuals, for instance) have the capacity to give form and to be formed. In order to do either of these things they must not be fixed. In Levi’s terms things are always pluripotent (meaning something like ‘having many powers’) in the same sense that I have been talking about things being plastic. I turn to Levi and draw on this quote in particular because it situates plasticity in a political and not simply metaphorical or ontological context. Levi’s pluripotency is a condition of politics as much as it is a condition of the people and things caught up in those politics. Here Levi seems to be suggesting that a good part of politics has precisely to do with enacting the severing of the dynamical interaction between specific objects and returning things to a more active plasticity. It is only if we are plastic, only if we are not fixed and static (either as defined by history or, as others might want to claim, genetics) that change even makes sense. It is only in our being able to be re/deformed that we can hope for a better world. This conception of agreement finds contemporary resonance in Ranciere’s theorisations of dissensus as the provocation and creation of disruptions in the circuits of power and in the aesthetic arrangement of knowledge, space, bodies, and their acts and productions that maintain those circuits. That relations have the capacity to be otherwise than they are is precisely what makes emancipatory politics even a possibility, and it is also what makes the project so fraught and rife with sectarian conflicts. There is a choreography involved in radical politics, a setting of bodies in motion so that they move differently with one another and with themselves, but no dance follows its choreography perfectly (indeed, the relationship between the choreographic imagination and the concrete dance is a relationship of intense plasticity). The practice of radical politics thus reveals itself as being a practice that admits to and affirms the plasticity of the situation and its players.

What then is political plasticity? Sure, it is just the practice of blowing up social relations, of disrupting them and attempting to find new ways of relating- to our fellow persons, to social groups, to our environment, to the digital sphere, to production, consumption, and whatever else finds itself way into our politics. I also want to suggest it is more than only that and, just like with the story of neuroplasticity and its supposed paradigm rupturing status, this is something that has been around for a long time.

In an earlier post Levi wrote that ‘[N]etworks won’t save us, nor will assemblages. Sometimes we contrast networks and hierarchies in value-laden terms. “Networks good, hierarchies bad!” But like any ontological truth, networks are just what there is’. We have already seen that whether we use Foucaultian, Deleuzian, or neuronal terms this remains the case. The network is an ascendant metaphor and reality, with some decrying it as the ultimate diffusion of power and others embracing it as a decentralised form of social and political organisation. In the same post on networks Levi characterises anarcho-communism as a type of politics that wants to abolish what he calls ‘. These hubs are any specialised social material organisation or object that you have to pass through in order to achieve some given intended end- Levi gives the example of an airport as being a ‘hub’ that allows you to get from your home location to some other location; we could equally well call them checkpoints or, in neuronal terms, ‘centres’. In order for some centres to operate they must pass through other centres. Levi provides the example of construction having to pass through fossil fuels. We could also think about the neuroscientist who must pass through the medical school, or the unemployed worker who must pass through the department of work and pensions. In Levi’s post he states that the communists are the party who want to create new hubs, and he calls this revolution, and states that the anarcho-communist wants to remove all hubs in favour of ‘a distributed network’. It is with this notion of anarcho-communism as seeking a distributed network that I want to introduce the kind of political plasticity I have in mind, in part because I take issue with this characterisation of anarchism, and, more to the point, because it allows me to show that the suggestion that plasticity is a political concept is as old as anarcho-communism itself.

It is in Anarchist communism: its basis and principles that we find a reference to plasticity. In Kropotkin’s massively influential 1927 pamphlet plasticity is not derived from findings from neuroscience but is nonetheless a metaphor that is deployed from within the findings of natural science, specifically from his appreciation of Darwinian evolutionary theory. To quote

By bringing to light the plasticity of organization, the philosophy of evolution has shown the admirable adaptability of organisms to their conditions of life, and the ensuing development of such faculties as render more complete both the adaptations of the aggregates to their surroundings and those of each of the constituent parts of the aggregate to the needs of free cooperation.

What we find here is a brief statement of Kropotkin’s commitment to evolutionary theory, a commitment he is well known for, and one that is perhaps more nuanced than many others who made evolution in a metaphor for political philosophy. Where we might think about evolution as providing a theoretical bedrock (often unarticulated) for teleological progressivist tendencies in the history of political philosophy, those characterised by the idea that some social end would necessarily be accomplished by the movement of history itself (the classless society, the stateless society, the end of history, the triumph of capitalism being the culmination of all historical becoming), Kropotkin isn’t a part with such tendencies. In the above quote Kroptokin clearly has an appreciation of evolution as being a process in which organisms respond or react to the ‘conditions of their life’. Indeed, Kropotkin is well known to have rejected the progressivist elaboration of evolutionary theory propounded by Lamarck. Indeed, against this reading Kropotkin saw periods of biological and social change as episodic and violent, determined by conditions of necessity. Elsewhere, in Anarchism: its philosophy and ideal, Kropotkin would write that his idea of an anarchist society, one fully consonant with the aims of communism, was on that aimed toward

[t]he highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims; everchanging, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms.

I would suggest that the evolutionary metaphor that allows Kropotkin to talk about the plasticity of organisation is exactly what allows him to talk about a society that constantly alters the nature of relationships between people in such a manner as to be both durable and taking on new forms. Here, the evolutionary metaphor allows Kropotkin to speak of social organisation as being both stable and enduring whilst being dynamically open to the conditions of life. Anarchist forms do not collapse or dissolve, nor do they remain as they are once they have been established. Yet doesn’t this dialectic between the rigid and the fluid, exhibiting a kind of closure and openness in terms of formation, bring us in line with the ideas of plasticity and plastics we have been discussing? Plasticity finds itself somewhere between, and in a strange antagonism with, rigidity and fluidity, the fixed and the flowing. I want to suggest that this is the kind of social and political organisation that is favoured by anarcho-communism and that this is what makes it the plastic politics.

I’ll hopefully pursue this in the second part of this post. In that second part I will discuss forms of anarchist political organisation in the light of this discussion and attempt to sketch the ways in which they attempt to be at once susceptible to the milieu from which it is organised and resists that milieu so as not to suffer a breakdown of integrity. As I have also used Malabou in the foregoing, it might make sense to return and speak briefly about her notion of a destructive plasticity, as developed in Ontology of the accident. To draw this to a conclusion I want to make it clear that this isn’t really a statement of belief as it is a working through of these ideas. I remain open to being told that this is all nonsense, I’m an unrepentant amateur 🙂

Anarchy of Objects

Levi Bryant has a post up linking to a review of his Democracy of Objects in the latest edition of Continent that places that book, and Bryant’s wider project, within the tradition of anarchism. Bryant has himself recently suggested that Democracy of Objects should have been called the Anarchism of Objects.

In this connection I wrote a couple of articles back in 2010 on my old blog, under my old psuedonym ‘dronemodule’, that pre-date even Timothy Morton‘s identification of anarchism and object-oriented philosophy.

The articles:

Object-oriented anarchism?

Proudhou: ‘ideo-realism’

My relationship to OOO and to anarchism are ambivalent. I swerve into and away from both on an elliptical orbit. The essence of my work, such as it is, on this blog is an explication of a kind of pessimism that seems to undo the optimism of both of these positions. Yet, OOO is an ontology; anarchism a politics; pessimism a temperament and an ethics. Perhaps they don’t necessarily collide with each other. Or perhaps the point is to be able to bear the way that any intellectual engagement with the condition of things- especially one as half-cocked as mine- just doesn’t make sense…even resists sense. Of the three anarchism is that position which I find most unshakeable, the one tradition that I seem to be unable to free myself from despite finding myself as an employee of the state as a psychiatric nurse.

The review of Bryant’s book makes direct reference to Hakim Bey’s beautifully poetic book Temporary Autonomous Zones and other essays . This text has long had a disavowed influence on anarchism, one that in at least one respect (the fetishisation of the temporary autonomous zone as action- ie. social centres, squats, the #Occupy Movement becoming dead-ends-in-themselves) needs to be eliminated from anarchist practice. The reviewer puts forth that ‘Levi Bryant gives us a reason to believe that we can achieve the promise of Bey’s ontological anarchism without sacrificing the scholarly standard of rigour’. I think Bryant’s anarchist credential can be seen further back and throughout anarchist thought. But I leave the last word to Prodhoun, that anarchist that a Marxian like Bryant might have the least sympathy for:

A partisan of immanence is a true anarchist

objective nihilism

But perhaps, with this last charge of nihilism, the proper gesture is not one of disavowal, but embrace. However, the nihilism here is not the subjective nihilism described so well by Nietzsche, but rather an objective nihilism characteristic of the material reality of our times. It is our circumstances themselves, the material reality of our world, that has become nihilistic, not the thought of this or that thinker. Indeed, I suspect that many of us are terrified and anguished by this objective nihilistic darkness that approaches and that may very have happened, as Timothy Morton suggests. Perhaps we are already dead and we just don’t yet know it.

Levi Bryant on the charge of nihilism put to speculative realism and/or object-oriented ontology. Now here is something I can affirm. Read the full article here.

Child-eating sharks galore!!! Ethics, objects, death and Darwinism

Thus, when people obtain the right to life, the fact is that they are no longer able to live. – Jean Baudrillard [1] 

 There have been all sorts of things posted about flat ethics recently. My previous post was on the same topic but I’m peripheral to the whole thing, just an interested observer. I particularly like this point though, made by Alex Reid:

In [a] soccer match, those ethical relations are mediated by a grass field, white lines, goal posts, nets, flags, a soccer ball, uniforms, shin guards, cleats, a whistle, a timing device, etc. They are also mediated by language,which is also nonhuman. In fact, one could (and often does) say that one must compete not only against the other team but field conditions, weather, ref calls, and so on. So in imagining ethics, a flat ontology requires us to see that there is no such thing as “human” ethics. All ethics are nonhuman in the sense that “human” refers to a particular modern, ideological context. As such perhaps it is better to say nonmodern ethics than nonhuman ethics.

I also like Jeremy Trombley’s point:

I don’t have a clear answer to this dilemma except that I would consider the ecology of relationships that are involved – the relationships between myself, the child, and the shark, as well as those that extend beyond this specific spacio-temporal interaction.  What would the child’s parent’s think if they knew I could have saved it, but chose not to?  What would the court system think?  Is the shark an endangered species?

(emphasis added)

 All ethics are nonhuman ecologies in which humans may appear.


Yet I think it is crucial to remember that in the first quote the key word is that the ethical relationships between players of a football (soccer) game are mediated by nonhuman operatives. Likewise, a trip to the zoo is mediated by the animal feed producers, train operators, railway lines, animal handlers, money, the machinery used to produce a ticket handed over at the gates… but would we say that a trip to the zoo consists of these things? Or rather, would we say that the ethics of a trip to the zoo consisted of these things?


I think we would. If the ticket-machine were produced by a corporation who exploited workers in order to  produce that machine, or some other of its product line. We might feel the same way if the animal feed being given to animal X were made out of intensively farmed animals of the same species as animal X. Yet while we might say they are agents within an ethical ecology, that they are composite operatives within an ethical system, I doubt that we would ever suggest that  either the ticket-machine or the animal feed are ethical agents in that ecology. To risk a paraphrase of poor taste, they really are ‘only following orders’; the banality of evil become the banality of the object. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to say that it is wrong for the animal feed to allow itself to be fed to animal X.


I suppose the thing I’m getting at is that an ethical relationship is much like the love relationship that I believe (I think I remember) Levi Bryant theorised a while ago on his blog; a third, independent object. There is me. There is my partner. We do not fuse into a singular object (two does not become one) but both of us remain autonomous, nested within the third object called the relationship. While we are busy talking about ethical relationships we’re forgetting that each particular ethical ecology is singular (which is the point in Trombley’s quote). the point here is that the ethical ecology is an ontological ecology and not an ecology of ethical actants. In the original shark-child relationship nobody thinks to include the ocean, the sand on the sea floor, the moon and it’s capacity to effect the tides, sea-going vessels.


It appears absurd to me to include these things in an ecology of ethical operatives even though they are ontological units involved in the original ethical ecology, playing a part in determining the shark’s behaviour. Likewise, we might consider why the child is near the shark. Is this a holiday bought by its parents? Should we then include the travel agent that sold the holiday in the ethical ecology, or at least as an operative that aided in the sculpting of process of causality that arrived at that juncture? I suspect we wouldn’t.


That there is a flat ontology does not necessarily imply that all the things that build or generate a particular situation should be considered being ethical agents. I suspect that because things exert an influence on each other, that is because they have powers or capacities to act and act in concert with each other to generate the situations in which ethical problems arise, it is easy to be led to think that they too are subject to ethics. To labour the point let’s return to Alex Reid’s example. There is a football game. A problem of ethics arises in the playing of this game. This ethical problem is mediated by nonhuman things, including language. Here was the ethical problem:


Last week, we found ourselves winning 6-0 about 15 minutes into a 70-minute game. I pulled our strongest players, but we were still up 9-0 at half. In this league, goal differential is a potential tie-breaker for determining the champion, so I suppose there is potential motive for running up the score. But that’s just not something you do with 11 year-old boys. At half-time a instructed the boys that only those who had not yet scored that season should really try to score and that otherwise their job was to make good passes. Again, I kept my best players mostly on the bench, and the final score was 11-3. It probably could have been 22-0. And I’ve seen scorelines like that in my time as a coach, though our team has never been on either end of one.


The question is over the ethics of competition and whether it would have been unethical to give the opposing team a thrashing. Reid suggests that in part this is done out of respect for the game of football. To have won the game by 22 clear goals would be to play football ‘out of the spirit’ of the game, to disrespect football as ‘an emergent object’. Yet why would football care? It can’t care. Here Reid alludes to a kind of spirit and to respect. A sense of fair play and tradition then? I don’t understand why one would need a flat ethics to highlight two pretty standard reasons for playing the game without taking the piss. (A far more compelling reason might be that if you keep playing games where your team- Reid is the coach of child’s football team- constantly embarrassed other teams- composed of kids- you may risk losing having anyone to play with).


Reid is the coach of this football team and he writes about what he can do to have an impact on the emergent object of the game in order to highlight how we can have an ethical relationship the thing called ecosystem:


 As a player or coach, I can’t affect the game directly. As a coach I can put players in different positions, suggest tactics, and prepare players in practices. As a player, I can make decisions about how I play. Those decisions participate with others to create the game experience. I can modify my decisions in response, but there isn’t a direct relationship with the game only with other actors in the game. The extent to which I realize that whatever decisions I make to win require that the overall game continues


Neither Reid, nor myself or any body else, can have a direct relationship with the ecosystem wherein they can directly affect that ecosystem. Instead, Reid might be able to affect petrochemical companies through lobbying against them by joining a lobbying group with other people. You might organise a coalition of environmental or ecological activists to carry out direct actions ranging from tree-hugging, to consciousness-raising, or from occupying an airport to committing acts of ‘ecoterrorism’. I might simply be the kind of person who refuses to recycle and thereby assists in the mass anonymous effort of building the giant debris filled landscapes of landfills (which, I must admit I do find aesthetically pleasing and intriguing). None of these decisions and actions will make direct contact with the thing called ecosystem (things are withdrawn), nor could it ever do so in a unilaterally determinative manner (just as the coach is within the football game, so I am within the ecosystem), and finally because the ecosystem as a thing is emergent from all those other things that we have made contact with (other people, lobbying organisations, parliaments, airports, just as much as trees, oceans, clouds, frogs, catfish and children and sharks).


In Reid’s example we ought to act in a way that allows the game to continue, so by extension we should also act in ways that allows the ecosystem to continue in order to consider ourselves as being ethical in relation to the ecosystem. For Reid these considerations mean that  ‘I am engaged in an ethical relationship’.


A couple of brief problems before returning to the ethical. First, I’m not sure if we can say that winning a game of football 22-0 would mean we were no longer playing a game of football. Playing by the rules and regulations, associated objects (a football etc), the people required (players, coaches, referees and linesmen) are all that are minimally required for us to consider ourselves playing a game of football. In the absence of any of these elements we are not playing football; these are the things in the assemblage that minimally form a game. If we play outside of the spirit of the game, if we do not respect it as an emergent object, we are still playing football but we are playing badly. The second point is whether Reid is talking about a specific game or the game of football itself (is there a ‘the game of football’ that exists in any other form than metaphor? Surely that would be a kind of ideal game or ur-game?)


This reveals the actual problem of the ethical here. Each ecosystem, including that planetary ecosystem as a whole, must be considered in it’s singularity. Isn’t that the point of object-oriented strains of philosophy? If we treat all ecosystems the same, and if we treat ecosystems the same as games of football/the game of football then aren’t we performing a kind of reduction of the singularity of each to the abstraction of all? The pragmatic deployment of Reid’s metaphor might have a material impact on how we conceive of the ethical relationship we have to the ecosystem in a way that draws attention to the complexity and partiality of that relationship but I still don’t see that this is something new to an object-oriented approach or that is inaugurated by a flat ethics.


The original question was whether or not the shark should eat the child. This question is the question of the shark’s ethical relationship to the child, of whether it can be considered an ethical operative. Is a shark the same as a football or a football player? A shark is no more the same as these things as it is the same as a ticket-machine or a batch of animal-feed. The point I’m making at some length is that it makes no more sense to say that the shark should or should not eat the child than it does to say that the goalpost should or should not be an obstacle to scoring. And there is a very good reason for this that Alex Reid hits on: the ethical relationship is one burdened with decision. A shark cannot be said to count within it’s capacities that of making an ethical decision. This is not to say that no animals can make ethical decisions, it is probable that many of them can. This is also not to say that no nonhuman nonanimal things can (or could) make ethical decisions. If we listen to the technoevangelists and transhumanists it might soon be possible for AI to make such decisions, or to simulate them so perfectly as to baffle these considerations even further.



I believe that the entire issue of whether we should let the shark eat the child is centered on this mistake. A shark cannot be held responsible. It can only be held accountable. We can say ‘the shark is going to eat the child’ or ‘the shark ate the child’ but the should has no place in anything. (The question of whether we should kill the shark for what it has done is a separate issue).


A further point emerges from Trombley’s quote- and from others- regarding evolution. Levi Bryant has written in the past about how we have failed to take Darwinism and the lessons we have learned about evolution seriously. Nature, all of nature (and there is nothing that is not nature) is utterly pointless. That is, it is without ultimate purpose. Nature, life, existence, is useless. I think that Levi Bryant hasn’t taken this lesson in fully either. I don’t think any of us can really. We are nature…the pointlessness of the cosmos and of the subatomic particle is the pointlessness of arranjames who is sitting here typing. All ethical problems arise in this context, to those species that have an evolved moral sense…a moral sense that is, in impossible last instance, useless. Yet because the final cause of ethical decision making is pointless does not mean that the affective life of the one making the ethical decisions are pointless; they are immediate and do not require much of a point beyond themselves.


Should the shark eat the child? From the ontological position there is absolutely no reason why the shark shouldn’t eat the child. It would upset me, that is all. Human ethics boil down to ‘this is good, this is bad’.


So it is that I agree with Bryant’s assertion that there is no nonanthropocentric ethics. It is always humans judging what it is that they consider ethical, making their ethical decisions. Other animals might also make such decisions and so might other beings in the future- thus it might not be a human ethics that remains human for all time. The separate question of whether we should kill the shark is really asking whether we should hold that which cannot be held responsible responsible. Why would we do this? I think because, in some sense, our ethical attitude to other things arises from the blind, stupid, pointlessness of the evolutionary processes that compel us to fear death and reproduce. The question of whether we should kill the shark is really asking whether we should pretend to ourselves that their is a meaningful, ordered universe. The clash between the stupidity of nature and our desire for a meaningful (or just) nature is what produces the question of the shark. The shark eats the child because it is a shark; we kill the shark because we are terrified of a cosmos in which children can be eaten.


Like Levi Bryant I don’t think the shark has a right to live. At the same time I don’t think that the child has a right to live either. Bryant’s concern is with the way neoliberalism has deployed rights-discourse, and one could also point to Deleuze’s concerns over rights-discourse being a (non)political sleight of hand where the rabbit is pulled out of the hat only to disappear in a puff of cigarette smoke [2]. I am not concerned here with rights discourse as such but specifically with the idea of a right to life. Life is something that simply happens. As Thomas Ligotti [3] has cogently argued, it is also a phenomena that doesn’t always get off the ground (abortions, miscarriages, still-births, mother and neonate dying during labour). It is imaginable that some process in the Big Bang could have failed or that the Earth did not exhibit the conditions required for the emergence of life. That a conscious operative, capable of making ethical decisions, were somehow to survive a possible Earth swallowing blackhole created by the CERN particle accelerator, could we really imagine that being bemoaning the right to life of all that died and was destroyed? I don’t think so, but I’m sure it’d be extremely upset. There is nothing new in claiming that the right to life is little else than a hangover from a society still enthralled to Divinity; the shark and the child’s right to life are equally fictions pertaining to the sacredness of life that is directly contradicted by the science of evolution; the right to life is a Sacred Left-over. And here, in the divine, lives are considered something inaugurated for a purpose, given a purposeful function, guided and developed…in short Created by a Creator. An ethical Creationism.


It is possible that the ethics we set up, as we necessarily will and do, are rooted in our fear of death, our evolutionary heritage, and our emotions. In the mixture of all these elements. It is a question of finding ourselves with questions about our conduct, questions that are often immediate and in no sense hypothetical (I’d take this juncture to remind people that I’m a nurse), where we don’t know what to do but know we must do something. As such ethics remains a human problem…for now. It is a human problem that is intricately bound-up with (often radically) nonhuman beings.  It is even possible, I am spontaneously inclined to the thought- the feeling,  the sense- that our ethics are a kind of therapeutic aesthetic; a production in the Ballardian sense of a real that finds its reality as a stage-set that may be pulled away. The therapeutics of ethics in this sense would be that ethics are that production that codifies our monstrous awareness of suffering, of ontological vulnerability, of the Inevitable; the disavowed denial of the metaphysical truth of Darwin. None of which prevents there being better or worse ethics, and none of which prevents the production of ethical truths being real or any more or less worth holding on to. It is just the case that in this instance we realise ‘a definitive recognition of nature as waste’ [4], and there is nothing that isn’t nature. To borrow from an earlier post by Alex Reid not concerned with all these sharks and children, it is possible that ethics are a therapeutics that we deploy in order to fix the glitches of reality.



All ethics are human problems embedded in fragile nonhuman ecologies. 








A disclaimer: if I misrepresent anyone’s positions, any ideas or arguments I take fully responsibility for that.






[1] Baudrillard. 2007. Darwin’s Artificial Ancestors and the Terroristic Dream of the Transparency of the Good. Read here.

[2] Deleuze. 1996. On Human Rights. Read here.

[3] Thomas Ligotti. The Conspiracy against the human race.

[4] Baudrillard. Ibid.

Misanthropology: vulnerable children, vulnerable sharks.

Misanthropology is a new blog focussed on the prospect of ‘doing sociology with minimal references to humans’ operated by Craig McFarlane. This is an interesting project and accords with the current realisation of the relative unimportance of humans in any way other than to themselves. I also love the strap line of the blog, a quote from Hume that I constantly keep in mind when discussing suicide with colleagues in mental health:

There is one post on misanthropology at the moment. It is a response to Levi Bryant on flat ethics, a discussion in which Bryant tells us that a flat ontology (that the substance of all beings exists in equality, even if those beings exist to differing degrees qua capacity to operate on other beings) does not involve a flat ethics in which it is not an ethical problem if a shark eats a child. On this matter, McFarlane has this to say

I find myself in a strange position arguing against both. Against the critic I want to affirm the accusation–yes, of course, sharks should be allowed to eat children and there is no good reason why qua shark that we should prevent it; there might be good reasons qua fat, juicy, corn syrup fed child why “we” wouldn’t “let” the shark eat the human fatling, but this has nothing to do with the shark. Against Levi I want to argue that his position brings in anthropocentrism through the backdoor: humans are transformed into the un-eatable by mere virtue of being human.

This seems undeniably reasonable to me. In a cosmos where all that is contained within it stands with its own degree of autonomy as any other I can see no ethical objection to why the shark shouldn’t eat the child. In fact, if we broaden out to a more cosmological scale then the problem even seems ludicrous. Rephrased in another way: should  the inevitable expansion of the sun swallow the earth? This might seem silly but it is easy to see that the shark, the child, the sun and the earth are all parts of the cosmos, are all systems contained with and giving shape to that cosmos; they are all equal operatives, the life of the earth is of no greater importance to the universe than that of the child.
In the comments to Bryant’s original post he responds to McFarlane by drawing on the idea of conatus. When pressed to give a reason why one should a priori privilege the conatus of a human over that of a shark (or more generally a human over any given nonhuman), Bryants only response is to say that self-preservation is ‘a primitive fact’ and that he would not allow a shark to eat his child (Bryant is father to a daughter) ‘because I love her’. Perhaps this seems like terrible philosophy. Interestingly, here the issue isn’t his daugter’s conatus which contains her self-preservation instinct but something going on in and between the operatives marked as Levi Bryant and his daughter.
Yet it also seems intuitively like the only honest answer, and heralds the point at which philosophy and temperament coincide. Bryant loves his daughter. That is understandable. What parent would let their child be eaten? And I want to quickly depart from discussing a real little girl being eaten by a shark for much the same reason. Because there is a primitive fact going on. There is a bias that it may not be possible to argue for or against, in much the same way that it wouldn’t make much sense to argue against the existence of the sun or the earth or little girls or oysters. I think it is too much for Bryant to generalise this to humanity as such, in the sense that a parent’s desire to protect their offspring could justify anthropocentrism as such. Sometimes things are unjustifiable. Sometimes we, humans, do things because not to do them is not in our constitution, unless something has gone wrong in some sense.
The danger of this is that it seems like I’m risking saying that a nonhuman ethics is an ethics of evil, of monstrosity. Yet I’m really only saying that evil or monstrosity are integral to the human being. I can’t speak for sharks.
Should the shark eat the child? There is no reason why it shouldn’t, except that I don’t want it to. The answer might resolve around desire, or it’s absence, and the mechanisms evolved to rationalise those desires. The disagreement here is of a Wittgensteinian order, the order of two irreconcilable pictures being forced into the same frame; the antagonism is the result of the conflation of ethics and emotions. That might not be satisfactory but the cosmos doesn’t care if we are satisfied and, as I have discussed in relation to Stoicism, we couldn’t endure the condition of satisfaction- or at least not for long.
Or, in another direction, the reason the shark shouldn’t eat the child might be born precisely because of this fraught conflict between preservations and desires, a conflict of the indifference of each to the other other. The precariousness of existence might be the reason we ought to insist on the possibility of a nonhuman ethics beyond primitive facts of conatus or irrevocable evolutionary instincts and fears. In the comments to Bryant’s post someone makes mention of the fact the consequentialist ethics of suffering of a Singer (whatever suffers falls into the domain of ethical concern) excludes mountains, planets, ecosystems and so forth. Precariousness doesn’t entail such an exclusion.
By drawing on precariousness I am thinking of Judith Butler’s work in Precarious Life and Frames of War; humans are born to precarious lives, lives exposed to specific dangers that threaten our material existence and confront us with the thought, and experiences of proximity to, our own death. All humans share in this precariousness in that my continuance depends on the operations performed by other human beings. Going beyond Butler we must also say that we are dependent upon the operations of other operatives; of the sun, the earth, sharks, little girls, fathers, philosophers, oysters, ecosystems, the internet, and so on and so on, all the way up and down the cosmos. All of existence and all lives are precarious.
If there is a possible nonhuman ethics it might well be based on the thought of precariousness or, in more traditional terms, vulnerability. Any and all operatives- a term I’m here using as a catch-all term for whatever exists and is evinced by its power to operate on other things that exist- are vulnerable. This is also what I mean by ‘catastrophic thought’, using catastrophe in a double sense: 1) the Aristotelian dramatic connotation involving the displaying and working through of traumas and wounds and 2) the more Cioranesque sense of all operatives being headed towards their own death, disappearance or dissolution. Within an ethics of vulnerability these two senses overlap.
(As an unrelated aside, the term misanthropology reminds me of the concept ‘anthropathology’).
The thought has to remain underdeveloped for now. My partner is calling me to help as her kid is trying to destroy our internet connection. Is there any reason the child shouldn’t eat the internet?