attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: philosophy

Ancient ontocartography

Ask yourself, what is this thing in itself, by its own special constitution? What is it in substance, and in form, and in matter? What is its function in the world? For how long does it subsist? (8:11).

Survey the circling stars , as though yourself were in mid-course with them. Often picture the changing and rechanging dance of the elements. Visions of this kind purge away the dross of this life. (7:47).

All things are interwoven with one another, a sacred bond unites them; there is scarcely one thing that is isolated from another. Everything is coordinated, everything works together in giving form to one universe. The world-order is a unity made up of multiplicity: God is one, pervading all things; all being is one, all law is one (namely, the common reason which all thinking creatures possess) and all truth is one- if, as we believe, there can be but one path to perfection for beings that are alike in kind and reason. (7:9).

The above are a few extracts from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. I am struck by how Marcus is full of injunctions to himself that he map each particular being, its field of relations, and to bear in mind its ephemeral nature. In one of the meditations, he goes so far as to declare that even the sun is ephemeral. From this cosmological perspective, everything is. He is constantly commanding us to pay attention to the specificity of this thing before me now, this fellow human, this cosmos as a whole. He is also the one who is the most mindful of the fact that we arise from cosmic and terrestrial death, that we will be part of such death, and that from us something else will emerge. Everything is transversal, a particular specificity, bound to everything else. Everything is, as he says above, in “mid-course”, always being composed, recomposed, distributed and redistributed in accordance with the immanent ontogenetic principle “God”. For Marcus all maps are eventually road-maps, plotting our trajectory between conflagrations. This is essential Stoic doctrine- and is where Nietzsche would get the idea of the eternal return. The universe (a unity made up of multiplicity) is always mid-way between birth and death. We are strung between two great catastrophes, the life of the world itself, like that of the individual, a flourishing, beautiful death.

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What is a philosopher? An unjustifiable accusation

Sing/In the night/In the nameless dark/Father long gone, But we bear his mark/Learn some secrets/Never tell/Stay sick,Don’t get well. (John Darnell, from The Mountain Goats’: Transcendental Youth). 

Following a conversation with a friend last night…forget the question of “what is philosophy?”. Instead ask “what is a philosopher”? Here’s an idea: a philosopher is whoever so tries to make a thought, thought itself, the thought-of-thought (or thought-in-thought) express itself from the inside. The difference between a philosopher and a scientist is thus that the philosopher dwells within thought, is interpenetrated by it; the scientist only approaches it from the outside, never enters into it, never realizes his continuity (but not identity) with it. If this sense has any sense then it is that a “philosopher” can be a scientist and a “scientist” can be a philosopher.

Our terminology needs to be rejuvenated, the nomenclature purged of its intimate betrayal of what it nominates. We need new names for things. On my blog, though I’ve not used it recently, I prefer to abandon the name “philosophy” and take up a different, but related, name. It is a kind of ironic name, a playful name, one that is faithful to philosophy proper only by way of taking leave of it (this reflects my own relationship to philosophy and so is a fully autobiographical move). Just as philosophy is philo-sophia  so I think what is required is catastrophia. Not the love of wisdom, but the love of catastrophe. Wisdom, what is that? Where does it dwell? Catastrophe? Now, that is the very heart of materiality, the very essence of history, the very meaning of our vulnerability. In Aristotelian language, catastrophe is the moment of a play, after the climax, where the characters ‘show their wounds’ and drag the “corpse” on stage. Post-nihilist pragmatism is, in this sense, a catastrophic thought.

We are wounded, but too many of us refuse to show our wounds even to ourselves. How can we hope to improve our experience of the world, to “learn how to die” en masse, if we can’t even look at our own wounded finitude? This is what it means to love the catastrophe. It is to start from inside it, from within the ruin, to turn the ruins into the very material of what we can build. The question is not “what is to be done?” but “what can be done?” When we ask this question inside the ruins of thought and in fidelity to those ruins, our mission is not one of redemption, not one of salvation, but salvage. We create from the ruins. In this regard, I draw attention to the sculptural work of Anselm Kiefer. His falling towers ask a question, held as they are in suspension: are they falling, or are under construction?

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

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

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

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

Flogging a dead horse.

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

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

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

meat


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weaving Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty

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

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

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

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

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

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

red in tooth and corn

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein. 1973. Philosophical Investigations.

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

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

Agent SWARM picks at the bones

Terence Blake has a dense, purposeful, and atomic critique of Graham Harman’s version of object-oriented ontology up on his blog. It begins with a discussion of Alex Galloway and the recent controversy there, but Blake goes on to outline his own position as well. I only draw attention to it because some of it resonates with what I’ve been writing about Timothy Morton. Although, this is a critique much more scathing one could almost call it a denunciation or a purge. A little taste that I felt resonated with things I’ve been writing of late:

Despite its promises, Harman’s OOO does not bring us closer to the richness and complexity of the real world but in fact replaces the multiplicitous and variegated world with a set of bloodless and lifeless abstractions – his unknowable and untouchable, “ghostly”, objects.

‘When a bird is alive, it eats ants. When the bird is dead, ants eat the bird’.

If the world is continuous with my body and envelopes it, thoughts and feeling must find their places in the orders of space and time. Some think that naturalism is an inadequate view because feelings of anger and sensations of red cannot be discovered in specific areas of the brain. But the expectation that everything must be like mailboxes and Christmas trees, located in unique places with sharp spatial boundaries, is groundless. Radio waves spread everywhere and lack definitive borders; actions such as calling a friend inn New Jersey are not located in a single place; and summer heat can suffuse an entire continent.

– John Lachs, 2012. Stoic Pragmatism.

Lena Meyer-Bergner, 1927. ‘Interpenetration’.

Transcorporealism entails that it is not enough to suppose the world envelopes me. This is to suppose my skin is a nonporous membrane; that my physical interiority is a fortress around which the world must bend. Instead, there is the mutual interpenetration of bodies. Aside from the obvious object-oriented resonance in this quotes and its almost Merleau-Pontian fleshiness, a question emerges from it. In this variety of naturalism, where are thought and feeling located? In the text Lachs says that at a baseball game my feelings came with me through the gate when I bought my ticket and took my seat. In that image there is no ‘finding’ to be done. There is still a coincidence of what is ‘me’ and what is ‘my thought’. Might it instead be the case that thought and feeling, regardless of their origination in my body, are transversalities that carry across space-time? What we tend to think of as our interiority, our innerspace, is always leaking, giving itself away, taking flight. That’s a pleasing image: thought takes flight. The psychoanalytic tradition would claim that thought is never one’s own, that it comes from the outside. Perhaps then, I am simply a moment in the (metaphorical) life of thought. Bodies are just perches; relay stations. Thought is an emergent processes, an activity, an achievement. It is something we do, and usually for pragmatic reasons. But to think thinking qua thinking- or feeling qua feeling- we recede as if a begrudged necessity, a prosthetic forgotten but that in the forgetting of which one can’t help but remember. An analogy could be drawn to humanity and the Earth, but that would risk anthropomorphism. Returning to the winged image, it would also be to forget that birds ride and are ridden by the wind.

Object Oriented Demonology

What follows is still an attempt to work through Realist Magic. It is a working through that accompanies my reading the book. As such, any misunderstandings are my own fault and not those of Timothy Morton’s superb writing.

By embodying them with human privacy and imbuing them with our own personality, things are reduced to silence. If they speak, it is only our own voices that are heard.

Bjørnar Olsen, In Defense of Things: Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects. 2010.

All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred

– Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations.

Demonic forces, spectrality, white noise. These seem to me the key terms of Timothy Morton’s concept of casuality. For Morton ‘actual, real things are happening a multiple levels and involving multiple agents’ (RM). Things are complicated. Yet as I have argued their is a split in the real between an ‘originary object’ which is withdrawn and multiple ‘hermeneutic objects’ that the complex enmeshment of ontic being produces. These hermeneutic objects are effects and entities in their own right. There are as many hermeneutic objects as their are aesthetic translations of originary objects: the multiplicity of hermeneutic objects is identical with the the number of relations in the cosmos. These relations are translations. To ‘trans-late means “carry-across”‘ and so each hermeneutic object is a kind of carrying across of the originary object. Causation is the total structure of these translations.

It strikes me as strange to call these hermeneutic objects sensuous. The sensuous names the realm of sensory rather than cognitive work. There is an immediacy to the sensuous that the work of translation doesn’t sit well with. For someone like Albert Camus, sensuality was the answer to answer. It was an answer that refused to diminish that absurdity. All sufferings and miseries could be endured because of the felt relation of skin and sun, body and water, the touching of lovers. Camus evokes the intimacy of things played out on the surface his flesh. There is no effort in his voluptuous realism, except that of arms and legs slicing through the waves.

Morton gives numerous examples of ways translation occurs. A frog’s croak becomes a word to a human; strategic intelligence to a mosquito; a trigger to a female frog’s endocrine system. The passages concerning this ignoble noise, a small noise of darkness and cold waters, are, like much of the book, beautiful. In these examples we have ‘actual, real things happening’. The neurocognitive process of senseless noise fashioned into a linguistic tool; physical perturbations in the air being ‘read’ by the mosquito; biological stimuli and response priming physical systems for reproduction. Are these things really translations? The metaphor in which the croak is “interpreted” or “read” starts to seem less like a metaphor in Morton’s causal system. What does it mean for these things to be “trans-lations”?

To carry-across convokes a polysemy the genericity of which centres on ideas of movement across a distance. This isn’t surprising given that the problem is causation. The evil realm of aesthetics seems to be being established as the realm of demonic causation; the production of difference in object-object relations at a distance without a mediate third. This is why causation is magic. Specifically, causation is black magic. As Morton says ‘[C]ausality is an illusion-like play of a demonic energy that has real effects in the world’ (RM). The paradoxical structure of causation is that the disincarnate incarnates the incarnate; causality is disclosed as a kind of spiritual possession. What is it that carries-across that which is carried-across? The frog’s croak is carried-across by the air packets that constitute unique moments in emergent wind. Speaking of Dante’s Inferno and the way that demonic possession operates on “black winds” and trees and so forth, Eugene Thacker (DP) reminds us that ‘possession is not just the possession of living being but includes the nonliving as well…demonic possession in the Inferno is not just teratological, but also geological and also climatological’. In the Inferno a suicide that has become a tree remarks ‘we were men once and have now become brush’. The scene doesn’t depict a tree with a man’s soul trapped inside it. It is not a material prison for an immaterial soul as in the Gnostic vision. The soul is the tree. So not a tree as a prison for the soul but a soul-tree. Demonic possession operates by invading, colonising, settling in, naturalising, identifying. It makes the host-body uncanny to itself in a hideous becoming. And this is necessary because ‘a perfect translation of one object by another object would entail the destruction of that object’ (RM). To carry-across is to imperfectly possess an object, to tune into it, to pick up its transmission and to carry the signal out of it, across oneself, and deliver it to other objects. Possession suddenly resembles electronic transmission. There is the withdrawn and the sensuous; the essence and the appearance; the originary and the hermeneutical; the signal and the noise. The irony is that as me-ontic void, the signal can never be recovered from the noise. The object is en-crypt-ed.

If causation is a kind of demonic possession then the claim that it is magical makes perfect sense. I still feel that there is a slippage from the metaphorical to the real. Despite his gripping explanation, one that appeals to me in almost every facet of its own aesthetic potency, that draws me in and holds me with it, inside it, this slippage is still the crack in the wall, the unevenly paved floor: it causes me to trip over it. The spell is broken. The distance between the tool and the task gets lost somewhere so that the metaphor gets taken for the real. Its ot that nothing like this “translation” is going on, its just not as literal or as autonomous as it seems. Objects are bodies, and bodies aren’t absolutely encrypted.

‘Every object is a marvelous archaeological record of everything that ever happened to it’ (RM). The conflation seems to be typified in this sentence and the passage that follows. The archaeological record is not a record in the sense of a list or narrative. True, archaeology does assemble lists, litanies, narratives, a whole hermeneutics of civilisation, but it does so on the basis of “the archaeological record”. In his Understanding the Archaeological Record, Gavin Lucas cuts the term an elegant three ways. He claims that it refers first to ‘artifacts and material culture’, secondly ‘residues and formation theory’, and finally to ‘sources and fieldwork’ (p.10). For Lucas artifacts refer both to archaeological artefacts and “ecofacts”. Ecofacts are objects of “natural” origin such as seed or bones that archaeologists tend to separate from artefacts based on the tool definition of the latter. Lucas points out that ecofacts are equally tools as are built tools. We don’t just use hammers to hammer but in the past have used bones to hammer. To go beyond Lucas’s example, the agricultural revolution couldn’t have taken place if human being ad not used climatological conditions themselves as a kind of tool. As Lucas states the ‘artefact-ecofact distinction is really a manifestation of a deeper “culture-nature” dichotomy’ (p.10) of the kind that we are familiar with from Bruno Latour. For now all we need to note is that the this record is not just a matter of reading traces. It is also about material objects, material culture, and places and practices. Morton’s view of the object as an archaeological record seems to correspond to an idea of the object as residues.

This might seem unfair as Morton is keen to point out that ‘[T]his is not to say that the object is only everything that ever happened to it’. The object isn’t just the interpretations made of it by other objects. Objects can’t be fully possessed, their signal ever fully recovered from the noise. There is always more kept back. The secrecy of the object. When it speaks it does so in silences. Nonetheless, this is still an archaeology without artefact and without pragmatics. Even the example of the frog provide us with a pragmatic comportments; the female frog’s endocrine system interprets the male frog’s croak in order to prime herself for the potentiality of reproductive activity. This isn’t simply a chain of interpretations but a chain of activities aimed at possible activities. I like the claim that objects are archaeological, that bodies have memory, but it can only be the case if they are corporeal realities existing in a shared tactility. I take such an enmeshed tactility to be constitutive of the intimacy of bodies. Morton comes close to this tactility when he states that [the] ‘before and after [of causality] are strictly secondary to the sharing of information’. But without the corporeal aspect that his concept of withdrawal forbids, Morton’s highly appealing archaeological image of the object remains an ‘ontogenetic history’ of a mimetic ability that is generalised to all objects. In Walter Benjamin’s words

To read what was never written.’ Such reading is the most ancient; reading prior to all languages, from entrails, the stars, or dances. Later the mediating link of a new kind of reading, of runes and hieroglyphs, came into use. It seems fair to suppose that these were the stages by which the mimetic gift, formerly the foundation of occult practices, gained admittance to writing and language. In this way, language may be seen as the highest level of mimetic behaviour and the most complete archive of nonsensuous similarity: a medium into which the earlier powers of mimetic production and comprehension have passed without residue, to the point where they have liquidated those of magic.

(MF).

The characterisation of object-oriented philosophy as a pancorrelationism is starting to look like a panmimeticism. In keeping with Morton aesthetics as first philsophy, is the idea that we take one another for runes and hieroglyphs, as language, but in reverse- in residue. The frog is a residue of a frog. It is the star as the star appeared to palaeolithic man. Morton’s hermeneutical objects, the objects that we encounter in everyday life, are only our reading of what was never written. The Benjaminian notion of aura is important here. For Benjamin the aura of the object consisted of ‘a distance as close as it can be’ (HP). This proximate distance could be read as an intimacy or as a possession. There is either a corporeal aura or an aesthetic concept of aura. Benjamin asks us what the aura is ‘actually’, and provides his answer thus:

a strange weave of space and time; an appearance of a distance, however near it may be. While resting on a summer’s afternoon, to trace a mountain on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer- this is what it means to breath the aura of those mountain, that branch.

There is no doubt that Morton would take issue with this idea of the aura, having rejected it himself as presenting nature as

‘a reified thing in the distance, “over yonder,” under the sidewalk, on the other side where the grass is always greener, preferably in the mountains, in the wild.

(EUA)

But this is a proximate-distance. It is the appearance of a distance. In emphasising the apparent distance he misses the ‘strange weave’ that is precisely characteristic of the radical interconnectedness of things that a concept of the ‘wild’ refers to. The wild or the wilderness is exactly the place where humans may enter but can’t dwell. In the wilderess man is not absent but he is not at home (unheimliche). It is the place where an archaeological concept of the object that conditions it ‘artefactual’ breaks down. The ‘apparentness’ of distance that the ecological concept of mesh was supposed to undo is replaced by a concept of withdrawal that absolutises a distance beneath the mesh, between it and substance. The point Benjamin’s idea of the ‘”auratic” capacity’ of bodies is precisely to explain their ability to affect and “speak” to rather than be read by us. Somewhere along the way in his encounter with object-oriented thinking Morton’s project has left its orbit of constructing ‘a properly materialist ecology’ (EUA) in favour of an ontology of spectrality where the “real” in its “realism” has disappeared into demonic white noise. It is for this reason that the distance I am making between myself and Morton is also a proximate-distance… but it is a real distance, not an only apparent one. I remain with the tactility of the strange weaving of bodies.

DP- Eugene Thacker. 2012. In the dust of this planet. Volume one: horror and philosophy.
EUA- Timothy Morton. 2008. Ecologocentrism: unworking animals.
RM- Timothy Morton. 2013. Realist Magic.
HP- Walter Benjamin. [1999]. A little history of photography.
MF- Walter Bejamin. [1999]. On the mimetic faculty.

Hermeneutical and Corporeal Objects: withdrawal and causation

Everything exist; nothing exists. Either formula affords a like serenity. The man of anxiety, to his misfortune, remains between them, trembling and perplexed, forever at the mercy of a nuance, incapable of gaining a foothold in the security of being or the absence of being.

– EM Cioran, The trouble with being born.

…The life of the living in the struggle for life; the natural history of human beings in the blood and tears of wars between individuals, nations, and classes; the matter of things, hard matter; solidity; the closed-in-upon-self, all the way down to the level of the subatomic particles of which physicists speak.

Levinas, Entre Nous.

Causation is corporeal, not aesthetic. In this post I want contribute to the argument that causation is a matter of bodies acting on bodies. This is also part of a response to Timothy Morton’s beautifully evocative book Realist Magic (2013, all references to Morton refer to this text). It is a wonderful, touching, and almost viscerally moving book in places, even if, by its own concept of withdrawal and causation, it could never touch or engage anything viscerally. To be fair, I haven’t yet finished reading Morton’s book owing to too many responsibilities and too poor time management. As such, any mischaracterising of his positions are all my own fault and I deserve to be publically flogged for them. What follows began as a set of notes but has (I hope) transformed into a more cohesive blog post.

Withdrawal and encryption.

Objects are a ‘reading, an interpretation’, of one another. Early on Morton provides us with two out of what I consider the three strong definitions of withdrawal presented in Realist Magic (as far as I have read so far):

They [objects] have withdrawn, yet we have traces, samples, memories. These samples interact with one another, they interact with our us, they crisscross one another in a sensual configuration space. Yet the objects from which they emanate are withdrawn.

Withdrawal means that at this very moment, this very object, as an intrinsic aspect of its being, is incapable of being anything else: my poem about it, its atomic structure, its function, its relations with other things … Withdrawal isn’t a violent sealing off. Nor is withdrawal some void or vague darkness. Withdrawal just is the unspeakable unicity of this lamp, this paperweight, this plastic portable telephone, this praying mantis, this frog, this Mars faintly red in the night sky, this cul-de-sac, this garbage can. An open secret.

Withdrawal is set into play with the ‘unspeakability, enclosure….secrecy’ that Morton holds is the essence of mystery. He states that ‘things are encrypted’. On encryption, Tom McCarthy (author of the fantastic Remainder “leader” of the International Necronautic Society) notes the immanent etymological relation of the word; encryption. In an encrypted communication only the person with the key can access the message but Morton states that the encryption of objects is ‘unbreakable’. If objects were messages they would be messages that were destined to go undelivered (later in the book, Morton will discuss appearances-perturbations as deliveries in a specific sense- a house is a delivery, an mp3, a book, etc). For now, I want to stress the crypt. McCarty points out that the crypt is simultaneously the space of encryption and the space of burial. In an interview with McCarthy, Cerith Wyn Evans says that

‘the crypt is perceived as a model whereby the subject is unable to…as they say or as Freud would say…mourn properly’.

It is no accident that Morton also speaks of objects being mourned and mournful in his Introduction. I can’t help but get the feeling that the withdrawal of the object is its encryption both as the secrecy of the coded message that can never be read (picture the Rossetta Stone pre-translation, or the “schizophrenic speech” before people realised it wasn’t asignifying non-sense), and as the secrecy of the corpse in its tomb. It is because of this unbreakable withdrawal, this uttermost mystery of the object that causality is said to operate at on or as ‘the aesthetic dimension’, a dimension often identified as the ‘realm of evil’, although Bataille might disagree. There is a lyricism to this treatment of withdrawal, presented as it is in much the same way as death: an secret everyone knows prefer flee from.

An odd statement: ‘aesthetic dimension floats in front of objects. If causality operates on the aesthetic dimension, and this dimension floats in front of objects, then it isn’t really objects that are interacting with each other. In my own terms, bodies don’t seem to be acting on bodies but on incorporeals. Morton says this floating in front of is figurative but I suspect this doesn’t mean not real or not literal. Figurative in this case is less likely to mean metaphorical, more likely to mean derivative of real objects as it does for figurative art. Withdrawal and causation are what Realist Magic are all about.

Causation and varieties of emptiness

Morton makes reference to a ‘meontic void’ being concealed, This concealment is clearly the concealment of withdrawal, the concealment of what the object can’t ever express of itself, what the object can never share. In art theory there are two main kinds of representation:

1. Mimesis: the reproduction of what is able to share itself; the nonwithdrawn. This is representation of what is experienced. It is a species of fixing presence.

2. Me-ontic: This is the attempt to represent what is not there, what does not show up, what can only be imagined or speculated on; precisely the withdrawn. Obviously, the meontic is a void. A species of absence.

At the moment I have the sense that causality is being painted as mimesis (against Plato), but that this mimetic pseudo-contact- the caricaturing of objects as ‘object x-for-object y’- is always going to have this ambiguous pull of the me-ontic, the suggestion that that is what is being aimed for? Every causal interaction is going to be suggestive of something more; every aesthetic interaction is a testament to the distance and isolation of objects from each other. The me-ontic is, after all, also the not-ontic and this makes sense as non-actual, non-evental. In this form of withdrawal the object does not exist in space or time as to delimit it this way would be to make it an event, a causal and therefore mimetic thing. It is also non-actual in the sense that despite being absolutely real it is absolutely absent. We can understand this by way of analogy: the meontic void is exactly void, the kind of void that the Epicureans thought that atoms moved through. Yet it gets weirder, because the void in this sense is the ontologically autonomous real object and not some emptiness that it is situated in and through which it moves. The situated and the mobile belong to the causal dimension, the aesthetic dimension. As such we should think of Epicurean void as being divisible- every atom moves in its own particular void. The atom is the sensuous object, the void the withdrawn object. So every atom, every sensuous object, moves in its own void, its own withdrawal. But this doesn’t make sense in Morton’s terms because the aesthetic objects is the causal object and therefore it is only this that is involved in interaction. As such, and here Baudrillard rears his head once again, we have reversibility: it is the void that is ‘within’ the atom.

There is another sense of the me-ontic as a being’s origination, the source of its being the being that it is. This could have the spatial sense of ontological ground or foundation, but it could also have the temporal sense of being a being’s pre-being (the being of a being before it becomes what it is). The sense of me-ontic void here would signifying the lack of ground and foundation, and emphasise the idea that there was no primordial being out of which the particular being produces itself, no permanent Being subsisting ontic beings. In this way, we start to get a sense of withdrawal as

(not) hard to find or even impossible to find yet still capable of being visualized or mapped or plotted. Withdrawn doesn’t mean spatially, or materially or temporally hidden yet capable of being found, if only in theory. Withdrawn means beyond any kind of access, any kind of perception or map or plot or test or extrapolation.

(Morton 2013, Realist Magic).

The me-ontic of the ontic, the absent real of the casual presence, is not a ground, foundation or origin. The me-ontic is void because it lacks all determination and all possibility; the me-ontic, that is to say the withdrawn, is under this reading the object’s horizon of im-possibility. This makes sense if we put recall that for other variants of object-oriented ontology the withdrawn aspect of the object is precisely the domain of the object’s capacity for action. In Levi Bryant’s formulation, the withdrawn ‘virtual proper being’ of a machine is the domain of its pluri-potent volcanicity, its capacities for propertising itself and producing local manifestations. Bryant’s generative concept of withdrawal retains a Deleuzianism insofar as it is a philosophy of production involving a concept of the virtual; whereas, in Morton’s concept of withdrawal as absolute absence, the withdrawn dimension of the object seems to be an absolute spectrality, an insubstantiality at the heart of substance. This might be related to Morton’s Buddhism, so here, a quick trip down another version of withdrawn, a version that Morton has called attention to him; emptiness (sunyata).

Sunyata is a fairly difficult idea to isolate and talk about without doing it injustice, largely because it is not a concept in the sense that, say, “power-knowledge” is; sunyata belongs to a long, live, and self-differentiated Buddhism. Interestingly though, sunyata has been translated into English as “emptiness”, “nonsubstantiality”, and “voidness”. This list doesn’t exhaust the translations of sunyata but they do nicely display the resemblance between withdrawal in object-oriented ontology and sunyata in Buddhism, at least in the what seems to be Morton’s understanding of it.

The monk Nagarjuna systematised the thought on sunyata and is seen as one of the pivotal expressions of its meaning. According to Douglas Berger of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Nargarjuna’s intellectual project was an attempt to undo all ‘systems of thought which analysed the world in terms of fixed substances and essences’. For Nagarjuna, it is only because things lack essence and are insubstantialities that they are capable of change or of becoming something else entirely. I only introduce this idea because I think it might become important for understanding things later.

But back to the text, Harman states that things withdraw from total access. This, at least here, suggests that objects don’t withdraw completely and offers a chink of access. We can still “get at” them and they can still “get at” each other.

Attuning to emptiness

‘Tuning is the birth of another object: a tune, a reading, an interpretation’. (Morton 2013, Realist Magic).

Objects seems to be tunings, readings, interpretations of one another. In this sense, they aren’t mimetic. After all, an interpretation isn’t a mirror of the thing itself in the way that mimesis is- although of course, mimesis can be more or less faithful, more or less distorting. The point here is that the interpretation, the mimetic object, is not the original object. My experience of the sun is not the sun itself, it is a reading of it. My reading, my experiential object, and the sun pre-experiential sun, the sun in itself, are not the same. Here, Morton is restating the Kantian noumena-phenomena and producing a pancorrelationism: every object-object relationship sunders the object between noumena and phenomena. Every object is an experiential object and a pre, or non-experiential object. What is fascinating though is that Morton doesn’t say that this object is split from itself. What Morton actually says is that mimetic work is ‘the birth of another object’. I can only conclude that the experiential and non-experiential objects, the sun-for-me and the sun-in-itself, are not dual aspects of a single object but two distinct objects. This is sort of the core of object-oriented philosophy. Indeed, it also accords with an enactivist approach in which the sun such as I experience it is co-enacted by my neurology, my lived and biological body, and the sun itself. Except that the warmth of the sun can’t be my interpretation of it, unless we’re talking about interpretation as impoverishment of that which is being interpreted. My experience of the sun’s heat is thus an impoverishment of the sun itself.
But isn’t this reminiscent of Plato’s Cave? Aren’t we then living in a world where all we have the shadows cast on the wall? Morton states this is the case plainly, describing the ‘interobjective space’ as exactly that.
The new object is real-for-me but only sensuous-for-itself. Yet does the object itself experience my experience of it? Is the new born object fully fledged or still-born? To put it otherwise, to whom does the third object belong? To me, to itself, or to the sun? These questions are premature given that for Morton the object is withdrawn from total access in such a way that I can only interpret it. But:

Yet when you tune, real things happen. You are affecting causality. You are establishing a link with at least one other actually existing entity.

(Morton 2013, Realist Magic).

It is true that tuning is efficacious, that interpreting produces effects. When you interpret a text you make a new text and that new text is link to the original. These things can even happen simultaneously. I am re-reading Marcus Aurelieus’s Meditations, and it has a few annotations. The annotations are interpretations of Marcus and are therefore not part of the Meditations. Some complexity is present here because the interpretation and the text (the new and the original) are contained in one object (the book), which is itself a translation (an interpretation). I think this is what returns us from the mimetic to the me-ontic. The me-ontic is what is what does not show up, what is not present but is nevertheless real. An interpretation is what does not show up in the thing interpreted. The annotations about Marcus are not the writing of Marcus, nor are they Marcus himself, even though a link is established between all of these moments. The link is tenuous and mediate. It is through the interpretation I can know the text; after all, even without the annotation my own interpretation of the words on the page would filter and frame them. If this is how we consider affecting casuality to operate then it seems like it is merely the ‘establishing a link’ that counts, and not the nature of that link. This is understandable when we consider the strangeness of the phrase “affecting causality”.

Causality usually refers to material causality, to bodies acting on bodies. As discussed in my post on corporealism, I take ‘bodies’ to be materialities that possess a capacity for action (to be acted upon, or to act on). Causality is the name for the system of bodies acting upon and being acted on by other bodies (a discussion of incorporeal subsistence remains to be undertaken). In this material causality it is bodies that interact with bodies. I repeat this point in order to emphasis the idea that acting on causality seems strange. If causality is bodies acting on bodies then acting on causality is acting on bodies acting on bodies, which is causality. The link that one establishes with bodies seems not itself to be a corporeal one and therefore exist outside of the domain of causation. What exactly is this link? In my own post I suggested it may have something to do with a concept of virtuosity but that still involves direct contact between bodies.

In terms of this virtuosity, Morton does go on to state that

We must tread carefully here, to avoid the thought of overmining. This doesn’t mean that there is no table, but rather that how I use the table, including thinking about it, talking about it, resting my teacup on it, is not the table.

In the philosophical perspective of “mereological nihilism”, almost defended by Peter van Inwagen (Material Beings), there are no wholes, only parts that fail to cohere into wholes. Inwagen’s only exception to this ontological rule is living organisms that do manage to cohere into composite units. Inwagen is rather like the Epicurean atomist in that he claims everything besides live organisms are ‘simples’ and that these are independent of one another. So, Morton is discussing a table. He is discussing this table in the context of the Sorites paradox and states that we can’t say a thing is a table because of its use or because of parts. If we go with its use then the table can fail to be table, it can break, or I can use other objects as tables (hence he calls this “overmining” process the tables ‘as-structure’). Likewise, if we go with the table’s components then we could infinitely divide them without ever locating the table hidden within that heap. For Morton, these upward-downward reductionism fail to visualise, map, plot, find, perceive, test, extrapolate or otherwise access the object itself because the object itself is not ‘as-structured’ or heaped but withdrawn. This withdrawal is such that

The total vividness of this actual table, this tode ti (Aristotle), this unit, this unique being here, wooden cousin of the friend of many philosophers, is what is unspeakable, ungraspable.

Unspeakable, ungraspable. Once again, we see Michael’s contention of the epistemic (unspeakable) and the structural (ungraspable) relations being conflated, as if the being-able-to-say-the-object is the same thing as the being-able-to-touch-the-object. The particularlity of this particular table, this table that I am sitting at now, is withdrawn to the point that its vividness to me, its ‘as-structure’ is a certain tuning, a definite interpretation.

So when I link to the table, when I engage in a causal relationship with the table, it is not this table “tode ti” that I am linking up with. It is instead the system of casual relations that comprises the interobjective aesthetic realm. Of course, when ‘I’ link up to the table this ‘I’ is not necessarily me, Arran James, but might instead be the coffee cup resting on its surface, or the laptop, or the lightwaves colliding on its grainy surface, or one of the wood chips that the table contains without being reducible to. Object-object relations are mediated through a causal system that stands separate from them.

To return to Buddhism and sunyata with Morton, we are told that

Emptiness is not the absence of something, but the nonconceptuality of reality: the real is beyond concept, because it is real.

This nonconceptuality is really another way of saying that the real is not epistemic. Emptiness in this sense is a kind of substractive principle akin to the workings of mysticism: the negative theology of Meister Eckhart; Zen; the Gnosticism of Thunder Perfect Mind. At this point, Morton recalls Graham Harman’s account of occasionalist vicarious causation in order to show that emptiness can serves as this kind of occasional link between objects, a link that Morton now calls a ‘magical illusion’. There is a strong sense that theological-mystical concepts are operable in this metaphysical system, and this gives us a pretty clear idea of withdrawal for Morton. If something is nonconceptual then it can’t be cognised and thus presents a limit to thought. It is for this reason that the object can’t be epistemically accessed through the ability to visualise, map, plot, find, perceive, test, extrapolate etc. In order to discuss the object in itself it becomes necessary in this system to eliminate what it is not, to dissolve it in reciprocal contradictions, and to give to its substance all the (non)qualities of the insubstantial. Consider Nagarjuna:

One may not say “there is emptiness” nor that there is ”non-emptiness”. Nor that both (exist simultaneously), nor that neither exists; the purpose for saying (“emptiness”) is for the purpose of conveying knowledge.

(Nagarjuna quoted in Magliola 1984, Derrida on the mend).

A kind of pragmatism

Talking about objects is already too much if we want to have any access to them. “Emptiness” is itself an epistemic link to the object rather than a way of gaining direct partial contact or intimacy. Here we might just as well quote Wittgenstein, a philosopher accused of mysticism himself, and his famous dictum that ‘whereof one cannot speak thereof one must pass over in silence’. The point is that in discussing withdrawal we aren’t really legitimated to say anything at all because whatever can be said can’t possibly be withdrawn. Again, the “speculative” of “speculative realism” is obviously part of the (il)legitimation of speaking about beings themselves. I can’t speak of my table, or of Morton’s table, but I speak about it all the same, always missing it, always somehow falling short of it. Here is another example of such emptiness taken from Stephen Bachelor’s highly accessible Buddhism without beliefs (1997), and its one that almost anyone reading this can take part in:

Pick up a ball point pen. Take off the cap and ask: “Is this still a ballpoint pen?” Yes, of course- albeit one without a cap. Unscrew the top part of the casing, remove the ink refill, and screw the top on again. Is that a ballpoint pen? Well, yes, just about. Is the refill a ballpoint pen? No, it’s just a refill- but at least it can function as a pen, unlike the empty casing. Take the two halves of the empty casing apart [or break it in two if it’s a nice cheap bic]. Is either of them a ballpoint pen? No, definitely not. No way.

This is the same kind of example that Morton provides for withdrawal, and we can recognise in it the bi-directional reductionism that Morton already discarded. I like this example because I can engage with it right now without much effort at all. I engage with it corporeally in an embodied interaction. In this case it is my embodied manipulation of the thing that reveals its emptiness; it is my coping-with-being that exposes the objects innermost absence. Yet this absence could only be reached because the body that I am corporeally manipulated the body that the pen was. Of course here I am attempting to return to the very virtuosity that has already been rejected. To accept virtuosity is to accept that interobjective space is in fact a kind of intercorporeality in which bodies are virtuous agents. For Stephen Bachelor the above example is evidence that objects ‘emerge from a matrix of conditions and in turn become part of another matrix of conditions from which something else emerges’. If we follow this argument then

Withdrawal = sunyata = emptiness = conditions of emergence.

Batchelor doesn’t go into whether these conditions of emergence are corporeal or transcendental, material or formal, and this is very clearly the horizon of this post (and those it is inspired by and alongside). I’m not going to pretend to have a definitive answer, but to me it seems that the question is answered by the consideration of how we “get at” the fact that we can’t “get at” the sun, the pen, or the table, and that is through corporeality. I “get at” the emptiness of the table by attempting to chop it to pieces or by it failing to do what I wanted it to do. The fact is that these are structural relations between bodies; they are embodied relations wherein I discover the excess of the withdrawn over my conceptualisation of the real. In order to realise that bodies withdraw from their embodiment I have to approach them in a pragmatic, embodied way. Emptiness is itself empty except ‘for the purposes of conveying knowledge’. The epistemic relation attempts to cope with withdrawal by saying too much of nothing.

But emptiness isn’t just a metaphysical principle in Buddhism. As Batchelor points out emptiness also names the awareness of emptiness, naming an ethos, a way of being that is

A life centred in awareness of emptiness…an appropriate way of being in this changing, shocking, painful, joyous, frustrating, awesome, stubborn, and ambiguous reality. Emptiness is the central path that leads not beyond this reality but right into its heart. It is the track on which the person moves.

It is clear that the awareness that Batchelor is talking about is fully existential. It is a ‘way of being’ as much as it is the condition of being. A way is an orientation, a chosen direction that I move in; a form of life, replete with political engagements and ethical commitments; it is a style or a particular mode of doing that requires cultivation; it is a threshold, a “way in” or a “way out”, and as such involves a kind of territorialisation; and it is a skilled doing, the way of being as analogous to the way I draw up a medication from a phial into a syringe, having first to assemble that syringe and then to administer it into the exposed flesh of the patient, careful not to hit blood vessels or the sciatic nerve. In this polysemy there are notions of a conscious and engaged movement, an appropriated practicality. Emptiness as a way of being is not something passively undertaken but is an active engagement with my own being and the very onticity of ontic bodies. What runs throughout this pragmatic orientation to living is precisely a sense of embodied activity, of the embodied capacity to act that the ancient stoics called God. Furthermore, insofar as emptiness is conceived of as the very conditions of emergence, this existential emptiness is a commitment to live with ontological emptiness:

the “empty life” is not naked life; the empty life is the life lived in awareness of ontological intimacy, material vulnerability, and the radical incompletion of all beings, including myself.

Obviously, not all bodies can embody emptiness as “empty life”; this is the problem at the heart of debates surrounding animal ethics and personhood. We could say that persons are those beings that appropriate an awareness of emptiness. If this sounds all-too-Heideggarian, I can only apologise. I have commented elsewhere that my own problems with Heidegger centre on Da-sein’s tragic heroism, more than anything to do with his ontology (as far I am capable of understanding it). At any rate, we could say that the appropriation of emptiness as empty life is what we mean by consciousness. If this is the case, obviously nonconscious bodies can’t have emptiness as a way of being in that sense, but they can in the minimal sense of simply being-empty. Whilst the two modes aren’t in duet with one another, they do share the same choreographic space. The point is that nonconscious bodies- objects without minds- don’t grasp emptiness epistemically. They don’t interpret emptiness, they enact emptiness. This is also true for conscious bodies insofar as their capacity for reflexivity is emergent from but irreducible to their specific carnalities. In this way, I completely agree with Morton’s footnote that states that ‘this refreshes the Buddhist idea that different sentient beings inhabit different sorts of reality’, but it is an agreement with a disagreement, a repetition with a difference.

I turn my gaze back to my table. It has a cup on it, now empty of coffee, a laptop heats the surface beneath it, my forearms rub and bump against it as I type, a stack of books extend vertically from its horizontal plane, extending the choreographic space (the space of activity) upwards. Also on the table, invisible to me, are countless microorganisms. These microorganisms crawl out from gorging on the pages of my books (they chew on The Trouble with Being Born as if in parody), and from my poorly covered coughing mouth and sneezing nose. Bookbugs and cold germs mingle with grounded dust mites and their excrement. The invisible life proliferates whether I know it’s there or not. And all these organisms are also pragmatically concerned with the environment, but in radically different ways than I am. From the environment, in it, as it, across it, involving so many more bodies, there comes multiple worlds- mine being the only one I have epistemic access to. The books? They are real bodies, they act and are acted upon, but this doesn’t mean have their experience their own ‘reality’; they constitute worlds but lack the capacity to experience their worlds. My ballpoint pen, now lying in ruins, can’t ‘read’ the book its pieces rest upon, and the books can’t translate or interpret the ballpoint pen. Virtuosity, the practical orientation of bodies towards one another, the very activity of their being active, is explainable by the stoic materiality of God. There is no need to interpret, translate, or otherwise operate ideally. Intercorporeality is always a mutual making use of, even if that making use of is, in Harman’s word to describe the fire-cotton relation, “stupid”.

Photographer Trevor Paglen, in an interview with ‘Smudge’ recently published by Punctum Books in Making the Geologic Now, (thanks to Adam at knowledge-ecology for pointing it out) says that

I often think about this notion of geology, or geomorphology, in relation to hu¬man institutions. Consider a place like Guantanamo Bay, for example. I would submit that the reason why Guantanamo Bay still is there is because it’s there. The chain link fences and the brick and mortar that the buildings are made of actually have a kind of historic agency. They actually want to reproduce themselves. We’re all familiar with the 19th Century idea about the “annihilation of space with time” but the obverse is also true. Space also annihilates time. Whether we’re talking about nuclear waste or Guantanamo Bay, we can see how materialities produce their own futures. This is a way in which materiality and politics intersect. Material¬ity is not politically neutral, so I think that you can talk about Guantanamo Bay as a political phenomenon. I think that materiality can explain some things.

This “geomorphology” seems to me to be proximate with DeLanda’s morphogenic capacity, the same capacity I have identified with the stoics materially immanent God; it is the capacity for matter to self-organise, for bodies to embody themselves. This is far from the image of material causation as ‘clunky causation’. This hypnotic notion that ‘materialities produce their own futures’ is also incredibly close to Morton’s own concept of ecological crisis in connection with the burial of nuclear waste in the Earth.

In other words, there is no need for causality to be magical or to seem like an illusion when God is the operations, and the interoperations, of bodies. Bodies are both cause and effect. This stoic doctrine is closer to Buddhist codependent arising than I can see realist magic allowing. The table-for-my-books, the table-for-my-forearms, the table-for-me, the table-for-the-cup, the table-for-the-laptop and the table-for-the-table aren’t going to be the same kind of table-for. I take this as part of the reason for attending to what Michael calls onto-specificity, and what has come to be known as Buddhist mindfulness practice. Virtuous beings, pragmatic bodies, are not always sentient beings, and are therefore not always centres of an “alien phenomenology”. At the same time, emptiness does not translate as spectrality but the perishability of all corporeal existences: bodies reach their apotheosis in dissolution, destruction, and death.

Final words then, I get the sense that for Morton any assertion to the effect that ‘reality is mingled and uncanny mesh’ is mistaken. The mingling and meshing is a property of the ‘sampling’ effect of object’s interactions in the aesthetic domain- a domain he seems to think is derivative of but not coexistensive with objects. Causation thus seems to be something like the transcendental conditions of possibility for the emergence of objects, akin to codependent arising in Buddhism. If causation is an illusion and a non-illusion, it is magical and mysterious, for Morton then that is because it is ’empty’ (shunyata). If I’m right about this (and I’m in no way certain that I am), then the problem is really about what it is that is casually interacting. Objects as samples of other objects? Objects as interpretations of other objects? Sensuous appearances? These hermeneutical objects seem to be the objects of causation, and causation seems to be the hermeneutic labour undertaken by objects on other objects. My disagreement with Morton, if I have understood him at all, is over the question of whether objects and causation are corporeal or hermeneutic.

Towards a corporealism

If humans can only have structural access to things-in-themselves, and only ever fashion approximate knowledge of objects and assemblages through signification practices and epistemic phantasies, then what actually matters is how we pragmatically act, react and cope in the world in relation to them. Insert all the references to Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’ and ‘family resemblances’, Rorty’s ‘ironism’, and/or any other post-critical concessions you want right here. The bottom-line is that immanent structural – or perhaps infrastructural – relations have traceable consequences via the onto-specific powers or potencies (or what Bryant refers to as ‘pluri-potencies’) of things at a pre-reflective level of direct material-energetic affectivity. And the distal stories (narratives, ontologies, etc.) we tell ourselves about these consequential interactions – however poetic or meaning-full, or instrumental (useful) they may be – are basically coping mechanisms to help us make our way in the wild world as fully enfleshed beings-in-the-world.

Michael of Archivefire, On Being and Coping part one: ontic relation and object access.

In this hastily put together post I want to discuss corporealism, the idea that all that exists is bodies and that these bodies are real objects that really touch one another. I’ll be drawing on the Stoic conception of corporealism and discussing their ideas of matter and God. I think that the possibility of a realism that doesn’t become a panpsychism and that doesn’t support absolute absence can be founded on a commitment to the weird materialism of corporealism. In other words, corporealism is one possible name for a realism that focusses on the structural relation between bodies rather than on the epistemic. What is excluded from this post is a consideration of the equally important doctrine of incorporeals.

Origins of Corporealism.

According to Christoph Jedan, the Stoic doctrine of corporealism was an attempt to reconcile three varieties of thought active in the Hellenistic world. First, they were operating in a world were prospective Stoics would be immersed within a polytheistic cosmology that the majority of people had no reason to be atheistic toward. Secondly, the Stoics also had to compete with other schools cosmologies, and these all included treatments of divinity. We could think of Plato’s philosophical treatment of deity as being the most symptomatic of this. In the Timaeus Plato introduces his idea of the divine as demiurge, the perfectly good craftsman divinity that organises a pre-existent chaos and thereby produces the visible world. This demiurge is therefore transcendent of the material world, making use of the perfect realm of Forms in order to give form to matter. Matter pre-exists form and the God which renders it. This is important because it means that God is not absolute in the way of Christianity. The nexus Plato-demiurge-Christianity would later become important through the Gnostic conceptions of the demiurge as incompetent or evil, producing an utterly imperfect material realm and thereby explaining evil as a structural element of the world itself. The tension between fidelity to traditional fidelity and a philosophically refracted God would have been present in the Stoic’s world. The third element Jedan identifies is the Stoic’s own ‘tendency to a “materialistic ontology”‘. Jedan states that this was hard to wed with the theological concerns of their age, making no reference fact that religious and materialist discourses have continued to overshoot, caricature, and regard one another as irreducibly opposed to this day. For the Stoics, the upshot of the union between supernaturalism and materialism was to conceive of God as a material force or principle that runs through the entirety of materiality. In individual Stoics this God is personalised to a greater or lesser degree. Epictetus is probably the Stoic that personalises God to the greatest extent, referring to Zeus throughout his Discourses and almost sounds like a Christian, if one suspends an awareness of Stoic materialism.

The Stoic God is singular and pantheist, closer to the God of Spinoza than to Plato. Beginning with Zeno of Citium, founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, the Stoic conception of divinity is made thoroughly material, identified with nature, and sits within a rigorous physical determinism. As Diogenes explains

the term Nature is used by them to mean sometimes that which holds the cosmos together, sometimes that which causes terrestrial things to spring up. Nature is defined as a force moving of itself, producing and preserving in being its offspring in accordance with seminal reasons (spermatikoi logoi) within different periods, and effecting results homogenous with their sources (Lives, 7;148-49)

There is no doubt that this characterisation of nature is synonymous with God. The Stoics are not happy to leave it at that. Nature isn’t the nature outside the city limit or human nature alone. As Diogenes points out above, nature-and so God- is woven throughout the cosmos. He goes on

The cosmos, they hold, comes into being when its substance (ousia) has first been converted from fire through air into moisture and then the coarser part of the moisture has condensed as earth, while that whose particles are fine has been turned into air, and this process of rarefaction goes on increasingly till it generates fire. Thereupon out of these elements animals and plants and all other natural kinds are formed by their mixture. (Lives, 7.142)

For the Stoics, divinity has this elemental form of fire such that Diogenes is discussing. The description Diogenes gives us of the Stoic concept of cosmos is one in which God undergoes self-differentiation. The differentiated aspects of substance thus interact with one another (‘by their mixture’) in order to produce terrestrial things (animals and plants and all other natural kinds). God is the material substance of the cosmos and the cosmos is simultaneously an ensemble of all terrestrial things and itself a terrestrial thing. Following Aristotle, ousia (οὐσία) is the being of particular beings, the substance of singular terrestrial things. In this cosmological picture there is

God breaks apart into productive units we call elements. The productive units interact to produce terrestrial things. The proper name for terrestrial things in Stoicism is bodies. Therefore, the productive units interact to produce bodies. The totality of the bodies taken together is called cosmos or nature which is identical to God. God is God through self-differentiation, which is the same as saying that substance is substance through self-differentiation. By not being itself substance is able to remain itself. Essentially, this is the doctrine of immanence. It is for this reason that Marcus Aurelius can claim that

All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred,… for they have been arranged together in their places and together make the same ordered Universe. For there is one Universe out of all, one God through all, one substance and one law

(Meditations).

Whatever else we can say, God/Nature names an organising principle that is immanent to substance, and there is no substance that is not material. Thus it is that Stoic materialism does not hold to a passive understanding of matter; the corporeal organises itself. Stoic matter is not the matter of mechanistic physics that sits inert, and it is does not feature an originary formlessness as in Plato. Matter itself is active and in this sense ‘God’ names that part of matter that possesses this activity. It is the strangeness of this materialism that has led most commentators to instead refer to it as corporealism.

Only bodies are

The first to differentiate Stoic corporealism from materialism was French philosopher Éric Weil. A Jew born in Germany in the early part of the 20th century, Weil was a survivor of the holocaust who had settled in France to read Hegel with Kojeve. Weil’s reading of Stoicism is similar to the one traced out above in which matter is accompanied by something belonging to matter called God. In materialism, to say that only bodies exist is to say that only matter exists; in Stoicism, to say that only bodies exist is to say that only matter and God exist. For the Stoics whatever exists is corporeal; to be is to be a body, and all beings are bodies. Their rivals, the Epicureans, insisted that all that existed was atoms. In the atomist tradition the atom was the only kind of being a being could be, with ‘void’ being its negation. For the Epicureans the atom is the atom; for the Stoics materiality is matter and God. While the Epicureans have an explicit monism (there is only one kind of being), the Stoic only seem to operate in a monism. Instead, they appear to have a dualism that is disguising itself as a monism.

Ricardo Salles (God and Cosmos in Stoicism, 2011) asserts that this is only problematic if we are not attentive to what the Zeno and Chrysippus means by ‘matter’;

The Stoics clearly distinguish two meanings of matter. In one sense matter is unqualified substance: it is the matter of the universe called “substance” or “prime matter”. In the other sense, “matter” designates the qualified matter of particular realities.

Salles goes onto remind us that in Stoic doctrine there is two kinds of things: ‘that which acts and that which is acted upon’. In Salles’ reading ‘that which is acted upon’ is unqualified substance, whereas ‘that which acts’ is the ‘reason in it, i.e; God’. In Salles understanding, God is an activity of unqualified substance that produces differentiation in that substance to give rise to qualified matter. There is no dualism in this because God isn’t another kind of body, nor is God what animates bodies, God is simply the animation of bodies. To put it another way, God is the name for the capacity of bodies to act. The only sense in which God and matter appear to be separate terms is linguistically.

Whatever has a capacity of action exists, whether it be passive or active. Whatever has a capacity of action is a body. Therefore a body may be a ‘terrestrial thing’ (a cat, a plant, a woman, a shoe, a cup) something that can act or be acted on that is not strictly physical. For the Stoics such nonphysical bodies would include the soul, wisdom, the cosmopolis, and most certainly virtue. We might want it to include some of these things but we might also include the principle of equality, information-states, love, and mind itself. Corporealism therefore includes physical bodies and nonphysical properties and objects that we might otherwise seem to be products of emergence. That is, corpo-realism is a thoroughly non-reductionist materialism. It also means that whatever exists, to count at existing, is a body that necessarily acts or is acted upon corporeally by other bodies.

John Sellars (Stoicism 2006) points out that the idea that whatever exists is corporeal means that we can’t include any Platonic universals in a possible litany of existent objects. Plato’s Forms lack any kind of corporeality; they are not material in any sense, and nor are they singular, particular things. From the corporeal perspective only bodies exists and bodies are always particularities, such-and-such an example of qualified matter (ie. this man, not man as such). In this way, corporeality is not amenable to concepts of genericity. Chrysippus is known to have pointed out that the statement that ‘man is a rational animal’ supposes there is a generic ‘man’ that remains once every particular man, or all qualities of particular men, have been subtracted. Instead, Chrysippus reformulates the phrase as: ‘if something is a man, then that thing is a rational animal’. There is no humanity that remains, only the suggestion that particular humans share rationality and animality. Similarly, there is not some actually existing generic ‘tree’, there are only individual trees. This claim is the same as that which Graham Harman has made in regard to music; there is no Song, only individual instances of the song. Anyone who doubts it ought to recall John Cage’s 4’33”.

Neo-materialism and panpsychism

Earlier, it appeared as though God were a pre-existent substance- a primordial unitary being- that self-differentiated in order to produce individual entities. Now it seems that God is a material force at work within bodies. It is this activity, this capacity for action, that is integral too and responsible for the production of particular, individual bodies. In this regard corporealism is not too distant from the neo-materialism that Manuel de Landa (New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies 2012) defends:

It is absurd to think that complex self-organizing structures need a “brain” to generate them. The coupled system atmosphere-hydrosphere is continuously generating structures (thunderstorms, hurricanes, coherent wind currents) not only without a brain but without any organs whatsoever. The ancient chemistry of the prebiotic soup also generated such coherent structures (auto-catalytic loops) without which the genetic code could not have emerged. And bacteria in the first two billion years of the history of the biosphere discovered all major means to tap into energy sources (fermentation, photosynthesis, respiration). To think that a “brain” is needed goes beyond Cartesian dualism and fades into Creationism: matter is an inert receptacle for forms that come from the outside imposed by an exterior psychic agency: “Let there be light!”

So yes, neo-materialism is based on the idea that matter has morphogenetic capacities of its own and does not need to be commanded into generating form. But we should not attempt to build such a philosophy by “rejecting dualisms” or following any other meta-recipe. The idea that we know already how all past discourses have been generated, that we have the secret of all past conceptual systems, and that we can therefore engage in meta-theorizing based on that knowledge is deeply mistaken. And this mistake is at the source of all the idealisms that have been generated by postmodernism

This quote is particularly pertinent to this discussion of corporealism. First of all, DeLanda considers it ‘absurd’ to hold that material compositions require any a brain to direct them. I think here we can read DeLanda as rejecting the claim that matter requires a nucleus of conscious control in order to organise itself into highly such complicated material compositions as thunderstorms. If a brain is unnecessary then we can be damn sure that a mind is also unnecessary. Moving to the ‘prebiotic soup’ only ups the ante in DeLanda’s claim: life, the thing so many people think is the pinnacle of physical structures, a kind of miracle that let you and me emerge from a stupid, lifeless goo…that didn’t need a brain-mind, so why the hell would any of the rest of it? Second is the (hilarious) accusation of Creationism. Essentially, conceiving of matter as passive and only passive means that it could never organise itself into anything. The stab at Creationism is the same one the Stoics make at Plato, that conceiving of matter as a passive receptacle pointlessly sets up problems that aren’t easily resolved. Thirdly, that matter has its own ‘morphogenetic capacity’ means that matter has the immanent ability to give itself form without any ‘external psychic agency’ having to be deus ex machina‘d into the picture. Indeed, the deus is precisely what is immanent to matter. In my elaboration of corporealism in Stoicism, this morphogenecity is precisely what was identified by the name of ‘God’. Corporealism thus seems to accord with the new material.

The problem that emerges here is the question of what the rejection of an ‘exterior psychic agency’ actually means. Specifically, is this a rejection of psychic agency as such or does the emphasis fall on the term ‘exterior’. As DeLanda points out in A New Philosophy of Society… the position that is generally termed realist is ‘defined by the commitment to a mind-independent existence of reality’. Certainly, bodies like thunderstorms, hurricanes, and coherent wind currents don’t require any external mind imposing form on them, but ‘social entities’ from ‘small communities to large nation-states’ do. Without the embodied minds of humans it is obvious that these kinds of social bodies require human bodies or they vanish. A nation-state may survive across generations with all particular human bodies that form an essential part of its being dying and therefore exiting it, but at the same time new human beings are constantly born already inside of those social bodies. The territoriality of these bodies is such that their exteriority has to be interior to them otherwise they will pass out of existence. The exterior psychic agency that social bodies require is always already to be found having been brought inside.

In my last post I was suggesting that OOO involves a panpsychism because mind

‘is spread across all relations that we can look at [so] that each and every object that the human touches, every human-human/human-object relation (and the object-object relations that those depend on) are the corporeal mechanisms of the logos spermatikos of mind. The point would be that mind or ‘mind-like’ encounters between objects would be neither something that belonged to humans or to nonhumans but to the cosmos itself. Rather than a panpsychism this might resemble a material pantheism.

I want to focus on the biggest mistake of this paragraph: Mind, as an emergent property, as Michael rightly points out in his response to my post, deserves to be granted its ‘ontic particularity and irreducible complexity’. His concern is that I or OOO am anthropomorphising the cosmos by finding evidence of human cognitive capacities and generalising them to the cosmos in such a way that we get claims of ‘alien phenomenologies’. To return to DeLanda, it isn’t just that minds included a given nation-state would have an experience of that nation-state, but that the nation-state itself would have an experience of the minds it contained. The problem is that the nation-state, while it does include minds and requires them for its uniquely social existence, it does not itself possess an emergent mental life. Embodied cognition involves neurons, the interrelation between neurons, the nervous system as a whole, the body as a whole (both phenomenal and material), a rich environment, and all the material requirements of that environment. Social bodies contain but don’t possess these features. In the same way, my apartment contains my computer but my apartment isn’t thereby able to make computations. The alien phenomenology of the nation-state or the experience my computer has of my apartment would be mind-like happenings. Indeed, in the apartment-computer example there will be times when I am out and so won’t be part of the ensemble of operations making it up. If we grant that this relation is generative of an experience in either of its terms then we have to say some kind of mind is also being generated. This is problematic not because its an intuitively weird idea (many ideas are weird and right) but because it means that all relations would be relations between minds. While impoverishing ontic particularity we are promoting psychic universality. Reality could never be said to be mind-independent. The real would always be some aspect of the real’s experience of the real. Realism would convert into idealism.

Corporealism as body-oriented realism

What I hope that my treatment of Stoic corporealism has done is begun a possible elaboration of a realism that involves direct corporeal contact between bodies and negates the claim that such bodies are absolute withdrawn from themselves and others. I’ve got to admit that this is a very small beginning to such a project. What I’ve tried to show is that bodies interact with bodies and that nothing can exist that does not relate directly. In the Stoic picture everything that exists is at once a cause and effect, active and passive, what it is and capable of being otherwise. The reason that I have gone some length to talk about the Stoic conception of God was to investigate panpsychism under another guise. The Stoics routinely call God by other names such as; nature, World-Spirit, the Whole, Reason, Logos. This is how they think that the universe has a perfect, rational order: God is in all things, the Mind of God is in all things. IF they waver and vacillate on what this God is exactly, I would suggest this is because they are trying to fit a metaphysical description onto a theological nomination. As I said at the start, this might be because of the intellectual climates they inhabited, because of personal faith, or because they wanted to attracted students. Hell, let’s not forget that offending the Gods could get you killed. Whatever is going on with the Stoic concept of God it is not describing something supernatural, nor is it describing some kind of super-mind or panpsychism. This is what I meant by asking if there isn’t room for a material pantheism.

Whilst the Stoics talk about God being the Whole or the All (clearly an overmining idea) they also talk about God as a body among bodies, as embedded in matter itself, and as an active property belonging to all bodies, the very self-organising capacity of matter. God isn’t the name for something, but some activity. It is this last concept of God that I want to say is proper to a corporealism that would be a body oriented realism. It is also in this sense that we would jettison any overmining idea of God. Instead, isn’ the principle of God that is immanent to all bodies simply another way of talking about the potency or plasticity of bodies to enact themselves other than they are?

There is nothing to stop us thinking of ‘all things are woven together’ in order to produce a body that emerges from the sum of all ongoing particular relations that we call universe or cosmos. After all, Marcus only tells us to always think of the universe as an organism. Thinking it so doesn’t make it so and, after all, Marcus is engaged in his own attempt at living, his own coping. The organisation of bodies, there being ‘arranged together in their places’ is what ‘make(s) the same ordered Universe’. The one substance of Stoic monism isn’t a goo or flux that subsists every individuated being. The one substance of Stoic monism is simply body. Bodies emerging from bodies; from their very real and direct intimate contact. Among the other obsessions of the Stoics is their vivid appreciation of material vulnerability to death, the fragility and precariousness of all bodies…especially our own:

In human life, our time is a point, our substance is flowing, our perception faint, the constitution of our whole body decaying , our soul a spinning wheel, our fortune hard to predict and our fame doubtable; that is to say, all the things of the body are a river, things of the soul dream and delusion, life a war and journey in a foreign land, and afterwards oblivion. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations)

material vulnerabilities

I want to do two things in this post. First, to explore the idea of ‘ontological vulnerability’ a little, and second, to look at absolute and contingent withdrawal in object-oriented philosophy. I want to do this in order to try to get a grasp of Michael’s problems with Harman and Morton’s version of OOO, and to make a start on answering questions about pan-correlationism.

Michael rejects the idea that objects are absolutely withdrawn from one. Instead, Michael suggests that all objects are’ ontically open to one another in such a way as to establish an ‘intimacy’. This would also be the grounds of possibility for the intelligibility of alterity: how could we speak of alterity if things never encountered one another at all? The point is that if objects were absolutely withdrawn they would recede from any point of access whatsoever. In such a world no thing could ever be touched, held, burnt, used, left, ignored, known etc. In a bid to revalorise substantiality in a world seemingly obsessed with flux, we give discover the undiscoverability of the in-itself and remain forever imprisoned within the for-us of our own delusive experiences. Absolute withdrawal is a thesis of absolute autonomy of every substance from every other substance to the point where all and every thing vanishes. But that isn’t the world we live in. We live in a world of violence and suffering, of bullets and bombs, of fast food and big screen TVs, of kissing lovers, and 4 year old boys who refuse to let you write blog posts. We live in a world where we’ve gathered a fair bit of knowledge. Hard knowledge garnered from natural science. In other words, it seems that the claim that objects are absolutely withdrawn is false.

As a psychiatric nurse I know that such a claim is false. I use drugs synthesised by psychopharmacologists that, once injected into the flesh, directly do things to the patient’s nervous system. Conversation and phenomenographic accounts of patient experience also relate how this can profoundly alter the way patients couple to their environments. This leads to the enaction of profoundly different worlds. Thinking on such an example is illustrative. I can only do my job because people have had direct if partial access to things. I can only do my job because other things have direct access to still more things. The generation of and radical difference between my experience of an episode of medication administration and my patient’s is only possible because of the specific ways in which we and the things involved in that situation are open to each other. That openness constitutes the kind of intimacy that provides us with experiential evidence of the impossibility of absolute withdrawal. Instead, situations or worlds are produced by the unique ensemble of interoperating operations of uniquely relating substances. Onto-specification is the product of multiple coexisting intimacies, or intermatrices.

We should note here that what I’m calling intermatrices pertain to ‘contact’ between objects. Intermatrices are simply the ensembles that produce effects that we typically call things. Just as for the Stoics,objects are both cause and effect. The point to note is that it is only because of intermatrices that we have access to things at all, and that such interoperability is fundamentally a matter of enaction. That is to say onto-specification is the activity of the ontic co-determination of substances by those substances. There is a sense in which we can say this is an eroticism: things enact worlds by touching each other. As such, absolute withdrawal would constitute an auto-erotic atomism in which touching is mediated via the metaphorical screen as in cyber-sex. In Levi Bryant and Ian Bogost’s expression, the object-oriented ontology is a promiscuous ontology.

So objects/ensembles/etc are able to touch one another only partially but nonetheless directly. This means that something is always going to be absent in their touching, even if that absence is not absolute. Here, the split in an objects identity, the heterogeneous admixture preventing total autonomy, means that their is a porosity to the object’s membrane. The membrane might be thought of as that fuzzy boundary between what remains withdrawn aspect and what is touched-touching. Much like skin, the object’s membrane is porous, permeable, otherwise it would be either fully actual or fully virtual. What this also means is that with any specific object/ensemble the porosity of the membrane will differ. As such, rather than absolute withdrawal across all objects there is a continuum of withdrawal, degrees of absence, a mobility between presence and absence. I will return to this later.

So what is this ontological vulnerability? It is precisely what has been discussed above. Yet as human beings we are a particular kind of thing, and we have put ontological vulnerability into play for other reasons. For us, this kind of vulnerability is part of our facticity. We are the species that is composed of individuals that know that they will die. We are the kind of being that is always exposed to death and which has complex affective and cognitive responses to that awareness. Ernest Becker is among those who has posited that human civilisation is in fact a huge coping mechanism composed of other elaborate coping mechanisms. By identifying with a heroic system, such as religion, the individual attempts to transcend their own mortality, fraught as it is with uncertainty of time and manner of arrival, by being part of ‘something bigger’. Becker joins in that chorus of voices that declare that such means of pretending at immortality, of avoiding death, have been undermined by modernity’s disenchantment of the world. The cultural-subjective nihilism that accompanies the desacralisation of the world by instrumental/administrative reason and the rise of industrial capitalism has eroded the possibility of sustaining our various heroisms. (I have a sense that Heidegger’s being-toward-death is really little more than his attempt to make the absence of heroism into a heroism).
The point here is that we are left without any kind of affective or intellectual defence against our awareness of our mortality and that this is paralysing. For some this means that we put all our efforts into sequestering death (Mellor and Shilling 1993, The sequestration hypothesis: modernity, self-identity, and death), hiding it from view through the operation of a taboo just as under the repressive hypothesis power was supposed to operate an effective taboo on sex. For others (Christopher Lasch) this degenerates humans into narcissists obsessed with youth and beauty, terrified of ageing and any form of commitment whatsoever. It is a fairly familiar story, one we don’t need to completely retrace here. We have always been exposed to death and we have always attempted to attenuate that exposure.

Importantly, ontological vulnerability has been discussed by Judith Butler (Precarious Life; Frames of War) as our corporeal vulnerability to others because of the way our being is constituted by, remains dependent on, and is finally extinguishable by, other corporeally vulnerable beings.Just like with Becker’s hero-systems though, there are those who attempt to make themselves appear invulnerable (Butler identifies the USA and Israel as examples). In trying to be invulnerable these objects are hiding their vulnerability from themselves, turning away from it, and simultaneously increasing their vulnerability. Our lives are precariously interdependent and this exposes us to violence, possibly to death. The logic is similar in Becker, for whom civilisation is a massive system of meaning-production that attempts to give death the appearance of sense, to domesticate it’s dark absoluteness, and to make us feel like we are ontologically invulnerable. In both instances, attempts to evade such vulnerability actually intensifies it by building up defences that can’t do anything but fail.

In the pessimistic understanding of vulnerability we are talking about an exposure to death that renders suffering senseless, arbitrary, our world a dangerously vertiginous swirl of risk. The very fabric of social and institutional life is endangered by the cultural nihilism that sweeps through liquid modernity because death is revealed to be ‘the absolute other, an unimaginable other…an absolute nothing…the end of all perception’ (Bauman, Mortality immortality, and other life strategies). Ontological vulnerability is the threat of a dissolution so complete as to be unthinkable, unimaginable, an horrific alterity that the individual (and increasingly the collective) can’t domesticate. Death is perfectly unthinkable.

Our ontological vulnerability is ultimately rooted in a carnal vulnerability, and this should tell us something about ontological vulnerability in general (although we must be mindful of onto-specificity). First, ontological vulnerability is openness. This openness does not merely point towards the partiality of withdrawal but also points towards the exposure of objects to dissolution. Secondly, in humans (and probably other animals) this dissolution is death. Thirdly, it seems as though the first two claims follow from openness of objects, from the incompleteness of ensembles, their plasticity. Fourth, partial objects mean that all objects are interdependent rather than autonomous. All objects may be agencies that act, but they do so within the constraints of the worlds that are available to them to enact. Fifth, if death is unthinkable then absolute withdrawal is unthinkable. In this way, absolute withdrawal would pose itself as a limit to thinking, to what could be thought. It could be countered that this is precisely where the speculation in speculative realism steps in but I feel that the positioning with death is telling. What it tells us is that to go beyond this limit, to speculate on what is absolutely withdrawn and so is an unimaginable other, an absolute nothing and the end of all perception, is to produce a supernaturalism. Specifically, a commitment to the absolutely withdrawn would seem to be a kind of mysticism.

As we have seen, what is partially absent is not necessarily absent. Objects are capable of change, the cosmos itself is capable of change. What is now withdrawn may be put forward, what is now touched-touching may be withdrawn. In other words, what remains withdrawn only does so contingently. There remains the possibility of some other part of the object’s latency being manifested. There is the ‘distinctive presence of that which withdraws or has withdrawn’ as Alva Noe has it in Varieties of Presence. Drawing on the example of a baseball player’s glove, or Heidegger’s example of the craftman’s hammer, Noe talks about the withdrawing of these objects as alive in the sense that a straight up absence as not-presence is not. If something is not-present it is of no concern. Other possible ways of thinking absence might be related to occupation. If something is occupied it’s space has been filled by something not-it. This clearly isn’t what withdrawal is referring to. Alva Noe suggests that we think of a kind of absence that is a presence, a presence-in-absence. He asks us to imagine a tomato. When we perceive the tomato we see it as a whole tomato. Asked to describe it we would list its visual perceptual properties. But we would probably exceed what was actually presented to our eyes. We would say that it had a back and even if we couldn’t see that back we would not doubt that it existed. We would display a kind of perceptual faith, in Merleau-Ponty’s words. For Noe, this isn’t because we make a cognitive inference about the tomato but because the tomato ‘looks to have a back. It looks solidly three dimensional’. There is no actual seeing of the occluded portion of the fruit but there is a relation to the fruit that is undeniably visual in which it’s having a back, it’s being the thing it is, is obvious. In this sense, the back of the tomato (the back of a house) shows up. This showing up is its being as a presence-as-absence. No sooner has Noe stated that the back of the tomato is absent and present to human perception than he generalises this to every instance of human perception. ‘Consider the front of a tomato. You see it. But do you see all of it’? For Noe, every object of perception is ‘hidden’ in the sense that my experience of it, my embodied perceptual engagement with it, is always fragile and incomplete. In other words, it is always open; always ontologically vulnerable.

Noe’s access to the presence-in-absence that is everything, or as he put it access to ‘the virtual all the way down’, is based on carnal ‘sensorimotor integration’ with the physical environment. The point is that while everything is hidden it can nonetheless be accessed practically through the structural coupling of the organism with it’s environment. By turning my head, by casting my eye, my changing my posture or walking a few footsteps, I alter that coupling and achieve a different angle of access. Our access to the withdrawn, and what remains withdrawn, is dependent, at least in part, on our practicality and virtuosity.

This might still both Michael. It remains within the pan-correlationism that attaches cognitive powers to all object-object relations. The kind of virtuosity that I have talked about is the kind that has been sketched in terms of human perceptual capacities and intentional agency. Hairdryers and clouds are unlikely to be just these kinds of virtuosos. Yet if part of all of this has been to call attention to the onto-specificity of ensembles then we ought to recall that the human is precisely that ensemble that grasps the world in a fully corporeal sense. We are that kind of ensemble for whom cognitive, affective, and embodied capacities are utterly enmeshed together. As I hope my mentions of death showed, our corporeal vulnerability and our ontological vulnerability are of the same kind. The being of beings has to be understood as corporeality. If it is the case that ‘nothing incorporeal exists’ then there is nothing that lacks materiality, nothing that can’t be made to show up. Mind can only emerge out of the complex intermatrises that enact it, and it can’t be reduced to its human side or to the brain. Perhaps the pan-correlationism or panpsychism that Michael is wanting to avoid is something that shows up in OOO because it is spread across all relations that we can look at. We can never look anywhere where mind is not. This is not the same as to say that we can never look anywhere that the human is not, or where discursivity, or power is not; instead it is to suggest that each and every object that the human touches, every human-human/human-object relation (and the object-object relations that those depend on) are the corporeal mechanisms of the logos spermatikos of mind. The point would be that mind or ‘mind-like’ encounters between objects would be neither something that belonged to humans or to nonhumans but to the cosmos itself. Rather than a panpsychism this might resemble a material pantheism. At the same time, we might consider that practicality and virtuosity might not be traits that only humans engage in.

This hasn’t even begun to get at Michael’s point or to answer it. As ever, I stumble onward in my dilettante contributions. Maybe this one will be expanded on.

Saying too much of nothing

I once wrote that I want to speak with the simplicity of a child. Sometimes I fail to do so in my speech. I almost always fail in my writing. I am verbose. Whatever I try to say gets lost in that verbosity. It may be that I try to allude to my meaning or it may be a cover for not knowing what it is I’m try to say. I like to think it is a little of both. I’m going to write about writing as a mode of thinking. To do that I’ll take a brief step into psychoanalysis in order to use it to chisel out a ‘logic of the secret’ that I think lies at the heart of the issues of clarity in written language, and responsibility in thought. 

I don’t have to write often, and when I do write it is usually for myself. This is true of my nursing articles and this blog. Part of my problem is I have no clearly defined audience. a friend once told me that a writer writes his own audience. I feel that that is the preserve of great writers who have mastered their form, not that of dilettantes with pretensions. And I am a dilettante when writing about anything other than mental health.  None of which is to say that I am incapable of writing on other matters, or that I shouldn’t try. I subscribe to the idea that writing is thinking out loud on the page. There is no reason that being outside of academic philosophy should prevent me from writing about philosophy, or that being a layman should prevent me from writing about science.

I want to write as simply as a child but I don’t want to treat my audience as a child. I don’t want to treat you as a child. As soon as they are able, young children say what they mean. Even their lies and verbal tricks have a transparency that wants you to realise that you are a co-conspirator. Likewise a comedian doesn’t speak above his audience. For the joke to work you have to get it, even if what you get is your own failure to get it. I want you to go with me when I write.

I feel like I could be accused of insecurity. I am writing a post about being a bad writer while trying not to commit that crime. It is as if I am disavowing my own uncertainty, and therefore projecting outward to some standard that avoids it; to some figure that avoids it. The identity of that figure can be called the Stylist who knows. That figure would stand in as the opposite image of myself: they would write what they mean clearly without sacrificing a degree of poetic language. The Stylist occupies an analogous place to the Subject-Supposed-to-Know. To understand what I mean, bear with me as I drift into psychoanalysis for a minute.

The subject supposed to know is an idea found in Jacques Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis that is crucial to his way of thinking about psychoanalytic practice. In the psychoanalytic relationship there is the analyst (therapist) and the analysand (client) and between them is the transferential relationship that drives the work of analysis. In many texts on psychoanalysis transference is painted as an affective relationship in which the analysand projects powerful emotions onto the analyst. This emotional projection is based on unconscious stereotypes that the analysand harbors. Without knowing that they are based on their own past, the analysand enacts those stereotypes by casting the analyst in their place. The metaphor of transfer is key: the hidden emotional life of the analysand is invoked as being properties of, or reactions inspired by, the analyst. As such the former may love the latter because emotions based on people from the analysand’s past have been awoken by the analyst. In Lacan’s idiosyncratic formulation of psychoanalysis ‘as soon as the subject who is supposed to know exists somewhere there is transference’.

For Lacan, transference is only established when the analysand puts the analyst in the position of one who knows some secret crucial to the analysand’s predicament. Central to this is Lacan’s claim that ‘He is supposed to know that from which no one can escape, as soon as he formulates it – quite simply, signification’.

In other words, the client herself puts the therapist into the position of being the one who knows the meaning of what they have said. Who hasn’t felt this experience among people they consider smarter than themselves? As soon as we have uttered those words they know! The smart people hear what we really think! There is something essentially paranoid about this placing of the therapist as the subject supposed to know. At the same time, the therapist has to be careful: they are only presumed to know what the client thinks a therapist ought to know, and they must be aware that there knowledge of therapeutic theory and practice is not so total as all that. So hand we have a paranoia, and on the other hand we have caution. For Lacan these shifting positions in relation to (assumed) knowledge are what constitute the transference. This means that transference is not so much an affective projection as it is a regime of intersubjective structure: each member of the relationship is made into what they are in the relationship through the transference.

It is possible to generalise this structure so that we can think of many subjects who ‘supposed to x’. There can be a subject supposed to believe. Slavoj Zizek provides the example of the children who believe in Father Christmas and for whom parents pretend to believe in him too. The point here is that the children are supposed to believe in Father Christmas. That they believe such is a presupposition of the parent’s. The statement that ‘the children believe in Father Christmas’ could be rewritten as ‘I believe that the children still believe in Father Christmas’. For Zizek this can also apply to bolder statements: I believe (that there are people who still believe) in Communism! In this cultural psychoanalytic theory, we are always presupposing someone else who does things for us and thereby makes it possible to not do them.

It is not necessary to sign up to a psychoanalytic world-view to make sense of these claims. We could just as well re-imagine what proceeded in terms of sociality. Imagine that you had a love of football. As a child you watched your favourite team every week of the season, and would play in parks with your friends (jumpers for goalposts, etc) until the sun went down and your mother called you in for tea. You wanted desperately to be able to play like the professionals and although you played often you never reached those heights of virtuosity. As you got older, you were happy enough playing in the Sunday league tournaments with friends from work but there was always this lingering thought: if only I had known the secret. What is at stake here is this logic of ‘the secret’. If we knew what this secret was then we would be have been able to be the great footballer. It is the same with the one who throws his hands up and says ‘I could be happy if I only knew the secret!’

At issue is an imaginative leap from my ability to become a great footballer, or my ability to be happy, onto some external. True, I might not possess the physical attributes to play for Manchester United, or I might suffer from extreme bouts of anhedonia that make it extremely difficult to achieve states of happiness. Material conditions of all kinds might prevent me from attaining the thing it is I wish to. Yet it is one thing to be aware of these limitations and another to say that these limitations prevent me from knowing the secret of these things.

There are other ways to render secrets. There is the ‘secret of secrets’ approach, popular in certain strands of philosophy. It involves the kind of hermeneutics that generate new infinite interpretations of philosophical texts, or ‘prephilosophical decisions’ that philosophy is blind to. In these approaches one undermines in advance any claim to knowledge by revealing that you have seen what no one else could see because it was what allowed them to see in the first place. In holding the secret of secrets you have gone beyond mere sight, and Seen.

In another example of the standard logic of the secret, I have often found myself saying to friends that I will never be the incredibly competent, compassionate nurse that I want to be. Sometimes I have even looked at others and wondered what is is about them, what trait or insight they possessed that made them models I wished to emulate. In doing so I conjure a mystical secret that they have access to but that I don’t. The novice regards the expert in awe and shrouds them in a mystique that ends  up  preventing the acquisition of expertise. When I am being rational, I know that it is likely that the expert nurse could have felt this same way about others. To attain the goal of fulfilling my commitments as a nurse it is no good to believe there is a magical formula waiting to be discovered that will short-circuit the process of getting there. The belief in the secret is the belief that some magic external will do the work for me

The Stylist is the secret of writing. It is the imaginary magic external that will do for me what I can’t do. Yet of course the Stylist is not discoverable. It is not external except insofar as I presuppose it’s existence. Once I think it is discoverable ‘out there’ it acts much like the subject supposed to know in psychoanalysis. The difference between the two is that the former does not engage any process whereby I seek my own meaning like the latter does. In the transference the analysand will hopefully come to an awareness that they alone know the meaning of their utterances. In the the logic of the secret, all there can ever be is a pining for a lack that cannot be filled because it is a lack that is not absent.

The Stylist is not just the secret of being a good writer: it is the secret of being a good thinker on the page. As such the Stylist has clarity and poetry. It’s secret is buried in the folds of actually existing literature’s more obtusely corrugated prose, where it remains frozen and out of reach. It is a lacuna in the transmission. It does not exist, except as a hallucinatory missing piece. The Stylist is nothing but the excuse for and production of the inability to think on the page. The Stylist Who Knows is, in other words, the imaginary sophist that dazzles and so blinds us to his own emptiness.

To conclude, the one enthralled to the Stylist Who Knows is the one who says too much of nothing. By this I mean that he says nothing of worth because it is occluded by covers for meaning. In camouflaging uncertainties in uncertain language he departs from the core of the Western tradition of thought: know that you know nothing. He pretends to know something, pretends to have discovered the secret while all the time knowing he is still far away from it. He is yet to wake up to the fact that if there is a secret it is one everybody already knows. This is not a work of intellectual insecurity. The insecure writer is the one still trying to find out how and so doesn’t have to. This claim is modest: it is only in doing that one learns how to do, only in thinking that one learns how to think. In writing one practices thought and takes responsibility for that practice. In the end, the renunciation of the logic is the secret is the beginning of standing in this place of responsibility.