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to make a system out of delusions

Tag: pragmatism

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.

‘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.

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.

“There is nothing outside the text”

Through the lenses of biosemiotics, “semiosis” (as conceived by Peirce) is implicitly re-defined as that which is “meaningful”, “relevant” or “significant” to any living “thing” in terms of its survival in its particular environment or more accurately, it’s “Umwelt”. It is a central tenet of the overall biosemiotics approach that, to understand life, natural meaning can not be ignored. From this, it is but a short step to the conclusion that, as Gregory Bateson clearly saw, it is essential that the concept of mind can not be exclusively identified with a human mind. Mind is thus seen by biosemiotics as extensively perfused through out nature and not a property exclusive to human beings

In this regard, biosemiotics emphasises meaning and suggests that, inline with some current work in embodied/embedded cognitive science, it is grounded in a living organising’s embodied semiosis. Meaning is derived through biological signs. The basic forms of these biological signs are those exchanged between the organism and its environment, its Umwelt, It is argued that, as a fundamental principle, living things (from cells to organisms) are not purely mechanical processes, but rather, messages to be read and interpreted. Thus consider DNA which can be read, indeed is read, as message-bearing signs transmitted (via RNA) to protein for replication to occur.

From the Underrated philosophy blog. Here.

A kind of manifesto (stolen from someone else)

From the Ernst Becker Foundation</em>

Death Anxiety
By Daniel Liechty
Posted on November 18 2011

All living creatures have a strong, even overwhelming urge to continue living; yet our entire ecosystem would collapse without universal mortality (every living thing dies); thus, there is a basic paradox at the hear of the living cosmos.

Human beings are animals, first and foremost, sharing completely in the evolution of species on this earth, and large chunks of human emotions, social life and basic physical and nervous makeup reflect that shared animal heritage.

Human beings have the intelligence to think abstractly; this is in essence what sets human psychology and cognition apart from animal psychology and cognition (This is the most general statement of human uniqueness, but only humans have many ending propositions in literature, e.g., have a concept of zero, have language, do mathematics, understand negation, practice religion, etc. All of these and many more would be seen as cases in point of the ability to think abstractly).

Because it is rooted in the ability to think abstractly, human cognition is able to grasp the paradoxical Mortality Principle on which our ecosystem/cosmos is based at the deepest levels, and feel it intensely qua paradox.

The most important features of human psychology are born out of the clash between the overwhelming urge to continue living and the cognitive awareness of universal mortality; this recognition of the inevitability of the death (the paradoxical Mortality Principle) creates a reservoir of potentially immobilizing, debilitating anxiety.

There are defense mechanisms in individual psychology (e.g., denial, repression, projection, displacement, dissociation, rationalization, intellectualization, identification, reaction formation, sublimation, humor. There are more than 20 in the specialized literature). Each of these mechanisms manifests itself in creative and destructive forms.

Likewise, there are social defense mechanisms, habitual patterns of collective behavior aimed at defending established social formations (ritual, scapegoating, segregation, denigration, assimilation, annihilation, etc.). Each of these mechanisms manifests itself in creative and destructive forms.

The entire array of individual and social defense mechanisms are regularly employed to maintain individual and social equanimity in reaction to threats of death, and also in reaction to the symbolic threats of death contained in recognition of the cosmic Mortality Principle. Such defense mechanisms probably originated in, but certainly were strategically contoured in their contemporary form by, this need for anxiety control in the face of mortality awareness. In short, our highly developed intelligence caused the anxiety problem in the first place, and also comes forth with at least the provisional solution to the anxiety problem.

One very central and ubiquitous anxiety-compensatory movie is to transfer the urge for continued living from the physical realm to the symbolic realm; the organismic urge for continued living becomes channeled into the urge for immortality in the symbolic realm.

The urge for symbolic immortality is the source of very large chunks of human creativity and life-affirming energies; it is the underlying function of culture/religion to serve as venues through which people achieve and maintain a sense of participation in symbolic immortality (soul survival, larger-than-life projects, etc.).

All cultures/religions are on the one level fictional, since t hey all promise something (immortality) on which they cannot deliver; however, they are all also potentially true, in that each provides some functional viability for anxiety-compensation. Human individual and social life without such fictions would be unbearable and impossible.

There is power in numbers; the more you rub shoulders only with people who believe in the same cultural/religious fictions, the more plausible those fictions become (we all tell the same stories!).

People who do NOT share our cultural/religious assumptions (stories, fictions) are a big problem, since by their very existence the cast doubt n the absolute certainty of our truth (revealing its fiction nature to us) and thus expose us again to the repressed anxiety they function to allay in the first place.

Hence, culturally/religiously Dissimilar Others may be a creative source for helping us widen and enhance our own vision; or, they may be encountered in the most literal sense, as enemies.

Modern, post-Darwinian human beings are more likely in the first place to suspect the fictional character of their cultural/religious stories/truths than those of previous generations, and this is further aggravated because improvements in communications and travel technology force moderns to confront the reality of the culturally/religiously Dissimilar Other on a regular basis.

Future human well-being, and possibly even simple human survival, will depend on learning to substitute more creative manifestations of the individual and social defense mechanisms against the anxiety provoked by the religiously/culturally Dissimilar Other for the more destructive manifestations.

Further notes on becoming-noncorporeal

Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them; but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism– H.P Lovecraft, The Tomb.

1.

For Deleuze becoming-animal is also the becoming of a ‘zone of the indiscernible, of the undecidable, between man and animal’ [1]. This undecidability means that one cannot isolate and fix the separation between man and animal. The spectator, who might be the living reversal of the image subject to such spectatorship, is unable to separate the low from the high, the dirty from the clean, the brute from the humane, the instinctive from the rational. In becoming-animal all dualism that extracts the human from the animal or subtracts the animal from the human collapses whilst remaining in fraught operation. I cannot say that I am this or that; I am both and neither, the point at which I cannot speak through the logic of identification. This undoing of molar surfaces is the undoing of the engine of meaning-production [2] that Giorgio Agamben has termed the anthropocentric machine [3].

2.

The anthropocentric machines carves out human from animal and as such serves as the motor for those political philosophies that seek to delineate regimes of humanity. A regime of humanity is at once this system of meaning-production, or anchoring* in Zapffe’s nihilistic formula, that separates man from his other and elevates him ‘above nature’ and is also what allows for the creation of an aesthetic regime of degrees of humanity. As such the Jew is conceivable as nonhuman animal, the woman is conceivable as something to be tamed and domesticated- turning her wild sexuality into the regulated affection of the pet-, and the slave before both is conceivable as just within humanity. This anthropocentric machine is properly engine of meaning-production that gives humans the sense that they are other than nature and which serves as a self-reproducing system of domination that paints itself as nondomination. Anarchism responds to the effects of this system without always having the balls to attack it’s basis. For the mythological ‘classical anarchist’ this wasn’t a problem because the world had not yet been revealed as catastrophic.

3.

Becoming-noncorporeal operates based on an engine of meaning-production that takes the body as it’s site of operation. As Deleuze writes ‘The body is the Figure, or rather the material of the Figure’ which must not be conflated with the ‘material structure in space’. For Deleuze the body is not reducible to the biological matter of physiology and anatomy. The body remains material without suffering from this reduction. How? Elsewhere Deleuze is engaged in a discussion on the body in Spinoza when he remarks that the latter’s God, which is a substance to which all attributes belong (a pure virtuality of which all actualisation is an expression), is ‘the speculative figure of immanence’ [4]. If the body is not identical or reducible to biological matter but remains material then this materiality is the materiality of the virtual.The actual body that we talk about when we talk about embodiment, about corporeality, about conditions of health and sickness, is dependent upon but never coincides with the virtual body. Zizek understands this as the ‘incorporeal/immaterial’ real of the body but this does Deleuze a disservice [5].

4.

The materialism here is the materialism of affect, of affection, of the virtual’s potency to condition, to alter, to perturb, to disrupt, to delimit or delineate the actual in any number of given ways. Deleuze goes on to state that For Spinoza ‘the individuality of a body is defined by the following: it’s when a certain composite or complex relation (I insist on that point, quite composite, very complex) of movement and rest is preserved through all the changes which affect the parts of the body ‘ [6]. A body then is virtual and all actualisations of this virtual are expressions of the that virtual. A body also only appears through relations of movement and rest- we might say of being moved and of resisting being moved- by other bodies**. There are ‘all sorts of relations which will be combined with one another to form an individuality of such and such degree’ so that ‘the body’ is not the material structure at all but the Figure. How to understand the Figure? As the combinatory relations that solidify into distinct objects that can then appear to the spectator. As such it is not an immaterialism but an immanent materialism under which organisation is the self-organising performances of the engines of matter. The human body of anatomy and physiology is the actualised dynamic encrustation of the powers of the virtual body to act and be acted upon. The Figure is the name of this virtual-actualising body that differs from itself without being separable from itself (no physicalism without virtuality). This is what I mean by the skin of the world; it is an encrustation, a dead form, that is nonetheless dynamic and constantly in performance.

5.

The materialism of the virtual implies a virtuosity of the body. To return to the sense of the lived body of embodiment- the dancing body, the fucking body, the eating body- this tells us that what a body does is to constantly make itself actual in such and such a way. The Figure is constantly Structuring. From moment to moment the substance of my body only continues to exist due to the immanent performances of each degree of individuality. This is revealed in the body of the clown. The clown’s is that body which purposely refuses its own virtuosity- it is the body in deliberate failure to perform and constantly catching itself before that refusal becomes total. The dancer also perfectly puts in motion this virtuosity; the dancer’s relation to choreographic space is always one that is modified, adapted and corrupted by degrees of physical inability to perform such and such a motion just so but also by way of her body’s idiosyncrasies and her own improvised insertions. Choreographed space becomes corrupted space and the priority given to one over the other is no longer maintained. At the same time the hierarchy of the choreographer, the choreography and the choreographed (the dancer) breaks down into a ‘zone of the indiscernible, of the undecidable, between’ the dancing and the danced. Becoming-dancer and becoming-clown are modes of immanence being put on display, and of the strategic assembling and disassembling, of positions in space and spaces in position of being obviated. The dancer and the clown are privileged Figures for me. I watch them move and I watch the entire skin of the world; the surface that is its own depth.

6.

In social media the body is lost. The temptation is to experience the body as lost. The hyppereality of social media obliterates the body leaving nothing behind. The body as structure, as organisation of organs, is what is lost in this. The hyperreal of social media stimulates the production of a hyperreal identity- an identity that increasingly comes to precede my IRL identity and which does not rely on my IRL identity for its truth. This is the point of critiques of social media activism, of critiques of social media as digital dividuation, as the disorienting proliferation of plastic identities, of ‘trolling’ and of the use of the use of social media as a predictor of human political behaviours. All of these phenomena, really epiphenomena of the internet itself, are coming to be seen as the real of our society. It forms the core of critiques of media technology such as those launched by Sherry Tuckle that are based on a dualism between the physical universe and the digital universe. As Tuckle has it

‘texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little — just right. [7]

Tuckle’s major text, Alone Together, has a string of dualist claims. She states that “If Facebook were deleted, I’d be deleted…’ and ‘Second Life gives me a better relationship that I have in real life’. These two short quotes show that Tuckle is involved in another dualist machine such that Deleuze’s becoming-animal wanted to undo. This is a dualism for which facebook deletes the body, edits the flesh, in which Second Life- the online world- is literally a second life detached from the physical realm. There is the physical and the digital and while they may interact they are fundamentally different. Indeed, the thrust of Tuckle’s criticisms of media technology is that the digital and the physical are incompatible, antagonistic towards each other, and that they compete against each other for us- (why they would do this and where the agency comes from, I don’t know).

7.

Tuckle thinks I edit myself online. That this online persona is an obliteration of my authentic fleshly self. I am nothing but body but that body is gone and all that remains is the simulation of a self on the shimmering desolate whiteness of the screen. The body edited, deleted, I am nothing. But this is to fundamentally miss the point of the ontological virtuosity of immanence. As I have hopefully shown to some degree of competence, the body is not identical to its physical organisation. Materiality does not depend on flesh and blood and if it did then anything that was not subject to the law of evolution, any nonorganic matter, would not be real. If this seems a hyperbolic claim and one that is unfair to Tuckle then let me illustrate further. If her problem is that I can edit my appearance online then she misses the point that I can edit my appearance in flesh and blood as well, and in more or less extreme forms; I can have my haircut, change my style, tattoo permanent cosmetic improvements onto my face, I can ‘delete’ parts of my body through extreme elective surgical procedures or other interventions, such as the incredibly common removal of fatty tissue. I can also add to myself, making myself excessive of my ‘authentic self’ and therefore destroying myself in the opposite direction. All that Turkle has discovered is that there is a good degree of negotiation surrounding identity and that such identity appears as the metastable resultant of a combinatory logic of identification and disidentification (of movement and rest) that makes identities more or less malleable, more or less fixed, more or less corrupt, multiple or singular. Indeed, Turkle has discovered that we engage in interpersonal strategies through which we perform our personhood through both our bodies and our ability to present ourselves in digital spaces. There are practices of the self which are practices of embodiment and those which do not seem to be practices of embodiment.

8.

This kind of digital dualism is hung up on the moment where practices ‘do not seem to be’ those of embodiment. This seeming is the seeming of the separation between the physical and the digital. It is the distribution of the sensible of the new social that social media are generative of; the spectral electronic social that disavows and dreams of a liberation from matter. Turkle’s analysis is in fact part of this social insofar as it is part of this dream: it is the dream in its wish-fulfilment function. The social of noncorporeality. [8].

9.

The practices of the body that do not seem to be of the body are nevertheless only playing at not being of the body. I mean this in both the sense of the being of the virtual body and the actualisation of that body as it is experienced as embodiment. First of all, the body is affected by and affects the digital. The digital sphere is not one in which I am passively caught up as a victim and it is not one in which we are necessarily ‘alone together’. Banal examples proliferate: last night I was at a birthday party that had been organised entirely through Facebook, I met new people I would not have otherwise met because of the digital. In my previous post I focussed on agitation. The problem that Turkle talks about when she talks about techniques of communication having supplanted the art of conversation (the eternal conservatism of this is ringing) is really that of a diminution of social relations. This can only be a problem for Turkle if the techniques of communication and the art of conversation, the former belonging to the digital and that latter to the physical, are mediations of some plane of immanence. To phrase this differently, there can only arise a concern that two modes of interaction that exist on two separate and separable ontological domains are relating with each other in such a way that one does harm to the other if they are not finally separate or separable at all. The digital dualist’s critique can only make sense if it fails to make sense.

Another example: my eye. Deleuze uses the eye as an example of a body in his lecture on Spinoza and states that the eye is a born out of the complex relations between it’s own parts and the parts of other objects that surround it, which it is affected by and which it in turn affects. The eye is set in the orbit which is a structural feature of the skull which sits on top of a spine which forms a part of a skeletal and nervous system that are protected and moved by a muscular system which is coated by a dermal system which is a threshold traversed by bacteria, food, air, blood, itself, and that touches and is touched, and that sits in front of a computer which is itself a body formed microchips, plastic molds, wires, nickle atoms, light and so on and so on. In order that my eye see the computer there must be a light source- thus the sun or some artificial means of lighting are brought into the equation of my sitting on Facebook or Twitter and being able to be disembodied. But my eye also relies on other eyes for its existence. My eye is not ex nihilo but is the eye I have inherited from the genetic information of my parents and all less immediate evolutionary ancestors. The computer had to be built by men and women in factories and laboratories, which had to be built with tools and by people who had received training, and the computers themselves had to be built with tools and by people who had to be trained in how to do build computers and so that I could post this post on my WordPress blog there has to be telephone lines and streets and engineers and and and and and and

a vast material network of bodies.

10.

This is the what I am saying when I say that the social of social media is ‘the spectral obliteration of materiality through the simulacrum which leaves the material in place’ [9]. The ontosclerosis of the social generated by social media is one in which we leave the body without leaving the body behind; a disembodied embodiment. Noncorporeality is never achieved. It is neither a utopian nor dystopian condition although it has the potential to be either of these. Noncorporeality is neither actual nor virtual but the demand that we shed our physicality and dive headlong into the digital. It is the demand that we do something impossible. Yet it is at the same time precisely what exposes and undoes the digilogical machine. Becoming-noncorporeal is a becoming precisely because it is a zone of indistinction, undecidability. It is also a becoming because it is this impossibility of its own completion.

11.

All this points to the notion that bodies have always been products of simulation. The simulacrum never engaged in any procession but was always already. Bodies, objects; these are always already simulations.

As soon as behavior is focused on certain operational screens or terminals, the rest appears only as some vast, useless body, which has been both abandoned and condemned. The real itself appears as a large, futile body [10]’.

And bodies, or their actualised portions, are these operational screens and terminals. The inexhaustibleness of bodies and, for humans, the potentially inexhaustible ways of being a body means nothing. The nostalgia for the body which has has not been lost, the nostalgia for a unitary solely physical body belies the nostalgia for the soul. It is not the body that is in question in becoming-noncorporeal if the question is a loss of materiality. I have emphasised throughout that this loss of the material, this destruction of the real, is an effort that is incomplete and impossible. That every time we deny the real that is precisely when it is resurgent; this is what makes radical denial a strategy of realism, and why one can state as fact that reality itself is speculative [11].

12.

The real is a large and futile body. This is a nihilistic truth. That the body/real is futile means that it is without purpose, without telos, without justification. This is perfectly in keeping with a naturalism that takes Darwin seriously. There is no point or purpose to anything in nature and nature, via selection, mutation, heredity and all its other materialist magic tricks, has always been a process of artifice, of recomposition, of experimentation, of the production of doubles without origins, the generation of bodies that are not copies of some original: that nature has always been simulation. If being a body means nothing then the Spinozo-Deleuzian question of what a body can do becomes the question of a post-nihilistic pragmatism***. It is not what bodies mean but what they do that concerns us. In the breakdown of the anthropological machine, the digilogical machine and all the other machines of meaning-production we are left with transparent meanings that although real have lost the sufficiency to motivate us. Meaning now suffers a failure. We built it up and it was there but now that we know that we built it it appears as a ruin. The body itself, our body, can no longer be identified and held in place by being fixed in an image of itself… not its physical image or its digital one.

13.

There are massive problems with social media, with electronic culture being plugged into our nervous systems…it produces anxieties, agitation, unrest, insomnia, an inability to concentrate, a kind of traumatisation and so on… but these are problems of immanence and not dualism. They are problems of ‘the advent of hyperstimulated man’ [12], changes in speed and quantity rather than ontological quality of being. They are problems that can only be problems, dangers that can only be dangerous, if the physical and the digital are not antagonistic categories of being that we must choose between. The choice is not between brains and clouds but to see where brains are situated within clouds. This is not the place to go into those problems or to trace the braincloud machinery.

14.

In all of this there are competing images of the body and of embodiment. The image is what fixes the body in place. Ontology is an aesthetics; actualisations are the surfaces of a depth; the skin of the world; the self-organised displays of matter. Becoming-noncorporeal is indifferent to binary distinctions and forces us to think of a spectral kind of embodiment and the possibility of such a disembodiment that we might adopt instead of react against. If becoming-noncorporeal obliterates materiality and leaves it in place, if it is a simulation that teaches us that everything is simulated, then it is also an invitation to address the Image afresh. What is at stake in these notes on becoming-noncorporeal is the body and its images; the withdrawn depths and the ways we access those depths. What is at stake is the prospect of leaving the mirror stage behind us without mourning the unitary body and finding instead that we have always been bodies without images capable of life after and inside of the catastrophe.

15.

Dancers and clowns are of the debris of the catastrophe, the seducers and satirists of things falling apart- artists in love with catastrophe. The body without image represents only that there is nothing to represent, that the only ethic is one falling, faltering, tumbling.

References and apologies

[1]. Deleuze, G. The body, the meat, the spirit: becoming animal. Here.

[2]. Meaning-production is my own term. I discuss it here, here, and here.

[3]. Agemben, G. 2004. The open. Man and animal. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[4]. Deleuze, G. On Spinoza. Here.

[5]. Zizek, S. 2007. Deleuze’s Platonism: ideas as real. Here.

[6] Op. cit. Deleuze, G. On Spinoza.

[7]. Turkle, S. 2012. The flight from conversation. In the New York Times. Here.

[8]. See my notes on becoming-noncorporeal. Here. The current work forms a second part to this set of much shorter notes.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Baudrillard, J. 1983. The ecstasy of communication. NonPDF. PDF.

[11]. This is my idea of the Radical Denial which is taken from a more sustained engagement with Baudrillard and object-oriented philosophy. Essay 1. Essay 2. Aphorism.

[12]. Virilio, P. Future war: a discussion with Paul Virilio. Here.

* Anchoring is the “fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness”. The anchoring mechanism provides individuals with a value or an ideal that allows them to focus their attentions in a consistent manner. Zapffe also applied the anchoring principle to society, and stated “God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future” are all examples of collective primary anchoring firmaments. (text taken from wikipedia).

** In this connection, it is a shame that the dromology of Paul Virilio isn’t read in an ontological light. Deleuze is framing his assemblage theory materialism as a materialism of movement and rest that is dispersed, as all Deleuze’s antibinaries are, on planes of intensity. The language for measuring these intensities that exist in the interstitial space between movement and rest is speed or temporality. It should be recalled that Deleuze and Guattari’s identification of deterritorialisation is inspired by Virilio’s use of the same term.

*** I owe Michael of ArchiveFire entirely for this phrase which I liked so much I’ve stolen it.

Pragmatism

I rather like the term ‘tragedy of translation’. I apply it to narrative, to my own and to those of others. Of the truth of my story and of yours I can’t make final declarations. Yet why is this so tragic? Don’t we do something to each ourselves, to each other, with every tale we spin? What we can say of an object is what that object is. In my ‘About’ page I wrote that ‘all poetry is performance’. Generalising things, isn’t it true that all narrative is also performance and that such performance is always doing something, even if only disrupting some other object, only if disrupting itself? From this a general assumption:

The proper study of narrative includes a pragmatism.