Monthly Archives: February 2009

The Superior Civilization

Just wanted to bring this review of The Superorganism to your attention. If I had any money, it would be the next book on my reading list and looks very good.

I studied the philosophy of biology years ago in my undergrad, focusing mostly on “units of selection” and I was always interested in these “superorganisms,” ants and bees, but also fungi and slime molds. What’s strange is this stuff has all creeped its way back in to my life with my study of the early Schelling and the emergence of life in his system.

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History of the Ghost

I’m working on a couple of pieces for the blog on hauntology and unlike previous posts where I just sat down with a cup of coffee and wrote what I was thinking, I’m taking my time with them. Until I get the first one done, I’d suggest heading over to this post from New Mappings which gives some nice background.

On the one hand, it’s well written and the author (Steen?) obviously knows what they’re talking about. On the other hand, now I don’t feel the need to write the background that may be necessary to understand what I’ve been talking about for the past couple of weeks or so.

So go check it out and in a couple of days I should have something written on hauntology and architecture.


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Presence and Negative Theology

This is inspired by the following quote from Graham’s blog on deconstruction:

“Hägglund follows Derrida in conflating ontotheology with realism. He doesn’t do this sloppily, but openly proclaims the identity of the two, when attacking Kevin Hart’s claim that pseudo-Dionysius is a deconstructive thinker.

Hägglund does this with a turn of phrase that might sound congenial to my own work, though in fact it’s diametrically opposed. Hart claims that the God of negative theology is deconstructive because it lies beyond all affirmation and negation. Hägglund counters that this is still classically metaphysical, because being beyond human predication does not mean being beyond classical concepts of identity and presence.”

Now, I don’t know Hägglund, but I do know Derrida and negative theology. As much as I really like some of Derrida’s work (his Hauntology, obviously), I’m fairly critical of his work on negative theology and Hägglund seems to be making (based on this tiny bit at least) the same mistake that Derrida made. That is, conflating all Neo-Platonisms (and there are many). While it is true that some thinkers in this tradition have made God = Being and made Being = One, this is not a universal claim for all Neo-Platonists.

Pseudo-Dionysius is actually an excellent example of this, because he places no highest in his system, but leaves the space empty for the mysterious God whose face is never seen.

“Trinity!! Higher than any being,
any divinity, any goodness!
Guide of Christians
in the wisdom of heaven!
Lead us up beyond unknowing and light,
up to the farthest, highest peak
of mystic scripture,
where the mysteries of God’s Word
lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
they pour overwhelming light
on what is most manifest.
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
they completely fill our sightless minds
with treasures beyond all beauty.”

– Pseudo-Dionysius

What does this mean? Well, when Hägglund says that “being beyond human predication does not mean being beyond classical concepts of identity and presence” it means that actually, it could be beyond classical concepts of identity and presence. The whole point of negative theology is to deny that God is = Presence (or perhaps as a negative theologian would say “mere Presence”). The point is that no claim can be affirmed. I’m much more sympathetic to Kevin Hart in this case, as my own reading of Negative Theology (at least Pseudo-Dionysius, and Meister Eckhart as those are the thinkers in this tradition I’m most comfortable / familiar with) is quite deconstructive. When Eckhart “prays God to rid [him] of God” is is precisely a deconstructive move, a claim that God must be MORE THAN GOD HIMSELF or else He’s not God. In this way, God cannot be made mere presence and when Pseudo-Dionysius makes God = Highest (actually, higher than the Highest!), it is a move away from the pitfalls of presence, to a God that is always more than Presence, but is actually that which gives Presence (since God is Love). I’d suggest that if anyone wants to read more about this, Jean-Luc Marion’s God Without Being and his essay “In the Name: How to Avoid Speaking of ‘Negative Theology'” are both excellent sources, even if you’re not a fan of his phenomenology (which I’m not).


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Zizek and Schellingian Realism

So I wrote the following over on Graham’s blog. I’m going to post it here and then add a couple of things that I meant to say or should have said:

“If we think of it in basic Schellingian terms (which I know are problematic because Zizek is a very… *select* reader of Schelling) I think it might be more clear. This is coming from the middle Schelling by the way (Freedom Essay, and the Weltalter):

– There exists some infinite unconsconsciousness (Ungrund).

– A decision (cutting off) is made (for Schelling this is by God and thanks to his Hermetic ontology [As Above, So Below], the decision is made on all levels of existents). It’s not REALLY God who made the decision as God only comes to be IN THE DECISION. It is the “will to be” (which Schelling inherits from Spinoza with some alterations…), the drive for existence itself.

– This decision is the decision for consciousness which creates the division between consciousness and unconsciousness (for Zizek, this would be the division between the Symbolic and the Real).

– The problem arises though when you compare notes between Schelling and the Lacanians (including Zizek and Badiou). For Schelling, this is all done by Will (aka Freedom), whereas you’re right Graham, it is humans (although I suspect transcendental subjects) for the Lacanians.

– I think it’s better to think of examples from time rather than from things. I mean, this is exactly where Heidegger gets his “the past comes to meet” you bit; there only exists a past when you are in the present. Who I was only makes sense in the context of who I will be, so I can only ever understand the direction my childhood took after a certain time, with a certain distance.

– Now, the past isn’t less real than the present, but a break has been decided, and we now distinguish between the two. For God, this becomes the break between the unconscious drives for existence and actual free existence, creation and self-knowledge. For the human being, it means basically the same thing from a psychological level, that I am able to look back at who I was (what is self-consciousness but the ability to really look at oneself?) Ultimately though, the human being is the eyepiece for God, and through our consciousness it is God who becomes self-aware (for example, through scientific insight into Nature).”

Now, what I want to add is that although it seems the Lacanians are explicitly human-cenetered (Badiou is perhaps the worst for this, as we’ve seen in the recent blog posts), Schelling doesn’t even say he’s talking about humans. The Freedom essay and the Weltalter are explicitly THEOGONIES. I don’t think we can properly infer that it is only God and the Human Being that he’s talking about either. If we incorporate his later philosophy of time and freedom with his earlier philosophy of nature, it seems that everything that exists underwent some sort of decision from their unconscious surroundings. Again, in the early works he talks about things coming to be by accident, that they ought not to be. I am beginning to think that the later works are simply the extreme microcrosm/macrocosm cases, where in the early works he describes coming to be in terms of the processes of Nature, the later works are both this on the smallest scale (an individual thing coming to be) but also the grandest scale (God coming to be).

Back to Zizek though, I want to say that while I agree with Graham’s conclusions (ultimately I disagree with almost everything Zizek says), I just worry that he’s not being fair to Zizek and possibly putting words in his mouth. I think it’s a lot more complicated than either “the subject produces the world” or “they co-produce each other,” but rather that both are produced by the same decision, neither of which made that decision.


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Baudrillard – Postmodern Eucharist

I’m still busy with papers (although I handed in two yesterday which just leaves this Badiou piece on fidelity for Thursday) so I figured I’d just quickly post this video I made a couple of years ago when I was still posting videos on YouTube (in case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t posted a video since finishing my undergrad). I was thinking about this video while I was grocery shopping this afternoon and realized that it’s probably just as relevant to Zizek’s work as Baudrillard (maybe moreso):

I’m still interested in exploring Baudrillard’s thought more, but I can’t see myself tackling that task in the near future which is entirely consumed with Schelling. I have been thinking of a paper idea using Baudrillard recently though. I think something needs to be written on Graham’s Object-Oriented Philosophy and Baudrillard’s concept of seduction. I think the latter would only help the former.

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Now that’s what I call Hauntology

I’m pretty much swamped with work for the next week or so, so this will probably have to tide you over for the next couple of days (at least). This is a rather informative (and funny!) video on ghosts from the Look Around You series. Enjoy!

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Voluntarism vs. Intellectualism

Graham has an interesting post up on viewing the history of philosophy in oppositional dualisms. One of the things I like about Graham is his ability to cut these problems down to their essential components.

In this case, the opposition he’s talking about is Occasionalism vs. Skepticism. I’m not going to talk about his post, so much as the general idea at work, so go read it.

I always find these sorts of oppositions interesting. I have a prof who seems to see everything according to either Voluntarism or Intellectualism / Rationalism (metaphysical not epistemological). “What is primary, Will or Intellect?”

This debate also goes back to Neo-Platonism (“What emanates out of the One first, Nous or World-Soul?”), and has found its way into more recent philosophy as well (with people like Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche [and their followers] taking up the voluntarist cause against people like Hegel). Spinoza poses an interesting problem with this dichotomy: thought and extension are the attributes of substance that we are aware of, yet he also claims that all bodies strive (conatus) and all minds will (voluntas). So what is the relation of Will (generally) for Spinoza? I remember from reading Schopenhauer that he thought Spinoza got it backwards, and that Will is primary, but is this really fair to Spinoza? Maybe someone who knows more about Spinozism can help me out here.

Are there any other such dichotomies that people want to draw?


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Badiou’s Anthro-Ontology

There have been quite a few posts in the past day or so on Badiou. I figured I would toss a couple of ideas into this idea stew before it gets cold (also, I’m writing a paper on Badiou for next week, so this might help me work out some ideas). If you need to get caught up, it started with Dominic over at Poetix, re-opening an old debate with Graham, who then responded. Levi then jumped into the conversation, and then Graham wrote a couple more entries. Phew.

As I said in a comment over on Graham’s blog, I was quite excited when I started reading Badiou. I had heard interesting things about his work but found myself fairly quickly dissatisfied. First, what I had heard led me to believe that I would be reading something entirely original, when actually the whole structure of the birth of the Subject in the (Truth-)Event is lifted from Lacan’s own account of subjectivity, which is itself taken from the late Schelling (especially the Freedom essay where he outlines his concept of de-cision [literally, a cutting off] where the Subject is born of the Abyss). Reading Badiou’s account of Subjectivity grew tiring, as it simply felt done-before (I mentioned Schelling and Lacan, but there are also obvious similarities between Kierkegaard and Heidegger, as Sean pointed out to me recently).

Second, as Graham has pointed out, Badiou is entirely anthropocentric, with subjectivity as defined as taking up the Truth of the Event being limited to human beings, and with the Event only being accessible and knowable to humans. Graham asked whether

if I were to start saying: “I’m a Badiouian, but I think that rocks and earthworms are also capable of invoking the generic through art, politics, science and love,” what do you honestly think Badiouians would say in this case? Would they say: “Cool. Badiou never specifies that it has to be a human”? You know full well that they would dismiss such a position as vitalist crap. The whole spirit of Badiou’s philosophy is of a militant human subject disrupting given states-of-situations in truth events.

I think this gets right to the point, and explains exactly why I am not a Badiouian. The seagulls I see at the habour nearby are not going to be radically transformed by the Event for Badiou. Dominic claims that there are still cosmic events in Badiou that don’t depend on human beings, but I don’t buy it. While other living things certainly change according to changes in Nature, they don’t experience the radical changes of a Saint Paul or a Lenin. No moose are going to start spreading the good news of the Truth-Event downtown tonight, no matter what happens to them.

Ultimately, I think what Badiou gives us is a potentially useful philosophical anthropology, and we shouldn’t really expect him to give us any more than that, or kid ourselves into thinking that his account of the relation between Event-Truth-Subject are somehow applicable to single-celled organisms, fungi, cephalopods, or birds of prey. While I think we need a system of thought capable of asserting such things, that all organisms can be affected in such a way or can affect each other in such a way, I don’t see it happening in Badiou. But I guess I’m just full of vitalist crap anyway!


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Accidental Existence

I’m reading Schelling’s First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, which will be playing a central role in my thesis (I was originally thinking his Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature would be playing a larger role, but after reading it, it seems like he didn’t really care about organics until the Outline although it would be interesting to find out what prompts this “turn to biology”. . .). One of the aspects that I’m really drawn to in this work, as opposed to some of the later Schelling (the Freedom Essay in particular) is that it seems as if he’s saying that existence (that is, the existence of matter) is entirely accidental.

I’ve mentioned before the idea that matter / objects / things are somehow retarded or stunted, simply those places where the process of Nature gets stopped up. Nature (as flow) somehow works against itself and those points where flows intersect are points of existence. He puts it as such in the Outline:

The absolute activity of Nature should appear as inhibited to infinity. This inhibition of the universal activity of Nature (without which “apparent products” would never once come to be) may be represented, at any rate, as the work of opposed tendencies in Nature. (Let one force be thought, originally infinite in itself, streaming out in all directions from one central point; then this force will not linger in any point of space for a moment (thus leaving space empty), unless an energetic activity opposing (retarding) its expansion did not give it a finite velocity.) However, as soon as one undertakes to carry out the construction of a finite product from these opposed tendencies, one encounters an irresolvable difficulty. For if we let both coincide at one and the same point, then their effects toward one another will reciprocally be canceled, and the product will be = to 0. Precisely for this reason, it must be assumed that no product in nature can be the product in which those opposed activities absolutely coincide, i.e., in which Nature itself attained rest. One must, in a word, simply deny all permanence in Nature itself. One has to assume that all permanence only occurs in Nature as object, while the activity of Nature as subject continues irresistably, and while it continually labors in opposition to all permanence. The chief problem of the philosophy of nature is not to explain the active in Nature (for, because it is its first supposition, this is quite conceivable to it), but the resting, permanent. Nature philosophy arrives at this explanation simply by virtue of the presupposition that for Nature the permanent is a limitation of its own activity. So, if this is the case, then impetuous Nature will struggle against every limitation; thereby the points of inhibition of its activity in nature as object will attain permanence. For the philosopher, the points of inhibition will be signified by products; every product of this kind will represent a determinate sphere which Nature always fills anew, and into which the stream of its force incessantly gushes. (Schelling, First Outline, 17-18.)

What’s interesting about this in relation to the work of 1809 (Freedom) and 1813 (Ages of the World) is that in the latter works, things come to be based on a cosmic (free) decision (of some sort). Prior to there being anything, there is the Abyss that freely actualizes itself in the decision (an inaccurate, because no one decides, and things are only constituted by the decision. . . as such the decision becomes the always already). Ultimately, Schelling will say that Nature wants to be conscious of herself, so consciousness (Spirit) emerges in Nature, by Nature, for Nature, in the human being so nature can know herself entirely.

Here however, things comes to be purely by accident; Nature works against herself, things emerge, those things decay and return to the flowing process of Nature. I’d be interested to find out where the cosmic teleology comes in. I have a feeling it has to do with the fact that around three years later Schelling’s philosophy becomes overtly Christian (the earliest I can find in English at least is an essay from 1802). The rest of his career is marked with a strange Christianity, stained with the teleology his later work is known for.

Maybe the reason I’m more comfortable with his earlier works is this seeming lack of teleology. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the greatness of the Middle or Late period Schelling (these are the works that influenced people like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger), but the Early formulations of Nature are much more at home with my own vitalist tendencies. I guess I’ve developed some sort of teleology-allergy.

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Organs Without Bodies: On Zizek and Vitalism

One of my favourite passages from Lacan is the myth of the lamella that is often quoted by Zizek:

“Whenever the membranes of the egg in which the foetus emerges on its way to becoming a new-born are broken, imagine for a moment that something flies off, and that one can do it with an egg as easily as with a man, namely the hommelette, or the lamella.

The lamella is something extra-flat, which moves like the amoeba. It is just a little more complicated. But it goes everywhere. And as it is something – I will tell you shortly why – that is related to what the sexed being loses in sexuality, it is, like the amoeba in relation to sexed beings, immortal – because it survives any division, and scissiparous intervention. And it can run around.

Well! This is not very reassuring. But suppose it comes and envelopes your face while you are quietly asleep…

I can’t see how we would not join battle with a being capable of these properties. But it would not be a very convenient battle. This lamella, this organ, whose characteristic is not to exist, but which is nevertheless an organ – I can give you more details as to its zoological place – is the libido.

It is the libido, qua pure life instinct, that is to say, immortal life, irrepressible life, life that has need of no organ, simplified, indestructible life. It is precisely what is subtracted from the living being by virtue of the fact that it is subject to the cycle of sexed reproduction. And it is of this that all the forms of the objet a that can be enumerated are the representatives, the equivalents. The objet a are merely its representatives, its figures. The breast – as equivocal, as an element charicteristic of the mammiferous organization, the placenta for example – certainly represents that part of himself that the individual loses at birth, and which may serve to to symbolize the most profound lost object” (Seminar XI, 197-198, quoted in Zizek, Interrogating the Real, 160-161).

The horrifying image of this “organ without body” is somehow greatly satisfying. I was talking with my advisor yesterday and we were continuing a discussion we’ve been having all year, whose general theme is either “Where does Zizek fit?” or perhaps more accurately, “What the hell is Zizek doing?”

My own reading of Zizek leads me to believe that he is some sort of foundationalist in the same vein as Descartes (I’ll write an entry on Zizek’s reading of the cogito at some point, more on that later). Sean (my advisor) was intrigued by such an idea when I brought it up the other day. Back to the point though: what the hell is Zizek doing here? Why does he so often emphasize this biological side of the Real, the idea that the body or the organ is disgusting and ugly, and is actually horrifying (it is that from which we recoil)?

I can’t remember where (I want to say The Parallax View) but Zizek talks about this in the context not of drives but of the disgusting reality of what’s happening under my skin. Is this a conscious move he’s making from “biological drive as symbol for excess” (or perhaps more accurately, life as the excess that cannot be symbolized) as in the lamella to a more overt biologism in the style of Bergson or Deleuze?

My own thoughts bring me close to this vitalist thought (one of my long-term goals is to bridge the gap between Schelling qua Naturphilosophie and Vitalism-proper) so I have something of a vested interest in Zizek and Vitalism since he is one of the proponents of some form of Schellingianism. Is the lamella a clue towards Zizek’s dark vitalism?

I have yet to read Zizek’s book on Deleuze (I had heard bad things about it years ago and so out it off, and now that I want to read it I’m not sure if I have the time. . .), but does he clarify this? What is the relation between Zizek and vitalism?


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