Reviving Vitalism: Definitions and the Difference between ‘Cold’ and ‘Spectral’

The Speculative Realist end of the blogosphere is a flutter with intellectual butterflies thanks to a comment from Graham. Party lines have been drawn as to the possible future of SR:

“There would be the eliminativist wing with a heavy cog.-sci. bent. There would be a Meillassouxian wing generating fascinating philosophical proofs out of a radicalized correlate (and with Zizekians, Lacanians, and Badiouians in the vicnity). There would be a Grantian wing with a more vitalist/materialist approach and more of a Deleuzian flavor than the others. And then there would be an object-oriented wing, with Latour as a key patron saint and a flat ontology as the price of admission.”

I’ve thought about this for some time (although excluding Brassier as I’ve never read any of his work…) As I’m sure must be painfully obvious based on my blogging history, I would fall in line with the Vitalists. Fortunately, I’m not alone as Ben over at Naught Thought also claims to be in the same camp.

Ben points out something else I’ve noticed people blogging about in terms of vitalism, that is, the possibility of a “cold vitalism.” Some are even using the term “mechanistic” (which, based on the history of vitalism sounds ridiculous; vitalism is diametrically opposed to mechanistic science and philosophy). I see no problem with having a cold vitalism, however, the claim that this new vitalism would be non-biological seems odd. I wouldn’t say that vitalism is biological per se, but that both vitalism and biology are (and must be) organic. Ben seems to champion a more pessimistic view than Deleuze, and that’s fine, I do too. I think a marriage between Lovecraft and the early Schelling may be ideal. I would say the problem arises in vitalist thought when human beings become the apex of Nature, as Schelling claims (I would argue) as a result of his Christian turn (which as I have said before, has taken place by 1802 at the latest).

What do I view as the essential qualities of vitalism? I wrote a paper recently on Schelling and vitalism, and this is how I defined it then (I won’t post the complete paper, I’m no longer happy with it):

“To understand exactly what I mean by Vitalism, we turn first to Scott Lash’s essay “Life (Vitalism),” written as an encyclopedia entry for Theory, Culture, & Society. It is perhaps best to understand Vitalism in terms of what it is opposed to: Vitalism is first and foremost essentially anti-mechanistic, typically anti-dualistic, and largely anti-humanistic. While mechanistic systems view causality as purely external (matter impacting matter for example), one of the principles of Vitalism is “self-organization” (Lash 2006: 324), that is, “life” is irreducible to purely mechanistic properties and must be understood as the principle force of self-organizing material bodies: causality arises from within. There is also an important element of indeterminacy in Vitalism, as life is not predictable in the way a mechanistic determinism is. There are varying degrees of self-organization, as Lash explains:

Inorganic matter has the lowest level of self-organization, though it also is partly self-organizing. Organic matter in plants has higher levels of self-organization; animals still higher; human beings still higher; and immortals the highest. . . . in vitalism, the power of self-organization is extended from humans to all sorts of matter (Lash 2006: 324).

Dualism often has the problem of juggling between a mechanistic world and an immaterial self or soul. This dates back to the problem of form and matter of the Greeks, but continued to be a problem that Schelling saw in thinkers such as Descartes. Vitalism attempts to solve this problem by proposing a form of Emergentism, that is, that form exists but emerges from the natural self-organization of matter (Bergson describes this as life creating form for itself to fit different circumstances, that is, adapting). Since all matter possesses some sort of self-organization, human beings are no longer to be thought of as unique or “special,” leading Vitalism to the aforementioned “anti-humanism.” Perhaps most important for our study of Schelling’s metaphysics of nature is that Vitalism claims that Being is not static, but that it’s proper name is Life (or at least Becoming) and that it is creative. What this means is that metaphysics is not a study of fixed forms or concepts, but that just like organisms, all is changing and adapting over time. One of the greats in the Vitalist tradition, Henri Bergson, tells us that “life is. . . a tendency to act on inert matter. The direction of this action is not predetermined; hence the unforeseeable variety of forms which life, in evolving, sows along its path” (Bergson 1913: 96).”

(Here are the sources as well:
Bergson, Henri. 1913. Creative Evolution. Trans. Arthur Mitchell. New York: Henry Holt.
Lash, Scott. 2006. “Life (Vitalism)” in Theory, Culture, & Society (SAGE Publications) Vol. 23 (2-3): 323-349.)

So what does this mean for a new or a cold vitalism? Nothing really, so long as it adheres to these simple principles (anti-mechanistic, anti-dualistic, and anti-humanistic), I would consider it comfortably within vitalism. My own position is perhaps stranger than a cold vitalism, being a spectral vitalism, emphasizing the significance of quasi-beings, memories (which are not strictly human), and ghosts as opposed to the usual vitalistic emphasis on the strong, the dominant, the powerful. I’m more interested in the fact that there is often no clear/clean distinction between Being and Non-Being, and that that which “does not exist” in some sense still goes on living.

Addendum: In the comments, Ben also suggests a relation between vitalism and existentialism. I think this is spot on; I think vitalism needs to be an existentialism for the non-human, including the non-existent!

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16 responses to “Reviving Vitalism: Definitions and the Difference between ‘Cold’ and ‘Spectral’

  1. Pingback: sci. fi. as autobiography « Object-Oriented Philosophy

  2. kvond

    I love your post, with the meager except of the Addendum:

    “Addendum: In the comments, Ben also suggests a relation between vitalism and existentialism. I think this is spot on; I think vitalism needs to be an existentialism for the non-human, including the non-existent!”

    I think it is in particular the exitentialist inheritance of Idealist “negation” which is precisely what a “cold vitalism” does not need (it is no longer a philosophy which deems the intentional object as important or exemplary). It is the extentialist scab-picking at the “absent” or the “hidden” generated by binaries, that ultimately would be surpassed by the plentitude of the vital. In a sense, the very “coldness” of such a vitalism is what replaces the cold of negation itself. Such as is the case in the coldness of the BwO of Deleuze and Guattari’s “junkie”.

  3. I think you misunderstood me. I thought it was clear that I don’t accept the binaries of existent and non-existent as they usually appear. When I speak of the non-existent I am speaking of “ghosts” as I have outlined previously. I think the very idea of a thing “existing” means that it is imperfect and non-static. It is not then the absent that concerns me but the fact that nothing is ever truly absent, that the universe itself has a memory of past existents and as such, is filled with spectres. So I agree that these binaries are surpassed by “the plenitude of the vital” and that we shouldn’t look to the existentialism of the past (it is after all a humanism!), but to the Deleuze-Guattari examples you give.

  4. kvond

    It depends on what you meant by “existentialism”. I assumed you meant the entire binarizing tradition that finds its general apex in Derrida, who is the master of the missing binary part.

    As for ghosts and the recent trend towards “hauntology” (again, another Derridian originating concept, or at least term), the problem I have with this is not that “all things are present” (which which I will agree…Mozart is certainly still operating), but with any categorical removal into a “kind”. Insofar as ghosts and spectres are treated as a class of objects which are necessarily generated, I personally don’t feel that this is justifiable in “cold vitalism”. This doesn’t mean that you are wrong, but only that I find that it, like “Denmark,” smells of a tradition better left behind.

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  6. “vitalism is diametrically opposed to mechanistic science and philosophy”

    Though I think I follow your argument in a general way, this statement I have to disagree with, for several reasons– the most important being that Deleuze and many other vitalists conceived of beings (of all kinds, organic and inorganic alike) as machines, ‘machinic,’ or at very least as themselves a sort of mechanical process.

    Don’t you think that Grant is leading the way in the search for a speculative realism that is not entirely antipathic to the “machinic” language/ontological vocabulary of Deleuze & Guattari et al?

  7. I think the key is the distinction between “machinic” and “mechanistic.” Mechanism is the old Newtonian physics that we all grew up with, which the romantics (like Schelling) and later vitalists (like Bergson) rebelled against. I think it’s safe to say that Deleuze and Grant are both steering clear of any sort of mechanistic causality as well as any Cartesian dualism with a causal “outside” and a non-causal “inside.” From my understanding of Deleuze, when he speaks of machines, he does not mean the same thing as when Descartes speaks of automata. That’s the difference.

  8. kvond

    Michael: “I think it’s safe to say that Deleuze and Grant are both steering clear of any sort of mechanistic causality as well as any Cartesian dualism with a causal “outside” and a non-causal “inside.” From my understanding of Deleuze, when he speaks of machines, he does not mean the same thing as when Descartes speaks of automata. That’s the difference.”

    Kvond: This is a very interesting point, especially when taken into view of Deleuze’s Spinozist approach. In particular, it is the immanentism of Spinoza’s causality which prevents an otherwise Cartesian notion of automata from breaking, as you say, into “a causal ‘outside’ and a non-causal ‘inside’,” without also allowing the inside to be inhabited by a (Hegelian) negation, the kernel of absence. Though Spinoza conceived of Extension very much as Descartes did, it was his expressional sense of the modes, the way that Substance “exists and acts” through them, that produced an eruptive sense of internal causation, coupled with external dependence. Deleuze’s love for Spinoza I think goes right to this point. That “machine” is a necessary living relationship.

    I think too that Spinoza’s actual work with real machines (Descartes did prototype several in his continuous pursuit of an ideal, fully automated, non-human lens-grinding device, all of which were un-usable), gave him the necessary sense that machines were interactions and combinations. One used a machine in a sense because the human “machine” was able to combine with the machine “machine”. In some ways Descartes though in his reach towards mathematics and idealized execution comes even closer to the “coldness” of Cold Vitalism. He essentially pursued the absence of the flesh as it was plagued by imaginary relations; he wished to remove the craftsman’s erring hand. Spinoza’s coldness came from realizing the erring hand was a machine as well, as was the imagination.

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/07/12/descartes-and-spinoza-craft-and-reason-and-the-hand-of-de-beaune/

  9. Machinism vs mechanism- interesting debate to be had there. When I talk of mechanistic vitalism, I am aiming at something (if not quite linear causation) then something which re-asserts the eliminativist centre of mechanistic physics, the coldness of the idea of an automaton perhaps, even if it is a non-linear automaton… (Guyotat over Michel Henry essentially) machinism really means a kind of diagramatism, a way of conceiving of many different ontological strata via a single conceptual schema (humans are machines, words are machines etc etc- and yes processual, conductors of various kinds of energy-matter flows). “Mechanistic” or “cold” vitalism implies to me the erasure of the ethology of conatus between bodies, the crypto-morality that deems certain interactions as “good” or “bad”, the relentless affirmationism of Deleuzean vitalism displaced, a mechanistic machinism perhaps…

    So there are perhaps two key elements to a cold vitalism (aka dark vitalism aka mechanistic vitalism) – it is happier to be eliminativist if possible (and there is still an issue as to how much we wish to accord dynamic non-linear processes the ontological property of emergence), and it seeks to erase ethological affirmatory components.

    As to “existentialism”– I think when Ben and I have tossed this term around in recent discussions, we are doing so in a heretical manner, as a way of thinking how SR, OOP, Non-Phi, Eliminativism etc can feedback upon the human domain, and using it in its negative rather than positive senses (ie- no empty intentional consciousness to bust through the implacably concrete in-itself).

  10. kvond

    SBA: “As to “existentialism”– I think when Ben and I have tossed this term around in recent discussions, we are doing so in a heretical manner, as a way of thinking how SR, OOP, Non-Phi, Eliminativism etc can feedback upon the human domain, and using it in its negative rather than positive senses (ie- no empty intentional consciousness to bust through the implacably concrete in-itself).”

    Kvond: Sorry, I was not privy to all your uses, nor its development as a term. But you can see why I am confused by the use of a rather important word in the history of philosophy in a new way.

    I would just want to ask, if you really want to do away with “anthropocentric” thinking, why would you be using a phrase like “the human domain” as if it constituted a singular thing. I think the entire point of Deleuze and Guattari is that it doesn’t make much sense to speak critically about something called “the human domain”. The way that I see it, there is no such thing as the human domain.

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  15. INVITATION to COLLABORATE TO THE EMERGENCE OF CONTEMPORARILY “BIO-VITALISM” –
    Many Thanks .Very cordially.
    Paolo Manzelli See attached file.

    Premise:

    Since the first synthesis of urea by the chemist F. Wöhler in 1828,chemistry has played a major role in the decline of vitalism of the ancient renaissance era , through its reductionist approaches .

    Urea is an organic compound of urine produced by animals.

    The German chemist Friedrich Wohler synthetizes the ammonium cyanate having had the same chemical formula of urea but very different chemical properties. This was due to chemical-isomerism, the phenomenon in which two or more chemical compounds have the same number and type of atoms but, because those atoms are arranged differently in the space so that each compound has different chemical properties. But the trasformation between the two isomers is very easy to obtain through heating .

    Therefore the pioneering experiment of Wholer disproved the theory of vitalism, in fact demonstrated that inorganic chemicals could be transformed in organic chemicals and as a consequence , living compouns and no living compounds can be obtained without that living
    plants or animals were needed to produce them.

    The above is an ancient chemical history but today we need to admit that physico-chemical reductionistic explanation must be insufficient to understand vital phenomena . In fact progress in the emerging “postgenomic era”, can develop a future new approach about the contemporary “bio-vitalism” that resides in the advanced combination of quantum-chemistry and integrative biology that is disseminated throught a transdisciplinary science and art culture of new-renaissance toward a new concept of life.

    See for instance ; VITALISTIC AND MECHANISTIC CONCEPTS IN THE HISTORY OF BIOELECTROMAGNETICS

    http://www.marcobischof.com/media/art/art_3d1c571e8aec4/VIT_MECH_MOSCOW.doc

  16. Pingback: Abyss radiance: Toward a Dark Realism | noir ecologies

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