Tag Archives: Bergson

Notes on Structuralism


– Structuralism is no longer limited to a linguistic theory or even a general theory of language, as is often supposed. Rather, it has become a general metaphysical system.

– Structuralist linguistics, which is based on the idea of fundamental dichotomies or oppositions, was combined with Kantianism and Neo-Kantianism for form a metaphysics based on two central principles: 1. anthropocentrism, and 2. the centrality of trauma.

– Recent thinkers to consider: Saussure, Natorp, Cassirer, Rickert, Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Badiou, Žižek.

– Historical thinkers adopted by this tradition: Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel.

– At its most basic, structuralism is a system which says that reality is inherently antagonistic, and that the human being must shield itself from the trauma of the Real. This is done through the construction of meaning.

– See for instance Cassirer on the construction of symbolic meaning, Lévi-Strauss on culture and Lacan on the Symbolic.

– Structuralism is a philosophy obsessed with order. To psychoanalyze structuralism is to stumble upon theoretical OCD; the structuralist fears any sign or semblance of chaos, of disorder, of the Real. Yet while they consciously desire to keep out the creeping chaos outside of the Symbolic Order, they unconsciously rely on its creativity, productivity and energy. More than this however, such thinkers rely on the opposition of order and chaos, presupposing that the latter has existence-for-itself, while the latter is but a network dependent on the mutual opposition of its myriad members.

– Meaning is only seen then as a human function, serving essentially therapeutic purposes. Both Cassirer and Rickert assert that meaning and value are distanced from things like life and are purely rational. This is in opposition to Dilthey, Nietzsche, Bergson and Uexküll who insist that meaning is deeper than humanity and extends to all life. We should follow Peirce, Deleuze and Serres who go even further than this and insist that meaning is a constitutive part of existence, that all things structure reality in meaningful ways.


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The Schelling Effect?: Philosophy in the Shadows


I gave a guest-lecture for one of the graduate seminars here at MUN last week. The course is a historical reading of Schelling’s Freiheitsschrift, providing the context necessary for a thorough reading of Schelling’s essay from Spinoza, to Kant, to Fichte, to Boehme. My lecture took the opposite strategy, making a case for taking Schelling as a significant figure by tracing his ideas and concepts through post-Schellingian thought. I’ve decided to post the handout from this otherwise unscripted lecture since I know there are people who frequent this blog who are very much interested in Schelling and his effect on philosophy. I hope this will help those interested further their study of some of Schelling’s key concepts.

I have posted the handout here on my Academia.edu page.


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Thinking, the In-Itself


There’s been some back and forth and back again between Paul and Graham largely as a result of Paul’s recent interview with Peter Gratton as part of Peter’s course on Realism. See also the exchange between Ben and Graham on Hegel and Zizek.

Paul’s been brining up Hegel for a while now since he’s “in the air” in Dublin. I have to say this makes me more than a little uncomfortable. I’m not friendly to Hegel or Hegelianism and the neo-Hegelianism of the Ljubljiana Lacanians makes me equally as on-guard. The reason I’m so uncomfortable with this is the ease with with they all do away with the very real problem of the in-itself.

The in-itself is of course a long-standing issue for debate in post-Kantian philosophy and is one of the important fault lines that Meillassoux revives in After Finitude where he bases correlationist thought on the principles of correlation and factiality. The strong correlationist is the one who maintains the strength of the principle of correlation and does away with the principle of factiality (doing away with the in-itself, contingency, and freedom ultimately). I shouldn’t have to repeat this, I’m assuming people know this. By aligning yourself with Hegel (especially) you fall immediately into the Fichtean move of rejecting the in-itself (or more accurately for Fichte, making the in-itself a closeted for-us, making things-in-themselves a necessary illusion in order for the performance of the infinite ethics of the Kingdom of Ends; depending on your reading of Hegel, the same move is made though possibly for different reasons).

The same move is made by the Lacanians; the in-itself for Zizek is nothing but the “Imaginary Real,” a fantasy of a non-Symbolic realm prior to language or even humans. There is no world outside of the Symbolic for Zizek meaning there is no in-itself. This is why ultimately he favours Hegel to Schelling. Schelling of course maintains the in-itself in opposition to both Fichte and Hegel (though with the support of Schopenhauer, who is of this Schellingian strain of post-Kantian thought that finds its way into people like Nietzsche, Freud, Bergson, etc.) The significant move of this strain of post-Kantianism is not only that they maintain the in-itself, but that with this school of thought the in-itself is in some sense known. In opposition to both the Fichtean line which does away with the in-itself and the more orthodox Kantian line which maintains the in-itself but also its unknowability, this line of thought (which I refer to as “Vitalist”) says that the in-itself is in some sense grasped through self-analysis (this is the importance of “intuition” for Schelling and Bergson for instance). We have access to our own noumenal existence by which we understand other existents to have their own non-phenomenal (that is, non-for-us) existence. Just as I am not the sum of my phenomenal appearance (I am unconscious, I am will, I am virtual, etc, etc.) neither are objects.

This also gives us clues as to how non-human objects interact with each other, as well as their inner lives. First, it allows for a pre-human and post-human world. Vitalism accepts history as a given, things existed, things happened, before there were human beings to observe them and these things are in no way dependent on our knowing to have existence. In the same way, aspects of my existence go un-actualized, remaining unconscious. This in no way means they do not exist, simply that I don’t know of them.

The importance of this cannot be under-estimated. The road to anti-realism is paved with Hegelian intentions. I don’t see how anyone could read Hegel and take a realism from it without doing some serious work (which even the Marxists have trouble maintaining, what does Nick Land call dialectical materialism? Shoddy idealism, I think). This means ultimately that I’m on the side of Graham and Grant on this one, once the in-itself is ditched, there is no possible realism. For the same reason then that Fichte irreversibly anti-realist, so too is Hegel.


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Félix Ravaisson’s Of Habit

I just read Ravaisson’s Of Habit. It is really a great little book. There is so much more in this essay than I expected and it really shows just how indebted 19th-20th Century French Metaphysics are to Schelling. Ravaisson of course attended Schelling’s lectures in Munich and was apparently set to translate some of Schelling’s works into French though it never panned out. Bergson sounds so much less “out there” when read in the context of Ravaisson. Not only are the roots of Bergsonism in there (by way of the virtual, the focus on memory and repetition, “secret vital forces” at the heart of the organism, etc.), but also the carnal phenomenology that largely separates the French phenomenologists (Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Henry, Marion, etc.) from the Heideggerian tradition. There’s also a form of the unconscious, which he calls an “unreflective spontaneity” that “breaks into […] the organism, and increasingly establishes itself there, beyond, beneath the region of will, personality and consciousness” (53). He also speaks of it in terms of “effort,” which the translators use to translate both “effort” and “puissance” [power]. The latter term of course becomes important in Deleuze and his reading of Nietzsche. It also proves important in Foucault’s later writings on the Self. Deleuze distinguishes “puissance” (as power-to, possibility) from “pouvoir” (as power-over, domination) when he discusses Nietzsche’s Will to Power. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Ravaisson talks of “puissance” in relation to an unconscious drive (connected with “instinct” and “tendency”), as the ground of possibility at the centre of the organism, much in the same way that the psychoanalytic and vitalist traditions see it. There must be a connection between this early 19th Century Naturphilosophie and the later French psychology tradition (Janet). Besides that, it shows the biologization of Schellingian speculative metaphysics, grounding Schelling in much the same way that thinkers like Lorenz Oken did. Anyone interested in either the Schellingian or 20th Century French tradition owes it to themselves to read this brief essay.


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Nature and its Discontents

Walden 2.0

Ben has some thoughts up on Zizek’s “Unbehangen in der Natur.” I was talking about this for Jockey Club on Friday so I thought I’d just make a couple of comments. Like Ben, I have some serious problems with Zizek’s piece as well as his conception of nature. For Ben this seems to be the imposition of a transcendental subjectivity but for me it is the concepts of alienation and rupture.

There is a clear connection between this piece and Freud’s “Unbehagen in der Kultur” (“Civilization and its Discontents”, uneasiness in culture). It is not the case that fro Freud most of us socialize normally but some people “don’t quite make it” and so must be normalized. It is rather that culture as such, in order to appear normal, ordered, etc., involves a whole series of distortions, manipulations, and pathologies. We are then “uneasy” in culture as such. One of the goals of Zizek’s work on ecology is to show this as true for nature as well, that we are uneasy, homesick, in nature itself.

This is the alienation of subjectivity, which is essential to Lacanianism. The subject only exists as alienated, through alienation. But is it the case that the human being is fundamentally alienated from nature-as-such? Part of Zizek’s structuralist narrative that he inherits from Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Rousseau, etc., is the dichotomy of nature and culture, that there was some sort of transcendental rupture in reality when human beings developed the capacity for language and suddenly we went from being apes to human beings. In this process we began instantly to supplant nature with culture, imposing ourselves on the chaos of nature, ordering it. Is this the case? Isn’t it rather that the human being, and human culture, developed slowly out of nature? Zizek wants us to believe that either there is a radical break with culture or we are New Age obscurantists who want to naively go “back to nature.” There is surely a middle ground to this ridiculous dichotomy, one that will say that culture is thoroughly “natural,” while still being (clearly) different, in the same way that both animals and minerals are natural but different.

Where does this supposed alienation from nature come from? Zizek doesn’t tell us. He wants us to think that nature is terrifying and horrible, and certainly it can be though isn’t always, that we are fundamentally afraid of it. Now, I didn’t grow up in an industrial centre or a big city; I grew up in the woods of south eastern New Brunswick, we had deer and wolves and bears in the area, sometimes in our backyard. As a child, I was never “alienated” from my surroundings, I was at home. I’m reminded of Erazim Kohak’s Embers and the Stars, one of the few works of phenomenology that I really truly like. Kohak abandons his life in Boston to live in the woods and essentially writes a phenomenology of nature. He doesn’t feel alienated either, but at home in the wilderness. Of course, he isn’t living in a cave or anything, he builds a cabin, but still. He lives with the rhythms of nature, he feels a kinship to a family of porcupines who live down river. Nature is not terrifying.


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A Mess Only Zizek Could Love

Thou shalt love thy waste as thyself.

In the film Examined Life (among other written works and lectures), Zizek argues that a true ecologist would love garbage. In the film he makes these claims in a garbage dump, which certainly adds to the argument. As many of you (probably) already know, Zizek is against the ideology of contemporary ecology, which is based on the idea that Nature exists naturally in some idyllic balance that we humans play with for our own gain or ego, throwing this natural balance out of whack and causing catastrophes.

Now would be a good time to read about some of these messes we’ve made.

When we are faced with these events, like the Exxon Valdez, it seems like we can’t help but side with the ecological ideologues. But are the options as black and white as contemporary ecology would have us believe? The options seem to be laid out that either

1. Humanity is destroying the natural balance of the planet through greed, ignorance, and ego, or…

2. The idea of balance is itself a remnant of much older ideologies, as Zizek says, a retelling of the Fall (see above video). Nature in balance then is a construct of the Imaginary to cover up the trauma of the Real, the inherent disorder of Nature.

Busted up teevee

Is it really that simple? Either there is order, or we simply wish there was? Or, as Zizek says in the video clip, must we decide between a world with meaning (but filled with punishment) or a chaotic world with no meaning? While the bit at the end is certainly poetic, “Of course we should love garbage if we want to love the world!”, I don’t feel like I can support his claims here.

I see this essentially as the question of order versus disorder, harmony versus chaos. Is Nature naturally ordered or not? Again, must we answer either “yes” or “no” here? Could we not propose a third option, that of the “not yet”? Could it not be the case that while the forces of Nature (and I include humanity in here in all if its “artificiality”) appear chaotic, seem meaningless, that this is simply another attempt at creating order?

Ecosystems are struggles for a new order from chaos. When an extinction occurs, life fills the gaps, forcing itself into new situations and adapting accordingly. There is an interplay between environment and organisms, a struggle of forces. The outcome however is largely an ordered one, ecological homeostasis.

This does not mean however that I am siding with the ecologists, I don’t think there is anything necessary about order in Nature. Instead, we should perhaps think of Nature as a “Will to Order,” an unending drive for balance with fits and stops.


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Ghosts of Time and Space

This is something I had intended to write when Reza Negarestani first posted his “Memento Tabere: Reflections on Time and Putrefaction,” but due to deadlines, put on the back burner only to forget about it entirely. Fortunately, Ben has just written on it, making me realize that I had yet to write this. So here we are. The essay that Reza writes tries to think through the relationship between time, space, and decay. I have yet to put the Spectral Realist concepts of time and space down in any concrete way, having only implicitly said anything on these concepts. I’ll take this opportunity then to formulate these concepts more concretely using Reza’s essay as a way of navigating these ideas.

Reza will ask:

“What is exactly the role of time in decay, does this role reinscribe the correlationist appropriation of time through experience and presence or does it amount to an idealism which favors and privileges time over space?”

I was to begin by saying that in response to this question, Spectral Realism does say quite simply that time is privileged over space. Space is, like the objects that occupy it, entirely accidental, that is, space and time are not intimately related as in Kant, nor do we find a complicity of time and space as in Reza’s post. Rather, the drives that underly all products exist in time, or to be more precise, the movement of the drives (the movement which they simply are) is time. Were there no objects existing as results of this productivity, there would still be time, there would simply be no visible result of the work of time.

Ghosts can exist without place, but only ever exist in time (history). The act of haunting is always a temporal one, and not necessarily a spacial one.

I hope to elaborate more on spacial hauntings when I have time to write the piece on Walter Benjamin that I promised as Bones of Ghosts II. Until then, it must simply be understood that spectrality is a historical phenomenon in that a ghost is the movement of an entity in time, but that this entity need not ever have taken up space, as is evident in the death drives which themselves are never constituted in space save for the ghosts they move.

But what is this drive-based time? Following Bergson’s concept of duration, we should say that time is the pure mobility of the contraction and expansion of the dual drives. Time is simply the drives themselves as they are nothing more than their infinite mobility toward impossibility, towards absolute expansion and contraction, or, to put it another way, time is the movement of the infinite towards it’s own collapse.

This brings me to the same quote that Ben draws out from Reza’s piece:

We can say that in decay space is perforated by time: Although time hollows out space, it is space that gives time a twist that abnegates the privilege of time over space and expresses the irrepressible contingencies of the absolute time through material and formal means.

Space is nothing more, the Spectral Realist will say, than the result of the tension of the drives, the accidental coming-to-be of things which themselves are driven towards collapse and, so long as there are continual oppositional drives, exist for all time as ghosts in history. We can see then that these ghosts are not on equal footing with time itself (qua drive) but must be the results of the temporal struggle of reality. Space comes to be in time, while time lies beneath all spaciality.

Finally, what then is decay? Decay is the necessary result of space having invaded time, it is the consequence of existence as such. The drives do not decay, only things decay, in fact, all things decay. The decaying of things is a sign of the primacy of time, of destrudo over objects. It is important to note that ghosts, the children of Thanatos, do not rot, but echo for all time as they are pulled indefinitely and unpredictably, growing and spreading just as much as they are decaying and dying.


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On The Status of the Human in a Vitalist Metaphysics

I’m posting this as a new blog entry rather than attaching it to my last post. I’m hoping to draw together the last couple of entries I’ve written, in an effort to explain, really explain, what the point is that I’ve been trying to make. I was contacted and asked fairly explicitly, what the point of such pop-culture references, and also why I would essentially tie my wagon to a dead horse like vitalism.

What I like about vitalism, my reading of vitalism, which I don’t think has been adequately stated in any single work, or maybe even any single thinker (Deleuze is probably the closest on this front), is the possibility of de-centering the human being in philosophy. Even Bergson goes in the direction of mysticism (although I am poorly read on Bergson, I’m basing this almost exclusively off of secondary sources; also, it should be said that I am generally pro-mysticism, and don’t see it as inherently anthro-centric, but from what I’ve read on Bergson, that is the direction he goes [PLEASE CORRECT ME IF I’M WRONG HERE!]). I think the age of the human subject is due for an overhaul, and the vitalism gives us an interesting, and I think accurate, view of the cosmos. My posts on Swamp Thing(s) and Batcats are attempts to show the metaphysical contingency of the human subject. The subject is not the center of the cosmos, only Nature is! (Nature of course being taken as the totality of metaphysical processes and products, of which we are but tiny instances.)

The example of Swamp Thing is especially helpful here: it shows the possibility of Nature making a humanoid (a vegeman) that in it’s mere delusion of being human, becomes more than human, actually becomes more powerful than the human being it dreams of being. The Swamp Thing as Nature embodied, in an attempt at mimicking the human, surpasses the human. Both the Batcat and the Swamp Thing (along with Lovecraftian Old Ones) show clearly that the human being, while imagining itself as lord and master of Nature, of the whole cosmos, is really insignificant, and easily snuffed out.

We need not even go into (science)fiction to see this, although the examples are more vivid. Parasites, bacteria, fungi, and viruses all trounce humans on a regular basis, while weather and geology can ruin our greatest cultural achievements. We depend wholly on Nature and yet often forget that we are its product, and not its master. The human subject, rationality as a whole, cannot conquer the drive of infinite Nature. You can’t reason with a parasite, and for this reason, Nature always wins. That is, human reason is finite, and easily extinguishable. We should never forget this, least of all in our speculative philosophy.


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The Horror of the Unknown

One of the reasons I feel such a kinship with vitalism is the ability to account for the horror of the unknown; vitalism is by necessity an incomplete system, and as such, it is always able to account for new discoveries in both the organic and the inorganic realms. Examples of this can be seen through out science, but I think the real test is (science) fiction. Take for example the video for Mogwai’s song Batcat:

Such a horrifying organism can be easily accounted for under a vitalist system. Actually, to perhaps put it better, vitalism can never be surprised in the usual sense, because vitalism is a philosophy of surprise. The vitalist is never truly horrified because they are always anticipating novelty with an understanding that the new or novel is entirely unpredictable. The distinction lies here I think, between an anticipatory philosophy, and a predictable philosophy. An anticipatory system would be an open system, whereas a predictable system is closed. What this means is that the latter will take new evidence or data and format it for the system, whereas the former is always readjusting to the new.

As soon as you de-privilege the human being by accepting that Nature is active production, with no final cause (save the impossible, cf. my final section on Messianism in “Towards a Proper Introduction to Spectral Realism”), then the human being becomes just a product among products. The human is no longer the apex of the system, as there is no Final Product. As soon as this move is made, you allow for the non-human to surpass the human. You allow, with this small move, for Lovecraftian Old Ones, for Batcats, but also for inorganic structures the ability to destroy the de-privileged structure of the human subject. Such a system appears horrific to the subjectivist, but to the vitalist, it’s simply the structure of the cosmos, a parade of horribles.


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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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