Clues, Signs, Traces, Imperatives II: Seekers, Research Time, 23/01/2018

After the last near-rant,* I actually don’t have much more to say. A list of conditions and ideas. In a way, I think that’s for the best.

* Who am I kidding? That was a rant.

One of the most important aspects of Gilles Deleuze’s conceptions of political revolution is what he never said. He described in great detail – in political and ontological contexts – what it means to transform radically.

In a human context, it means transforming your character completely. He and Guattari described that process, but never an end product. Even in their most political works, they never gave a prescription for what kind of person they thought would be the best to emerge.

I always enjoyed the character of the Doctor when s/he was being
something of a detective. Exploring some complex sci-fi setting,
the relationships among characters, their interests and conflicts. To
discover the mystery of what horrible event is happening.
Of course, that defeats the whole structure of what they were doing – an ontological description of how a process can only move freely when it moves without adopting a plan from some other source, when it acts, thinks, and plans immanently.

To give orders and expect them to be followed is overcoding – that’s what despotic societies do. So if you’re going to live by your convictions, you won’t give a prescription for what kind of person you want to emerge from the revolution.

At most, you can say what that revolution would have to satisfy to repair or escape what caused the metamorphosis in the first place. Conditions for success, but whatever you do to meet them is your business.

You don’t even know what the revolution will be anyway. In the 1970s of Paris, when Deleuze and Guattari were composing A Thousand Plateaus, you’d be pretty perceptive for thinking a new communist revolution was brewing.** By the 2010s, I could write a book about what conditions an ecological revolution in thought would have to satisfy.

** Whatever its prospects for immediate success. I’ve read interpretations of Paris’ May 1968 revolution as having lost the battle and the war, but won the culture. You want to call that victory? I’m not sure if I do.

Then you have to leave it up to people to figure their own way there. You live in your world, with your concerns. You can’t just give people a generation or two away, in a world that could be totally different from your own a set of direct orders and expect them to apply. We all have to work out the details as the world changes.

It may not be religious – per se – but I think the myths of human
cultures in the 21st century are the most narratively advanced
they've ever been. We're able to record them and watch exactly
the same story over and over again – so we can search through
it and discover more of what's happening. That's how we can
make myths that critique and take apart themselves.
I’ll put it to you this way. Someone who died in 2010 would have considered Donald Trump nothing but a billionaire asshole game show host.

So on your way to become a revolutionary new person, you have two main concerns. 1) Take the process as far as you can to leave as little of your old, shitty self and world behind. 2) Don’t mess up and become a disastrous failure who aimed for more than you could reach and broke apart.

Yeah, those two don’t exactly fit. Revolutionize your ass! But watch yourself!

Being serious again. What would make the detective a fitting persona for a revolutionary? A combination of care, attention to detail, commitment to ideals,

Obviously, I’m not talking about real police detectives. I’m talking about the cultural image of the detective, the detective ideal that we see on television – the myth.

I’m going to spell out those detective myths tomorrow. Here’s one last concept I’m developing about myth. It’s only in note form right now.

Semiotics made us mistake our myths for symbols – we now understand the images and narratives that materially function as myths, as if they were symbols. All the detectives in our televisions, movies, games, and books are different iterations of a myth. A narrative icon of a cultural ideal.

So the detective.

Clues Traces Mysteries Imperatives I: Change Must Come, Research Time, 22/01/2018

One of my favourite images in Gilles Deleuze’s work is that of the detective. By the end of his life, writing What Is Philosophy?, he’d given such images a different name – conceptual personae.

A conceptual persona is a style of thinking, but understood as the model for the thinker herself to follow. It's the shape you settle into as you fly along the narrative, making it up as you go along – in this particular case – thinking as a detective.

Seeing through chaos. Returning to old models, but offering new
paths to explore. Gilles Deleuze called philosophy catching hold of
chaos in thought. But would an empiricist philosophical practice be
able to catch hold of chaos in the physical world of everyday life,
make a new kind of sense out of what was only confusing,
disorienting, and mysterious before?
Detective philosophers are empiricists – their primary questions are about understanding, in Deleuze’s words, “what happened.” Such an empiricism brings philosophical thinking – whose peculiar styles Deleuze describes as "catching hold of chaos" – with cultural theory and the social sciences.

I think that's a great idea. Philosophical thinking is about the careful creation of new concepts, the analysis of their components, and their relationships with each other. Bringing that conceptual engineering to the empirical research programs of cultural studies and the many branches of sociology can create a powerful new research program – even a revolutionary way of thinking.

Naturally, there are a lot of factors in the way of such a development. One is that it’s – in Deleuze’s words – a minoritarian intellectual movement. It’s a rebellion against the mainstream institutional norms of scholarship – disciplines fragment, but rarely unite.

Academia is an institution whose growth engine is schism, division, breaks, fragmentation into isolated silos of discourse. Create a new journal with an even narrower research constituency. Start creating new departments and hire more contingent adjunct professors to teach their courses.

Doesn’t matter that fewer universities can subscribe to all those new journals, since no journal ever lowers its subscription price in this supply-crowded market. Doesn't matter that new departments will compete with each other and older disciplines for limited pools of research, teaching funding, and student pools. Doesn’t matter that the system is perverse and devouring itself.

Academia needs people to open paths of rebellion and revolution against its vicious incentives. We have a piece going up at SERRC tomorrow discussing this exact need to demolish the most destructive institutional habits of humanities scholarship. So I have this on the mind.

Our images of detectives in popular culture have plenty of
complications – colonialist, racist, sexist, classist. The
implications are everywhere – the detective is, after all, a
police officer. The endpoint of a detective narrative is when
someone goes to prison. The question is how to become a
detective in your thinking that opens a liberatory path.
But I’ve been thinking recently that such a radical change is necessary. Consider this notion. I describe to a friend the idea to combine philosophical conceptual and critical techniques with the historical and sociological methods of cultural studies and the different social sciences.

My friend’s reaction: “That sounds like an amazing inter-disciplinary field!” We apply for research grants, build up a few major methodological works and studies, set up a few offices, start a journal, develop a graduate (and then an undergraduate) curriculum. We’ve ended up creating our own fragmented silo of a narrow discipline.

This is the institutional tragedy of what’s typically called interdisciplinary studies. You first approach the problem wanting a vector that Deleuze and Félix Guattari called trans-disciplinary – a new direction of thinking, writing, and research that explores entirely new territory with an entirely new structure than the academy.

You ended up with another academic department. Shit. It makes you think you might have to leave the university institutions behind to have any real success with these creative new directions. Or at least head out to its limits while still being able to access some of its funding and office space.*

* Or at least office supplies.

What would such a new kind of empiricist philosophy look like? Well, I can start with a brief thought about the institutions. Unfortunately, that thought is that I have no idea what those institutions would look like at all.

Such a research program would have to rely largely on universities for funding. Even if funding could be taken care of independently, the program would still need existing bodies of actual research. There would probably be a lot of online organizing among participants, making it potentially a global enterprise.

But that’s all I’ve got right now. So what would the actual research and writing practice be?

Where Does Morality Come From Anyway? Research Time, 19/01/2018

That’s one hell of a question to start with, and I’m not going to say the few hundred words I write here will be definitive. Too many people in the world and human history speak definitively about morality. So I’m just going to riff.

What am I riffing on? An essay in that collection of Deleuze scholars discussing his influences. This one is about the ideas of David Hume that made it into his thinking.

David Hume once described matter as moving with the necessity of
balls across a table when they're smacked with a cue. Yet he also
said that we could never know if an event was truly necessary, no
matter how often we saw it repeat. And it's just as likely that no
one even started playing snooker in the first place.
The influence of Hume on Deleuze is an interesting little avenue, first of all. Deleuze’s first book was Empiricism and Subjectivity, a small book about Hume’s philosophical ideas. But Deleuze didn’t publish another work that size until his book on Nietzsche, which moved in some very different directions.

Deleuze referred to the eight years between those books as lost, of a sort. He was teaching high school and college down in Lyon. A lifelong Parisian, with all the attitudes that implies, Deleuze was bored as shit down south. In terms of his thinking, he ended up moving in totally different directions after that near-decade of research and reconsideration.

His first source of concepts to build a revolutionized empiricism was Hume, the modern-period philosopher best-identified with the term ‘empiricism.’ But it turned out to be a bit of a dead end. Deleuze’s future would lie in much stranger territory.

That wasn’t to say that Deleuze’s engagement with Hume wouldn’t produce some interesting ideas on its own. One example is a really valuable distinction to defend thorough materialist thinking from charges of moral relativism. It’s a distinction between the ground of a principle and its scope.

Here’s how the charge typically goes.
• • •
Start from the presumption that anything that arises contingently in history – it could have not happened after all – can’t be universal. The universal has to be rooted in the necessary. So if moral principles are universal, they must be necessary.

There need never have been a human species. There need never have
been galaxies, stars, planets, or anything other than distant, isolated
fields and minute fluxes of energy. That's okay. We are actually
all here now.
The ground of that necessity can’t be human thought, because human thought – just like human existence – is contingent. We could have never existed at all, had it not been for quadrillions upon quadrillions of events over billions of years. So humans can’t generate principles whose ground is universal. At most, we can discover them.

So universal moral principles would be like mathematical principles and relationships – necessary aspects of the universe itself.

If you’re going to push materialist, empiricist thinking as far as their principles go, you end up with a moral constructivism. We create moral systems as a function of our social life. Any set of moral principles would be able to avoid self-destructing as long as they could keep a society in some minimal degree of solidarity.

There’s a lot of flexibility in those minimal conditions. Can't exactly stand on any universal ground. Morality’s existence and character becomes entirely contingent. Humans are of such a nature as organisms that their society’s survival has these particular conditions.

There’s nothing necessary about that, so it can’t produce universal morality.
• • •
That whole argument confuses ground and scope. It doesn’t make moral truths any less important than they are already if you take them to emerge from contingent activity.

There need never have been humans or moralities. But can there be
other kinds of creatures that need moralities to live? Meeting
them will be the biggest challenge to what moral principles we
consider the genuine universals.
If there were no organisms that were able to develop moral principles, then there would be no moral truths in that world. Same goes for a world that never developed stars – there would be no truths about stars in a universe not dense enough to develop them.

If the universe never developed moral creatures, there would be no truths about morality. But that contingency doesn’t affect the scope of those principles when they actually exist.

A moral truth – at its most profound level – is a moral principle that’s true for all systems of morality worthy of the name. They’d be the truths that apply – somehow – across all the variations that fall within those minimal conditions of moralities that won’t self-destruct.*

* Eventually. I say self-destruct because their principles literally contain their own potential destruction – vicious contraries, explosively direct contradictions.

Moral principles of that sort would have a scope of application that is genuinely universal. For all systems of morality, these conditions and principles apply.

Truths don’t need to be built into the fabric of the universe itself to be universal. They need only apply without exception throughout their scope of application. Bloody difficult enough to figure out what those are.

Making Gottfried Leibniz an Empiricist, Research Time, 18/01/2018

A small patch of light shows only how much more darkness there is
beyond it.
Yeah, that title shows just how weird you can get when you’re talking about the influences of Gilles Deleuze in the history of ideas. I’m going to see if I can do this in less than 1000 words. Just one post.*

* Starting after this note, anyway. Yesterday ended up being super-busy – I couldn’t get the energy together for a post. But let’s put some dense effort into this one. Developing an unconventional empiricism is one of the themes running through Utopias, and I’ll probably pick it up in future writing.

So let’s begin. I’ve criticized some of Daniel Smith’s interpretations of Deleuze’s work, but he wrote a weird and fascinating essay in that collection about Gottfried Leibniz. Now, the textbook account of Leibniz is that he was one of the arch-rationalists.

Rationalism is typically contrasted with empiricism – Descartes-Spinoza-Leibniz opposing Locke-Hume – mind as the source of the world opposing world as the source of the mind. Like most really simple stories about complex philosophical thinkers, it breaks apart in so many ways once you actually look at them all.

But Leibniz. So Smith’s essay is based on a very left-field interpretation of Leibniz’s Monadology.** Here’s a super-casual primer on the concept.

Gottfried Leibniz and his immense courtly wig.
** An interpretation of Deleuze’s interpretation? Or using Deleuze’s interpretation to build your own interpretation? As a component? Or as an inspiration? I think the answers are, respectively: Sort Of, Yes, Pretty Much, and Definitely.

Every place in existence has a perspective on the world that you can take from it – these monads each move and develop according to their own paths. That perspective is analogous to a spot in an enormous labyrinth, as complex as all of reality itself – but it can't see the whole network, only its local area.

How much and what aspects of existence’s catacombs a monad can perceive depends on the powers that place has at a particular time. If a monad becomes a creature’s mind, then it can illuminate quite a bit of existence, thanks to its powers of perception and thought. If a monad becomes a rock, not so much.

Sidebar-ish. The monads don’t actually interact with each other in Leibniz’s thinking. They just move in harmony because maintaining that harmony among all existence is the power of God in the world. Important for knowing the Leibnizian context, not so much for Smith’s Deleuze-inspired take on the concept.

Okay. Are you still here? So the monad is simultaneously a physical perspective in the world and a concept. Let’s not get into the finer points of the argument, or we’ll be discussing it for four hundred years.

Bottom line, because every monad illuminates – literally perceives – some range, however small, of the world, that perspective is the concept of that monad. Since philosophy deals with pure concepts, the ultimate subject matter of philosophical thought is existence. Sorting perspectives, monads, aspects of existence, places.

This is not Gottfried Leibniz, but Brian May, legendary
guitarist of Queen. His hair, however, has always
been real. And it's spectacular.
Inference, deduction, interpretation, and argument are legitimate modes of philosophical thinking. Most of us accept that these days. But Smith-via-Deleuze’s interpretation of the Monadology implies that discovery, observation, and hypothesis are also modes of philosophical thinking.

Remember that sidebar? It’s important now. Monads don’t gain their powers relationally – on Leibniz’s thinking, each monad is isolated from each other. Remember as well that a monad is essentially a place. So each infinitesimally small place in existence never interacts with any other. They illuminate the world – as far as they can, given the potential of the place – not by interacting, but by expressing existence through their capacities.

Each place expresses all of existence, but the character of that expression depends on what the bodies and processes constituting that place can do. Philosophical thinking is all about understanding expression.

Because you understand the world through understanding the expression of places, it’s rationalism that actually disappears. Thought becomes empirical by nature – analyzing expression means analyzing the world. So philosophical thinking is the bedrock of all other techniques of knowledge.

It’s a very strange kind of empiricism. I definitely don’t consider it Leibniz’s own thinking. It’s a creative take on an already dense, complex, and inventive piece of philosophical writing. It’s worth picking it up and seeing what can be done with it.

When God Becomes a Triumph of the Will, Research Time, 16/01/2018

Here’s an interesting way my colleague Morteza Hashemi’s recent work found itself contributing a really important point to my own ongoing research.

In the off-kilter ontological chapters that will take up the strange middle section of Utopias, I’ll work from two core concepts – time as lived duration, and the univocity of being. Morteza’s work has really helped me with that univocity concept.

Christianity is a religion of contradictions – it's what makes the theology
and ontology so fascinating and strange. Now, those contradictions
make it very difficult for me to adopt Christianity as my own path to
engage with the divine. But the story of Jesus himself is beautiful
and deranged, one of the most profoundly bizarre myths humanity
has developed. While I can't sign on to that myth, I love the story.
Short form – the concept of being’s univocity is the conception of existence as entirely immanent. No realms of being somehow separate from each other – material, energy, spirit, whatever other kinds of being that exist – everything can commingle, interact.

This concept began, in its most intense trajectory, with John Duns Scotus. Reading this old book of essays on Gilles Deleuze’s influences, the essay on Scotus mentions that the 13th century writer was never able to see his concept of univocity through to its natural conclusion.

That conclusion? Atheism. Or at least a pantheism that’s functionally indistinguishable from the best kinds of atheism.

If you lay down as a foundation for your thinking that existence has only one plane, then you are in the same way that God is. God doesn’t become a being in a transcendent realm – God becomes a force in the world* who’s present through action.

* Or the force of the world, if you’re going to see is through to its end.

Morteza’s book traced how later generations of thinkers saw that concept through to its end. That was, for me at least, the most fascinating exploration of Theism and Atheism in a Post-Secular Age. The ground of atheism is found in this remarkably pious Christian concept.

Univocal existence applies the ethical lessons of the Christian concept of Incarnation to the complete ontology of the divine. The ethical meaning of Christianity is that God loves humanity so much that God became a person who’d be sacrificed for our onto-theological redemption. God becomes us and dies to save us.

One of the several artistic representations of John Duns Scotus, the
first great philosopher Scotland contributed to the Western tradition.
I like this image best because of how ordinary it makes him. A
skinny monk with big ears and male pattern baldness.
What matters in this context isn’t God’s law or reason, but God’s will, God’s desire, God’s yearning. God becomes an emotional force of love in the world, an immanent power. God’s will is in instant-to-instant sustaining of existence. God’s will that the universe exists permeates existence itself.

God becomes the same as the substance of existence itself, meaning that God and the world is the same. We’re expressions of God’s will because God’s energy is the energy that drives material existence. But now God and existence are the same, two ways of talking about the same thing.

If you want to speak strictly ontologically about existence, you say ‘being.’ If you want to speak ethically about existence, you say ‘God.’ The will of God is literally the development of the world. If you simply want to stop talking about God, you can without losing everything. When God is existence, then the totality of existence is always already God.

That's atheism – there’s no God over and above existence. What happens in the world is God’s will because God’s will is literally all the events, processes, and developments of existence. God becomes superfluous when being is univocal.

Where Morteza’s book kind of deflated me was when we got past this and started engaging the two major schools of popular atheism today. The aggressive, reductive atheism of Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and others like them is a dead end of empty spite and resentment.

But the major alternative is Alain de Botton’s existentialism as self-help. Morteza calls it tourist atheism. As much as I like the attitude – a joyful acceptance of the world’s plurality of thinking about the divine – ‘tourist’ really is the best label.

There’s nothing profound happening in this atheism either. It’s nicer, because you’re not being a belligerent prick. But it’s ultimately an obnoxious way of seeing the world in superficialities.

If, over the next decade or so, I can build any reasonable profile for myself as an intellectual author, I want to promote an atheism where you can still think about the divine as a profound, awe-inspiring topic.

It can be done. Just follow the univocity of being through to its natural end. See where you end up.

Thought Moves So Needs to Work, Research Time, 15/01/2018

Any empiricism worth the name will inevitably be a pragmatism. What the hell does that actually mean?

Remember what I was saying on Friday about philosophical conversation on profound metaphysical concepts – that they never actually end anywhere definitive. That, in itself is not a problem. But when you say the conversation’s point is to discover profound metaphysical answers, you break the process.

Aporia – when a conversation sputters into infinity. It’s the moment in a chain of reasoning when you realize that the only way to engage this concept is constant reinterpretation and self-critique.

Plato’s dialogues are excellent examples of this kind of reasoning.

These are always questions about the essence of profound ethical and ontological concepts. What is the nature of existence? What is the universal good? What is justice?Conversations and reasoning about these questions will never get you definitive answers – only deeper, more detailed, context-shifted new approaches to the questions.

Do you think your words are powerful enough on their own that you
can argue your way to the most profound truths?
That's great! We want those new ways to understand the concepts we use to understand our existence and our ethics. We need to figure out how our values can guide us through tough times – how we can adapt our values to new needs and crises.

The problem is when we approach these questions actually thinking they can have definitive answers – full stop, the answer is given, tell the populace.

You can’t perfect concepts as profound as “What is the divine? What is the good?” to deliver it to people as an absolute. They are imperfectible, because they’re adaptable.

So if you want to deliver answers to profound metaphysical questions as perfected dogmas, be prepared to deliver inadequate product. Because the concepts in those questions are not adequate to definitive, unchanging answers.

The moral truths of low-impact communities like Hellenic Greece won’t help us deal with, for example, the problems of our ecologically-transformative cities as moral concepts for how we run societies.

Here’s another problem with thinking profound metaphysical questions have definitive answers, which you can discover through argument. You become too caught up on the back-and-forth, refuting each other over and over again. Worst of all, you come to think this mutual refutation is getting you closer to that powerful metaphysical truth.

You find yourself asking entirely the wrong questions yourself – and definitely getting answers that are so wrong in so many ways. It’s because you’re trying to end an inquiry that functions best by never ending, by always remaining open.

I don’t just mean stop it, of course – anyone can stop a philosophical argument whenever they want. When I say end, I mean complete it with a clear, definitive, correct, universally valid answer.

Treating questions of justice, existence, the good, and others like those as if they weren’t mean to change and adapt swings you away from their purpose – adapting our ethical thinking to the new moral problems we face.

It swings you away from the world and into yourselves.

Making a History for Yourself, Research Time, 12/01/2018

So I also wanted to expand my reach into books about Gilles Deleuze, returning to some of the authors I made use of during my research for Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. But since Utopias has a more human political focus, I wanted to take the field from a different angle.

Basically, a decade ago, I started researching material that specifically applied Deleuze’s ideas to problems in environmental thinking and philosophy of science. Now, I’m looking for some more straightforwardly political applications – theories of institutions and revolutions.

When the truth lies in ruins, understand decay.
Some of the material I picked up explores the influences and roots of Deleuze’s ideas. A book of essays that I found really illuminating was called Gilles Deleuze’s Philosophical Lineage. Twenty chapters, each about 20 philosophers, artists, and scientists who’ve influenced Deleuze.

Or at least, they’ve been mentioned in barely enough detail to merit someone writing an essay about them. I’ll hit you with my thoughts on a few or more.

There are some essays in that book that are totally obvious. For instance, the one about Plato. A critique of Platonic frameworks of thinking is the centrepiece of one of Deleuze’s most notorious books, Difference and Repetition. So of course there’s going to be an essay in a book like this about Plato.

So narrowing a comparison of Plato and Deleuze’s ideas down to anything sensible is never going to be complete. But if you want completeness and straightforward neatness in your life, don’t read philosophy.

Let’s just look at some lessons.

The way we’re typically taught Plato in early philosophy education,* the highest goals of his philosophical thinking revolved around coming to know the essence of things, the essential nature of the world. We tend to be taught the dialogues that revolve around “What is this?” questions – What is justice? What is piety? What is the good? What is love?

Plato's dialogues are taught as though philosophy is all about searching
for the universally true answers to fundamental questions about the
essences of reality. Yet all the dialogues that carry out such questions
end in more profound cycles of confusion. So why do we teach
philosophy as if we're really looking for genuine universal truths?
* All too typically.

But there’s a weird little schizz here. Those dialogues revolving around “What is X?” questions always end in aporia – you never settle on any definitive answers that escape critique. The questions of “What is X?” always end on unstable answers. It’s a mystery that you understand better, but it’s still ultimately mysterious.

Here’s where you reach clear doctrines that arise from Plato’s dialogues without being destabilized – Those are dialogues revolving around questions like “How much?” “Where and when?” “Who?” “How?” “In what cases?”

Those are questions that are about real dynamisms in the world. You don’t learn anything about universal or general aspects of existence by blatantly asking “What is the universal essence of this?” Those questions lead to aporias – you understand the question and the concept a lot better, but you don’t get any definitive answers.

You understand the fundamental aspects of the universe by looking at parts of the real world, tracing common features and the principles through which differences emerge. You get to real answers with specific questions – with an empiricist attitude.

Using Plato to learn about empiricism. That’s pretty freaky. That’s how you should use the history of philosophy.