Self-Production: A Body of Continual Genesis, Composing, 28/03/2014

Yesterday, I went back through the chapter of my Ecophilosophy manuscript that wrapped up the project, working on some edits and developing some notes for my formal book proposal. I had planned to get the proposal finished earlier this month, but then it turned out that moving apartments took quite a lot of logistical effort. And I wrote a play.

But revisiting this project reminds me of some of the solid philosophical ideas that I developed for it, and the value of these ideas for other people to pick up. Even if it just amounts to a discussion on the blog for a while, I’m interested to work out these ideas in public, and maybe encourage a reader to think a little differently. After all, that’s what philosophy is for.

A prominent example of self-producing bodies are simple
organisms, compared to which even an amoeba is
ridiculously complicated.
One concept that was central to this project is that of the self-producing body. The minimal condition of the existence of the self is an auto-producing process, a process that literally creates and maintains itself. There is a very facile argument against there being self-producing bodies. I often find myself incredulous that I have to argue with such a view at all.

Here’s how it goes. The very idea of a body being able to produce itself is self-contradictory. If a body produced itself, then it would have already had to exist before it was produced. Therefore, a self-producing body is impossible.

Of course, anyone who actually studies even any of the basic principles of the biological science where this idea (its technical name being autopoiesis) arose, will see how ridiculous this argument is. The type of body that can produce itself isn’t like an android arm on an assembly table putting its other parts together. It’s a complex of chemical reactions that, once they get started, produce a physical boundary that stabilizes the chemical reaction that produced it in the first place. That’s the kind of ‘self-production’ I’m talking about. One of the problems with keeping argumentation to very abstract and very simple contexts is that, if you simplify your thinking enough, everything turns to straw.

I reference phenomenological philosophy in the manuscript, particularly the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for several reasons. One of those is that an environmentalist version, called ecophenomenology, conditions a person to think in terms that are more receptive than humans usually are to understanding themselves as integrated and interdependent with the processes and affects that surround them. Of course, it isn’t perfect in doing so — any phenomenological perspective is going to concentrate too heavily on the primacy of the subject to be truly and completely ecological. But its eco- version can bump you in the right direction. I think of it as a tool with which you start, but that you should leave behind. 

Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Like all my influences,
nobody's perfect.
Merleau-Ponty’s own thought, especially in his final years, I find has a lot of potential for the de-centring of the subject and subjectivity that I found in Deleuze’s thought, and that is vital to the Ecophilosophy project. But one of his more problematic concepts (along with his premature death, before he could develop these directions in detail) kept him rooted in the primacy of the subject, that of pre-reflective consciousness. The argument that there must be a pre-reflective consciousness goes something like this. 

Human consciousness is reflective. But if human consciousness were entirely reflective, there would be nothing prior to the act of reflection to do the primal reflecting. Therefore, there has to be a pre-reflective element of human consciousness, which is always hidden from our experience, because human consciousness always exists in a pre-reflective mode. 

Am I the only one who saw that this has the same form as the facile argument against auto-producing bodies? A body cannot produce itself unless something of it existed to produce anything in the first place. A consciousness cannot reflect on itself unless there were something of it there to reflect in the first place. Consciousness is actually a process more like autopoiesis than intentional, physical construction. It’s an assembly of many processes that, in their very coming together, stabilize themselves and better enable those processes to continue. 

That’s essentially my argument against having to port the concept of pre-reflective consciousness along with the other ideas in Merleau-Ponty’s thinking that I think work — what it presumes is unnecessary. In a fundamental way, consciousness and perception does not work in the particular way this argument would imply. It is far more complex.

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