Thinking Medium

Inspired by Paul Levi Bryant’s post at Larval Subjects I want to riff a bit on some of what he’s put forward as it seems (I first wrote seams) to jibe well with my research of late with Heraclitus. I will quote at length from the last part of his post:

The mediums we use are not mere props or tools that we deploy for ends that we already possessed or intended on our own, but rather change us. For this reason, it is better to say it thinks rather than I think. This can be dimly glimpsed in the case of blogging or of comment sections on blogs. It is not that I share my thoughts, and then that others share their thoughts. To be sure, something like that is, of course, going on. But there is also a much more diffuse, distributed mind at work on a blog and across blogs. The others that speak and participate are a part of the thinking. The mind is not so much something in each of these speakers, but rather is that assemblage of participants. Without these dialogues there are many things that would never occur to me and many paths of thought I would never take.

I am taking his expression “it thinks” to refer to the same “it” that we imply when saying “it is raining.” This is not unprecedented as this is also what Heidegger refers to when discussing the profound boredom that marks Nature’s (ugly word) relationship to each of us as individuals. We have an old Coke machine next to where I work that still proudly displays the slogan “Coke Is It!” and I guess this is the same “it” that one becomes when playing tag. When you’re “it” the game is on (en jeu), we are all mutually committed within the informal rules of the game to interact with one another and we do so in an emphatic and excited manner. There’s running, shrieking—a zesty enterprise this play. Being “it” activates more than the person so tagged, it enervates us all in the mutual implication.

I’m coming from a recent bout of research on Heraclitus’ fragments that discuss psyche (ψυχή). It seems to me that the force of Heraclitus’ argument against anthropoi is that they (we?) don’t recognize that psyche is the medium in which we exist in the same way that without the medium of water fish cannot exist. The scholarship (I’m specifically building from Gábor Betegh. “On the Physical Aspect of Heraclitus’ Psychology.” Phronesis. 2007.) suggests that the physicality of psyche is that space between the horizon and the ceiling of the sky. Not air, but something permeating all our reality.

If psyche is manifest in that space between the horizon and the ceiling of the sky, then psyche is the medium in which we exist. We are reminded of David Foster Wallace’s joke about the two fish:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

We know from Homer and Hesiod that psyche is that which distinguishes a living body from a corpse—that ψυχή (psyche) is that without which we cannot exist. Ψυχή’s presence is what marks the difference between a living body (αὐτός) and a corpse. It is the site of cognitive and linguistic ability, it is that part of our person that is in contact with our daimon, and that it is psyche which enables us to both understand logos as well as create the common through νόῳ (noos) and so we have B114:

ξὺν νόῳ λέγοντας ἰσχυρὶζεσθαι χρὴ τῷ πὰντων, ὂκωσπερ νόμῳ πόλις, καὶ πολὺ ἰσχυροτέρως. τρέφονται γὰρ πάντες οἰ ἁνθρώπειοι νόμοι ὑπὸ ἑνὸς τοῦ θεἱον. κρατεῖ γὰρ τοσοῦτον ὁκόσον ἑθέλει καὶ ἑξαρκεῖ καὶ περιγίνεται.

“Men must speak with noos and base their strength on what is common to all just as does a city in its laws and much more firmly. For all human laws are nurtured under the one divine law; for it rules as far as it wishes and suffices.”

Because Heraclitus attributes to the psyche the faculty of language comprehension, it is through the careful consideration, cultivation, and examination of one’s psychethat the good life will be possible and it will go on to lend support to the conception of one’s mind-brain as the seat of the soul. We look to B107 and read, “κακοὶ μάρτυρες ἀνθρώποισιν ὀφθαλμοὶ καὶ ὦτα βαρβάρους ψυχὰς ἐχόντων | worthless witnesses to men are eyes and ears if they have barbarous souls (barbarous psychas).” I am using Kevin Robb’s translation from his excellent article “Psyche and Logos in the Fragments of Heraclitus: The Origins of the Concept of Soul” in The Monist (1986). Robb explores a number of facets of this fragment and makes a solid case for the context of this particular fragment as being less an argument about the epistemic value of particular sense organs and more an evocation of everyday life in 5th century BCE Ephesus. B107 is evoking the magoi that Persian law required be present at all temple functions as part of the Empire’s strategy for maintaining hegemony in the region. The magoi would be present as professional witnesses (such as are also commonly deployed in the agora when arguing a legal case), but they are barbaroi which meant at that time, literally, “one that does not understand Greek.” These magoi would be witnessing something they simply could not comprehend in the same manner that anthropoi do not comprehend logos without developing their focus on their psyche.

From Martha Nussbaum (“ΨΥΧΗ in Heraclitus, I.” Phronesis.1972.)

“To summarize, then, our conclusions about fr. 107: It is with ψυχή, the central and connecting life-faculty, that man may potentially understand λόγος (logos), or connected discourse. Because of the central importance of language in understanding, the central life-faculty in man is, first and foremost, a faculty of language. Sense data are referred to ψυχή, and are interpreted according to the ψυχή’s degree of linguistic competence. All mortal living creatures, one would suppose, have ψυχή; only in human beings can that ψυχή grasp λόγος.” (13)

From Shirley Darcus (“Daimon as a Force Shaping Ethos in Heraclitus.” Phoenix. 1974.) we read:

It is man’s capacity to speak ξὺν νόῳ that puts him into contact with the ξυνόν, the “common.” [….] Heraclitus’ play on the words ξὺν νόῳ (λέγοντας) and ξυνῷ becomes most meaningful: speech ξὺν νόῳ is equivalent to participation in the ξυνόν. There exists therefore a shared relationship: man—logos—Logos—theos. The Divine sets the world in order by its Logos; man by his logos can come into contact with the Divine Logos. (403)

I have to quickly qualify the Logos-theos relationship here as I am arguing against the mode of Divine Logos that today we would think of in the Abrahamic, transcendental, never changing sort of way. It seems to me that Heraclitus is expressing here that it is divine when we recognize this immanent interconnectedness.

What relational aesthetics fails to deliver is this noos. It is successful at draw us to the relational nature of our being, but there is this question of communication. We look to Kant, Schiller, and Rousseau to tease-out the Modern conception of what art is supposed to communicate but we arrive at Caillois’ most excellent diagnosis of psychasthenia. Modern man, in pursuing the logos as outside of us and not between us, now understands ethos as a disease. Ethos requires identifying the co-creative nature of our habits, these activities create our environments: we call it a habitat because it’s where our habit’s at. Heraclitus’ diagnostic tool “ἧθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαἱμων” (ethos anthropoi daimon) reminds us that our interactions in our daily affairs have the ability to transform where we are.

Heraclitus points-out that ethos can exist but without a focus on psyche, ethos remains simply automation and does not activate the cosmic chain reaction that brings us to happiness (as in being aligned with hap, a term I discussed in the previous post).  The word “happy” is an adjective formed of the Old English and Scandinavian root word hap meaning “fate.” Thus, the gift of our fate, what is happening, is pre-sent by factors beyond our control. This gift of the prevalent conditions, the facts of our being-here, is a reciprocal affair. We exchange this gift of character-formed-by-fate in the manner Heraclitus describes in his psychedaimon equation. Psyche is that medium without which we cannot exist just as fish without water. In both cases it is the medium that allows for us to develop as individuated beings in this habitat, one of the earliest meanings of ethos.


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