Aesthetics in the 21st Century?

I posted a link to this review of Documenta 13 on Facebook and because I thought it was related to what I will be discussing at the upcoming Aesthetics in the 21st Century Conference at the University of Basel. This review got a very smart friend of mine to ask a good question, “I think aesthetics in this context doesn’t mean what I think it means? Can you give me a lay person description of what your talk will be about?”

I started writing a response to my friend and I realized that this is a pretty long comment and maybe I ought to post it on my blog since I’ve been neglecting this little corner of the Internet for a while now…. What follows below, then, is my response.

It will sound like I’m being silly, but the truth is, what is meant by the term “aesthetics” is not so settled among philosopher/theorist-types.

In part this is because the tendency in philosophy has been to point to what are often called “first questions,” i.e. when I encounter something I am not familiar with I ask, “what is that?”

Asking the question in that way leads me to a string of presuppositions about what can be said about Being (ontology) and—implicitly—this asking also establishes a relationship to what can be deemed knowable (epistemology). Opposed to that first—ontological—question (i.e. “what is it?”), when I encounter something I am not familiar with, I could ask the first question that is often used in Chinese, “how do I cook it?” Asking in this way I am privileging a pragmatic or aesthetic relationship, rather than trying to arrive at abstract kinds of knowledge about an object’s “nature” or “essence.”

Rather than privileging relationships to the world that are first filtered through a process of abstraction and conceptualization (which isn’t really something we tend to be aware of in our day-to-day actions but is tacitly supported un-mindfully because these presuppositions about the world are “just how the world is”), folks began looking to aesthetics as an activity in the mid-19th century as an activity that could provide unmediated, direct experiences of the world.

Throughout the 20th century we see the role of the artist, the “avant-garde,” become this messianic figure that delivers a new vision of how societies and individuals can relate to one another and to themselves. As the 21st century hums along there has become a lot more conversation about how limited the human mind/brain can know, how reliable it can be as a tool for solving problems, and most importantly what role the human being plays in the functioning of human habitats.

As our understanding of deep time (i.e. geological time) becomes more robust, as we develop more granular measurements of neuronal activity, as we gather better understandings of how the weather works—we are becoming more and more aware that the knowledge we’re gaining is more informative about the limitations of the human experience than about the way the world actually is.

That’s probably not too controversial of a thing to say—that human experience is kind of a poor tool for measuring most of what is out there in the world—but it’s something that tends to surprise us fairly frequently. What we are seeing is that the universe is a lot weirder than we might think.

So, my talk at this aesthetics conference is going to focus on one performance by an artist named Marina Abramovic. In that performance she holds a bowl of milk for a long time. I am going to discuss some of what I think is at play in that performance based on an interview I did with her. I’m hoping that, by discussing the performance and the interview in the way that I like to think about those elements, the audience will see opportunities for developing weirder ways of thinking about the world.


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July 6, 2012 · 9:26 pm

Developing “The Walking Dead” as Shock Therapy

U.S. Army recruitment effort from 2001–2006 used the tag line "An Army of One"

I recently posted a short (400 words is the maximum allowed) piece about The Walking Dead at In Media Res. This I then developed a little bit more last weekend at the 9th Annual North Georgia Student Philosophy Conference.

Now, I’m developing the essay more, hopefully for inclusion in Dawn Keetley‘s collection, Dead Inside: The Walking Dead and the Problem of Meaning in the New Millennium, she’s advertizing at Caligari.

So far, in the slightly longer discussion (I had only 20 minutes to talk), I asked two questions:
1) as an art work, what work does the figure of the zombie do?, and
2) what happened to Atlanta that resonates so broadly with the rest of the United States?

In my talk I briefly touched on Walter Benjamin’s reading of Freud in his essay “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” In that essay, Benjamin proposes that we who live in Modernity have to constantly face an onslaught of information over-stimulation, which he describes as shocks. According to Benjamin, these shocks threaten the individual’s subconscious and so the individual’s consciousness shields against these shocks.

What I am proposing is that TWD is a regularly-scheduled shock treatment that people are electing to undergo. While these treatments are presented under the guise of entertainment, there is a therapeutic potential within not only TWD but the zombie and slasher genre at large (this is Larry Rickels‘ position).

Romero’s Night of the Living Dead came into the world just as the Civil Rights movement became militant, only months after the assassination of MLK, Jr.—from Atlanta, by the way. It’s difficult not to read the murder of Ben, the hero of Night of the Living Dead—the first African American hero in a horror film—who is dragged-out on meat hooks, as anything other than a premediation (to use Richard Grusin’s term) of an integrated U.S. society. But racial integration and the War on Poverty aren’t the looming social threats in the U.S. psyche today.

Today the threats impinging on our collective psyches are from the logic of Preemptive Strike (I refer you to Brian Massumi’s excellent essay in Theory & Event). Or the resultant terror accompanying the world’s shift away from the Cold War threat of macro, State-level, suicide (Mutually-Assured Destruction) to the micro: the suicide bomber and the improvised explosive devise, the gunmen shooting students, the Army of One.

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Neuroverdetermination Loves “Addiction”

The quest to understand the nature of the relationship between technology and volition is, essentially, the story of Modernity.

There’s a nice post over at NPR’s 13.7 by Alva Noë that is fundamentally a book review of Marc Lewis’ Memoirs of An Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs. I’ve previously made a strong claim, that addiction doesn’t exist. I’m not denying that chemical dependence doesn’t occur. I’m not denying that problematic usage, or substance abuse doesn’t occur. But what do we mean when we use the term addiction? Ultimately the concept becomes untenable because at it’s core addiction is the pathology of one’s Will, which is a metaphysical concept and not something that exists physically in or on one’s person. The concept of addiction is an historical one (thanks mid-19th century!) and has consistently been revised in light of the socio-historical conditions in which it is cited when modes of power relations seek to adjust the relationships between people and technologies.

Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer. Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

Part of my problem has to do with how we conceptualize some key terms; without an adequate operational definition, we’re not likely to advance in our understanding of the phenomena we’re trying to address. Terms like [chemical] dependence and addiction are often interwoven into conversations and popular media accounts and it’s unfortunate because, as I’ve stated previously, if [chemical] dependence is what is intended whenever the literature talks about addiction, then we’d have probably 1/10th population being discussed. Some of this has to do with the difficulty in gaining access to truly [chemically] dependent folks: most social scientists/social workers are not going to pull a Bourgois—you should check that link—and it’s exceedingly rare to encounter neuroscientists such as Lewis that have actually experienced the effects of the technologies of abuse that they study.

Noë’s article is a solid read if you want to get a sense of what neuroscientific reductionism looks like:

The world itself is nothing but a source of activation of the brain’s chemical keyboard. So the addict—in a way—has the right idea: to hell with the world, I’ll turn my gaze inward and use drugs or other behaviors to play the keyboard of my brain myself! In a weird way, the expert’s conception of what it is to be a human being—that each of us is a system of neurons and associated molecules—is the addict’s apologia.

Just a few lines down I find this interesting commentary:

For the addict, everything becomes a means to an end, and nothing can be an end in itself. Other people, situations, work, family—these become mere opportunities for self-regarding adventure.

Far from being the quality of human interaction by which I would chiefly characterize those in the throes of “addiction” I instead would have to mark this kind of behavior as the hallmark of capitalism. Self-regarding adventure is what global high-volume trading in global finance ultimately boils down to.

So maybe Noë just doesn’t hang with many addicts, that’s fine. The bigger point being made is that we are not simply our brains. I’m guessing that Noë would agree with me (maybe in spirit) when I suggest that what we mean by “addiction” is a pathological state of affect.

Noë characterizes the addict in opposition to “us”

We are not all like the addict. We are at home in the world and open to it. We learn and grow, and love and connect, to people and to projects and values.

It's not obvious how to use this apparatus

There are two deeply flawed assumptions about “addicts” and “us” in these statements. To become an “addict” as I’ve said before, one has to learn and grow and love and connect to people and to values. You are not born with an innate understanding of how to manufacture methamphetamine, obviously, but you’re also not innately going to know how to procure meth either. You’re also not born with the knowledge of how to consume meth.

Maybe meth is an extreme example because it’s a designer drug. Even with marijuana, someone has to show you how to use a gravity bong:

“Addiction” requires an apprenticeship; you have to be brought along by more experienced users of the technologies of abuse. This is why I say that there is a double tragedy in addiction: the first tragedy is to find oneself in the circumstances that would compel one to use these technologies of abuse (many that would be “addicted” could be said to have initiated their use/abuse out of something like a desire to “self-medicate”); the second tragedy being that the persistent use of these problematizing technologies tends to drive away most of those relationships which were so rewarding at first in the apprenticeship phase.

Noë states that “we” are at home in the world and open to it; but if that is the case, why do we say that “the addict” that is on the mend is “recovering.” What is being covered-over in this process? Being open to the world is the mark of Deleuze and Guattari’s schizophrenic. It is precisely our lack of direct access to the world (and out need to maintain a screen between us and the Real) that marks the human condition for psychoanalysis. What “the addict” learns to cover-over in recovery is that fundamentally “who we are” is actually a composition performed in relationships and not an individual with a metaphysical will that bends nature to it. This is something I’m getting at when I talk about Heidegger’s profound boredom. Rather than being open to the world, it is the generally the case that we foreclose the world through mediation.

By this I don’t mean that there is a more real world in which we could be participating, this world is plenty real enough. Rather, it seems the case that we mask our interdependence with the world and insist that the controlled (mediated) worlds that we have instituted are disclosing the limits of the understandable world. I’d like to think that people looked to LSD and The Doors of Perception because they were hoping to connect with a world that they were born foreclosed from and so were seeking access again to another way of being in the world.

Huike Thinking. Shi Ke (Song Dynasty, 10th c.)

The above image is here to illustrate my point. Dazu Huike was the student of Bodhidharma, the patriarch of Chan Buddhism (what is called Zen in Japan). According to legend it took Bodhidharma 9 years of meditating/staring at a cave wall until he saw himself in that wall. During that time Huike stood outside the cave for days hoping that Bodhidharma would accept him as a student. Bodhidharma refused. Huike cut-off his left arm to show his commitment and was accepted by Bodhidharma. Suddenly Huike realized what he had done and screamed. As Ferguson (2000) reports it:

Huike said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.” Huike said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.” “There,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have pacified your mind.”

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Business as Usual

Following-up with yesterday’s post about re-conceptualizing addiction, I want to thank Sławek Królak for sharing this article from the Huffington Post by Tricia Fox, “Amy Winehouse’s Untimely Death Is a Wake Up Call for Small Business Owners.”

I’ll trust that the commentariat will do a bang-up job stating how callow, unkind, and in what poor taste Fox’s treatment of someone’s death this is.

Rather, I’d like to suggest that Fox’s treatment illustrates Jacques Rancière’s point about the aesthetic order. If Foucault(+Deleuze) is correct that we are in the society of control and no longer the society of discipline then we should expect to see modes of self-policing. Rancière points out, using his old punching bag Althusser, that the police are not the agents of the law interpellating the subject of political action by stating, “Hey! You!” This is the society of discipline’s way of doing things, but it’s untenable to maintain for the simplest reason being that there’d need to be one cop for every person to ensure compliance. So inefficient. “[U]nless one confuses it with religious subjectification,” (“Ten Theses on Politics,” Theory & Event, 22) Rancière qualifies his critique of Althusser in this way and so we understand, perhaps, some of Agamben’s pursuit of the means by which we could profane apparatuses.

In “What Is an Apparatus?” Agamben states that law and religion have always been closely connected and that in the Ancient Roman law we might find a means of emancipating that which is captured by apparatuses (which I claim are in any medium which communicates strategic response). From the Ancient Roman laws Agamben finds utility in the process of profanation. Agamben quotes Trebatius in defining profanation as, “that which was sacred or religious, but was then restored to use and property of human beings.” (18) Agamben then defines religion in light of Trebatius as, “that which removes from common use.” (18)

But Rancière’s police, perhaps unlike Agamben’s actors in uficium, aren’t office holders executing their liturgia. Rancière instead offers a means by which we each are complicit in our own policing and shows a mechanism whereby members of any community will maintain the status quo.

The police says that there is nothing to see on a road, that there is nothing to do but move along. It asserts that the space of circulating is nothing other than the space of circulation. Politics, in contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving-along’ into a space for the appearance of a subject [….] It is the established litigation of the perceptible, on the nemeïn [distribution] that founds any communal nomos [customary laws]. (22)

A side note here to point out that there is an interesting chain of significations in nomos: νέμω (nemō) “I distribute,” name (νόμε nóme), sing out (νόμος  nómos a type of song), good at naming (ὀνομαστικός onomastikos), and ὄνομα (ónoma) means “fame” and is cognate with “making a name for oneself” .

Rancière points out that Aristotle differentiated human animals from all other animals because humans could communicate logos (something he’s indebted to Heraclitus about). Unlike humans whose capacity for aisthesis enables them to know whether their community is just or unjust, all other animals simply expressed a state of being through phone: they are hungry, they are scared, etc. Aristotle, again, following Heraclitus in 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).” Whereas Heraclitus is here invoking the Persian Magoi that bore witness to the Greek temple activities, Aristotle here is establishing the naturalness of slavery. To quote Rancière again,

If there is someone you do not wish to recognize as a political being, you begin by not seeing them as the bearers of politicalness, by not understanding what they say, by not hearing that it is an utterance coming out of their mouths. And the same goes for the opposition so readily invoked between the obscurity of domestic and private life, and the radiant luminosity of the public life of equals. In order to refuse the title of political subjects to a category—workers, women, etc…—it has traditionally been sufficient to assert that they belong to a ‘domestic’ space, to a space separated from public life; one from which only groans or cries expressing suffering, hunger, or anger could emerge, but not actual speeches demonstrating a shared aisthesis. (23)

With Tricia Fox’s article discussing the object lesson of Amy Winehouse’s death aren’t we seeing this policing action at work? A tacit statement that pop stars dying from addictions is actually business as usual? Rather than an opportunity for us to revisit the networks that are involved in maintaining someone’s addictions, by refusing to hear the widely-distributed groans of a society choaked by false choices.

Here Agamben gives me hope,

The apparatus that activates and regulates separation is sacrifice. Through a series of minute rituals that vary from culture to culture (which Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss have patiently inventoried), sacrifice always sanctions the passage of something from the profane to the sacred, from the human sphere to the divine. But what has been ritually separated can also be restored to the pro­fane sphere. Profanation is the counter-apparatus that restores to common use what sacrifice had separated and divided. (18-9)

Where Tricia Fox offers Winehouse as a sacrifice and thereby works to remove the lessons of young deaths, we have the opportunity to counter this business as usual attitude that would insist there is nothing to see here. We can insist that death be recognized for what it is. All of us will die, that’s fine and important. Living is not ignoring that we will die—too many of us leave before the rest of us are ready to see you go. Living is a mode of wit(h)ness.

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Addiction as Inappropriation

Given the attention to the passing of Amy Winehouse I’d like to take this opportunity to briefly discuss some contours of this phenomenon that we all seem to be saying killed her. “Addiction” doesn’t exist, but we all know what we mean by the term. Ask a neuroscientist, or a psychiatrist, etc. and you will be told that addictions cannot be diagnosed, only dependence and qualified degrees of use. Nonetheless the top journal in the field is still called “Addiction,” NIDA’s website still carries a section called, confusingly, “addiction science.” What is this ghostly thing?

If we were to take the causal mechanism of addiction (a dependence on a substance without which the organism would die), we would not have an epidemic of addiction. If “dependence” were the criteria for measuring addiction the literature would probably be 1/10th the size it is. Dependence on a substance of abuse is rare. Instead of dependence, what we encounter fairly regularly is a relationship with a technology that has become inappropriate.

“Inappropriate,” as the word usually gets used, probably doesn’t sound strong enough to intimate the unmitigated disaster that is the process of addiction. But it’s a good word to use because it gets us thinking beyond the simple binary of good/bad and it also helps us to, I hope, start thinking beyond the limitations of volition and choice. Volition, metaphysically, ends with a discrete individual, the person whose will is to be asserted (and for many people in the U.S. a will is somehow tied to some concept of a part of the individual that never dies). This concept of will power to say “no” to substances of abuse is myopic and doesn’t prepare people for the disaster of addiction when it strikes. Strengthening someone’s will power as a defense against addiction is like reinforcing your umbrella for when the earthquake comes.

Our concept of addiction is impotent in the face of the phenomenon that affects us. This is because addiction seeks to unite a metaphysical concept (will) with pharmacology, this is impossible and I will bet you dollars to doughnuts will always be impossible as we have will and pharmacology understood today and since the advent of Modernity (which is when addiction was born).

“Inappropriate” carries two significant characteristics that dependence does not: 1) what is appropriate is always determined in a context and dynamic, 2) we appropriate what is at hand. Appropriation is a process of gathering what is useful from what came before us as we face the task that is before us, and if we are appropriate in our appropriation those that will come after us will have a model for living that can be trusted to be useful for their problems.

Addiction is not located only in an individual. To become an “addict” requires an apprenticeship: you are not born with an innate knowledge of how to produce, acquire, or ingest the technologies that one becomes addicted to (for example methamphetamine). To produce an addict there has to be a community and this is the double tragedy of addiction: without those networks—which do provide meaning-full relationships within that context—the person that becomes masterful at using that technology would not come into being, but the phenomenon we call addiction refers to an interaction with a technology that eats away all those relationships that the addicted user needs in order to sustain. The tragedy of addiction is an ironic tragedy: the audience knows where this is all heading, just look to Russell Brand’s wording.

Modernity is defined by its relationship to technologies, as is addiction. We say that when someone is no longer in the process of  (ab/mis)using the technologies of abuse that that person is “in recovery.” What is it that is being covered-over in recovery? The Heideggerian in me wants to say that recovery is the recovering-over of the world with the technological worldview.

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Homo generator vs. homo fabricator

Here’s an interesting read about female dolphins using sponges to hunt for bottom-dwelling fish. As an undergraduate studying Anthropology, only five years ago, I was being taught by people that still claimed that what makes humans so special is tool use (homo fabricators).

Rather than differentiating humans from other animals on the basis of tool use, I think Agamben is right to state that humans differ from animals in our relationship to images. While animals are interested in images up to the point where they realize the image is fake, humans are interested in images only when images are known to be artificial (“Difference and Repetition: On the Films of Guy Debord.” In Guy Debord and the Situationist International, edited by Tom McDonough. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

This is in-line with what Wolfgang Schirmacher states about what he calls homo generator. What marks humans as human is its capacity to generate life techniques. Against homo sapiens Schirmacher theorizes homo generator, the human being is that animal which is artificial by nature [“Indirect Communication and Aesthetic Ethics: An Ironic Reading of Kierkegaard.” Poeisis 9 (2007)]. While an animal may be interested with a representation of another animal, once the animal comes to understand that they are engaged with only a replica, they lose interest in that object; humans are just the opposite. In light of the eventual cloning of humans, the widespread social phenomenon of being completely immersed in entertainment technologies, and the rise of synthetic lifeforms, Schirmacher states that the task before humanity is,

to reformulate what it means to be human: mortality as well as natality are called into question again. With openness as our existential taste and co-evolutionary power as our design, Homo generator favors eternal revisions and safeguards the freedom of creation. What we clone is exactly this attitude of open generating and never a mere copy of anything (we leave that to primitive machines) [“Cloning Humans with Media: Impermanence and Imperceptible Perfection.” Poeisis, no. 2 (2000)].

The beings called human do play, they do use tools, and they possess intelligence, but it is the human’s capacity to create the worlds they experience that imbues them with a responsibility to account for the phenomena that we encounter and create. This is not a license to domination of all other living beings, but instead Schirmacher issues it as a challenge. Autopoieisis encompasses the world and it is only in the world-building that is humanity’s sine qua non that concepts of autonomy or self can be found (“On the Inability to Recognize the Human Flaw.” In Wolfgang Schirmacher. Just Living. Philosophy in Artificial Life. Atropos Press. New York).

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“Interventions” Symposium at the Autonomous School in Zürich

from "The Palmer Method of Business Writing" A.N. Palmer (1935)

I will be presenting some of my research at the end of July during the “Interventions” symposium being organized by Christian Hänggi and hosted by the Autonomous School in Zürich.

You can get the flyer here (.pdf).

Jamie Allen and I will also discuss the  newest issue of continent. and with Nico Jenkins we will host a release party in Saas-Fee with our EGS colleagues.

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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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notes to agata bielik-robson’s “Bad Timing: The Subject as a Work of Time”

The article discusses the human condition vs. human nature. The former is preferred to the latter because human nature occludes the mechanisms by which one develops character. Character is described as a defensive strategy against the vicissitudes of fate which are foundational to defining the human condition.

The world is seen as hostile and trauma-inducing and so we develop our character as a means of transforming these wounds into sources of strength. The world is characterized as being in a reciprocal exchange with people such that we give the world the “rare gift of meaning” without which it would be “nothing but a pure flux of forces and events.” (88) The world is nothing without the anthropomorphic meaning imposed upon it through the human being’s traumatic metabolic process.

In discussing Heidegger’s concept of Ereignis the author laments that the etymological equivalent is missing in English, stating that the equivalent only holds in “Germanic and Slavonic languages which register the link between ‘giving’ and ‘happening.'” (81) The author then points us to the Polish verb przydażyč “which signifies an event, suggests that whatever happens is automatically a gift and, similarly, the German es gibt or  das Schicksal, which represent fate as that which is ‘sent’ or ‘given.'” (81) But here the author misses the two crucial words which in English would do exactly the work being asked of it. These two words, of course, being “present” and “happening.”

We call, in English, what is currently happening “the present” which is the same term for a gift that is given. The word “happening” 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 psyche-daimon 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.

Quoting Simone Weil on The Illiad we begin to get this integrity bias in a strong way. Without questioning Weil’s wording the author tacitly accepts that Homer, et al. thought that “Force is what makes everybody who surrenders to it a thing. When it overwhelms a man completely, it makes him a thing in the most literal sense, for it changes him into a dead body.” Weil seems to be slightly mistaken here in so far that the Homeric world, and likely through to Plato’s time, was characterized by exactly this lack of volition. The gods made Achilles a great warrior, all the persons discussed in the Illiad and the Odyssey are marked by a lack of will, being merely play things for the gods. This was Heraclitus’ primary contention with the people of his world (anthropoi) and seems to have spent his life expounding upon the need for people to learn to understand the depth of meaning (logos) present and possible in their speaking and thinking (psyche). Further problematic for Weil (and unfortunately not considered by the author) is that to be dead in Homeric telling was to be in a state without psyche and then on to the Underworld as a shade. But what Weil really fails in doing is to understand, literally, what it means to be a thing.

By maintaining the psychoanalytically-informed position that subjectivity is the result of a metabolizing of trauma the author implicitly privileges a notion that the human being possesses an innate and should-be inviolate quality/essence which is the psyche. When the psyche is impinged upon there is a traumatic wounding. This is uncontroversial for those that follow psychoanalytic thought, but I am not one of those folks (not that I am wholly against psychoanalysis mind you). I do disagree in the main with the idea that we are all born with an innate individuating quality other than our obvious presence as “not-that-over-there.” The author describes the traumatic metabolism process as being uncomfortably-close with thingness (a term not explicitly defined) as such, “a man can become a subject only if he first becomes a thing, that is, an object of the blind powers of contingency.” Both Weil and the author fail to apprehend the simple profundity of their terms: a “thing” (þing) originally meant in English a gathering place and this meaning continues to find life in Scandinavia where the parliamentary bodies still meet in the Thing.

The word still survives in English today as “husting” probably derived from “house thing” the place where the pavilion erected by the King in a courtyard where his courtiers could meet (as opposed to the folkmoot which was an assembly of everyone else that was not a follower of the monarch). Husting (in American English it’s equivalent is the stump as in “stump speech” the place on which a candidate for public office gives their position before an audience) has developed in a similar manner to the term “republic” which comes from res publica which is literally a public thing. Following this discussion of a thing as an assembling we can understand subjectivity as a process of incorporation in the face of the unpredictable arisings of the conditions prevalent in our times.

I disagree with the author’s vision of character development as “made in haste on the basis of few, usually unforgettably strong, fragmentary experiences.” It seems to me quite the opposite case is true: that our character is developed in mundane, pedestrian fashion and often without intention. Character in this manner is very much like ethos, it is our habitual ways of being in the world. Our habitat is where our habit’s at. Ethos in this sense is our habitual locus of being, which begins to sound very similar to describing þing-ness.

To remain with the character as defensive strategy, whose aim is “to create enough stability for the psyche to stay alive in the world of incessant flux” is too lame a reading. Thinking of the psyche as too hastily built and poorly-prepared (in passim) presupposes that the psyche is internal ans ought to be inviolate. It disregards interrelatedness. If we accept interrelatedness then the threat is not to our inviolate self but that we will unhinge the reciprocity of the social medium. The author states, “Character is never a winning strategy: it is nothing more than just a defence.” But in Heraclitus we get a very different sense of psychic action, where one’s character (ethos) is a diagnostic tool for one’s psyche and the means by which we understand our fate (daimon).

Heraclitus’ call to careful attention paid to one’s interactions with the world and one’s habitual modes of operating in the world makes sense in that milieu. The Ancient Greek notion of freedom couldn’t be understood without freedom being exercised in the agora amongst one’s peers. The idea of an independent autonomous freedom as being implied in the author’s article was simply unknowable. Heraclitus is reminding us that we are only able to develop psyche and thus know daimon through our ethos, our habituating in our habitats with others. This is in sharp contrast to the author’s suspicion that were the psyche left alone, “undisturbed by the world, it would never form itself into any kind of organized ‘psychical reality.'” (85)

The author holds that fate is a “strange” gift:

unwanted, imposed, forced upon the subject which has to defend itself against its overwhelming influence. Before it is understood as a gift, it is first perceived as a sheer force; the self organizes itself defensively as character and does everything to repress the sense of deep ontological dependence which haunts its badly timed relation with the world from the very beginning. (86)

Fate as a gift is somewhat problematic in this formation though because we don’t know that it is fate we are dealing with until after the fact. This “bad timing” in comprehending one’s position in the world of larger happenings is in this manner the same problem facing revolutionaries, as Arendt “On Revolution” points out: revolutionaries must give over to History to know whether or not they are villains or protagonists. We only know our fate as spectators, not as agents.

We are told that meaning is belated understanding that gives sense to reality and has a therapeutic effect (87). But what about appropriating and apprehending? These in-the-thin-of-it, to use Massumi’s phrase, decisions that constitute “who we are”—that form the basis of our relationships with the identity-forming relations we have with neighbors, colleagues, friends, students, parents, and lovers—are they too hastily shaped?

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Thinking with economimesis and dissensus

In my previous post I discussed Rancière’s essay “Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?” and I wondered if a dissensual relationship is an economic relationship in that it seems to describe the relationship shared between the employer and employee, a yoking together of mutual dependence and inherent conflict.

From this I launched into an awkward etymological investigation and teasing-out of the term oikonomia.

But now I’ve been reading some more and come across two more interesting citations for thinking through dissensus and relational aesthetics:

  1. Derrida’s essay “Economimesis
  2. J.R. Lucas’ brief investigation of the term ισονομια (which eventually comes into English in circa 16th century, via Bolognese legal scholars as “isonomy.”

I continue to think that it is important to do this investigation on νόμος with relational aesthetics because as a guiding idea for trying to understand artworks from a particular group in a particular time period is too limiting for the obligations that living in the world has us all be complicit with.

So what kind of νόμος (nomos) are we dealing with in the economics relationship of dissensus? It is clearly not one of equals in so far as being equally represented. Rancière’s dissensual actions are those that make visible what has been occluded. Rather than Althusser’s police man that interpellates us with his call, “Hey you!” Rancière argues that the police are telling us to “Move along, nothing to see here…” (a distinction I came across in Davide Panagia’s “The Improper Event: On Jacque Rancière’s Mannerism”).

Lucas puts forward an economic hypothesis for ισονομία (isonomia) suggesting that during the colonial phase of Ancient Greece it would have been necessary to codify how lands were going to be divvied-up. Prior to the colonial phase, local customs would have been observed in local areas (this distinction is made by Heraclitus in 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.”

During the Greek colonization these mores could not be reliably enacted among a heterogeneous group of colonials as they would, potentially, be from different villages and cities.

We should note that Heraclitus in the above referenced is also setting up the equation that it is through a man’s ability to speak reasonably that he is able to establish a common good (see “Daimon as a Force Shaping Ethos in Heraclitus” Shirley Darcus 1974). I mention this because John Dewey is perhaps drawing on Heraclitus when he states that, “There is more than a verbal tie between the words common, community, and communication. Men live in a community in virtue of the things they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common.”

From Thucydides we read Athenagoras of Syracuse debating with Hermocrates that the decision to prepare for war with Athens is trickery and not to be trusted by the oligarchy or the hubris of the young. It’s an interesting passage as we think about isonomia because it is employed in a manner that suggests that those who have land should also have the voice to speak.

ἀλλὰ δὴ μὴ μετὰ πολλῶν ἰσονομεῖσθαι; καὶ πῶς δίκαιον τοὺς αὐτοὺς μὴ τῶν αὐτῶν ἀξιοῦσθαι;
But how can it be right that citizens of the same state should be held unworthy of the same privileges? (6.38.5)
βουλεῦσαι δ᾽ ἂν βέλτιστα τοὺς ξυνετούς, κρῖναι δ᾽ ἂν ἀκούσαντας ἄριστα τοὺς πολλούς, καὶ ταῦτα ὁμοίως καὶ κατὰ μέρη καὶ ξύμπαντα ἐν δημοκρατίᾳ ἰσομοιρεῖν
none can hear and decide so well as the many; and that all these talents, severally and collectively, have their just place in a democracy. (6.39.1)

Isonomia as equal rights hinges on the understanding that νόμος (mores, customs) cannot do the heavy lifting that can be done with φύσει (laws). The equality possible with isonomia is always contextualized at the local and so does not satisfy the requirements of φύσει since isonomy would always be context specific. If it’s true, as Hannah Arendt posits in “On Revolution” that the Ancient Greeks understood freedom as only possible when in the company of one’s peers, then should we understand isonomia as line drawing? Although we might hear in the term isonomia something like equal rights, what we instead have here is the distinction being made between whose voices are equally allowed to be heard (isegoria) in the agora and those who will have to endure the decisions of these superiors.

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