Peter Elbow’s Blogging Advice From Before There Were Blogs

I’ve been reading Peter Elbow’s book Writing With Power in an attempt to fix my attitude towards writing, which has become very neurotic during the pandemic for a number of reasons that I’m currently trying to sort out.

In the introduction to the section on revising writing, Elbow says this:

Learn when not to revise. It’s because I take revising so seriously that I say this. […] Make sure, then, that you devote enough of your time to rough exploratory writing you don’t revise, so you are sure to produce some writing that really pleases you. […] Of course anything must be revised if you really want it to work for an audience, so what I am really saying here is to make sure you do other kinds of writing. Write for yourself: use freewriting, explore a train of thought, figure out a decision, write yourself out of a depression. You can even dash off pieces for certain audiences on certain occasions when you don’t care how they react. You aren’t giving them a finished product, you are just letting them look around in your messy studio at some of your work in progress. You’ll discover you can produce all these kinds of unrevised writing almost as quickly as you have ideas. You will end up writing lots because it’s not such a big production

This reads like blogging advice avant la lettre. At least, to a certain class of blogs. There are obviously blogs that do place audience first. Frustratingly, if you look up “how to blog” videos and articles online, and weed out the ones on how to literally just set up a blog, the vast majority of what you’ll find assumes you’re blogging to either make money or grow a business, and thus starts with advice on how to find a “niche” and write for an audience. There is relatively little advice on how to use a blog in other ways, in a more informal way like a public work journal. So it’s somewhat surprising to find Peter Elbow giving advice that can be directly applied to blogging. Though of course, blogging’s “certain occasion” is almost any occasion since you can post whenever you want. And the “certain audience” is whoever decides to read.

What Elbow is advocating for here seems like a more restricted version of what’s gotten called “working with the garage door up” (as far as I know, it was popularized by Andy Matuschak who developed it from Robin Sloan. It seems to be the same message that Austin Kleon pushed in Show Your Work!). I’m not sure what Elbow would think about the frequency of sharing advocated by the WWTGDU approach. He has a blog but it doesn’t look like he posts to it. Nor is it really a blog: there’s no archive, comments section, or date stamp. It’s just a single page on his website he titled “blog.” While you can have a blog without a comments section, I think that the log part of blog is a necessary competent. So it seems that while Elbow can see value in showing your work, it hasn’t led him to embrace blogging as much as others have.

Maybe I gravitated towards this quote because it’s emblematic of something I’ve been trying to work through with my writing practice. One of the things I like about Peter Elbow’s books, especially Writing Without Teachers and Writing With Power is that the effect of his approach is making writing cheap. By this I mean developing an attitude that the production of words on a page is easy, that you can write and throw away while being sure that “there’s always more where that came from.” I forget if Elbow himself uses the phrase “writing is cheap” to describe this, but it’s how I like to (want to) think about it. I’ve had this hang up before and posted about it. It still seems to me that I need three categories of writing:

  1. Throw-away notebook writing
  2. Polished, finished writing
  3. Publicized, semi-polished, writings in progress

The challenge is a balancing act. If too much of (1) is pushed into (3) then creativity would seem to suffer. Austin Kleon posted about this recently. Working with the garage door up, showing your work, giving people a look around in your messy studio should not be tantamount to working under surveillance. Kleon doesn’t give much concrete advice beyond noting that creativity suffers when you have to judge the pen stroke while making it, and saying that we should “disconnect” from the feeling that we’re being surveilled for long enough to create something (as if it’s that easy). The crucial difference, to me, is control. When you’re being surveilled you don’t control what the other sees. When you’re sharing your work in progress, you get to choose what to post and what not to post. And, importantly, to have a category of writing that you don’t intend to share, that is, category (1). Indeed, one of Peter Elbow’s main points is that we need to separate the creative mode of thinking from the evaluative mode of thinking: this is why he champions freewriting as writing without self-judgment.

The other problem is when the standards of (3) raise too close to the standards of (2). Then things don’t get shared because they don’t seem polished enough. It’s this problem that seems to be affecting me the most. Nothing I produce seems polished enough to post. But maybe the best way of thinking about the categories of writing is this: (1) is for working through or working out ideas before I have a coherent understanding of them, (2) is for considered works of writing, and (3) is for sharing ideas or things that are at least coherent and comprehensible without necessarily being polished or considered or even endorsed by me. This post is a good example: when I started it I thought I’d just be sharing that Elbow quote and making a few lines of commentary. But I’ve now launched myself into some navel gazing reflections on my own writing process. These, of course, aren’t precise rules. And perhaps what I need to do is actually write and post stuff other than self-reflective hand-wringing about what sort of writing I should post.

This will keep going on if I don’t cut myself off soon, so I’ll do that here. It’s getting to be mid morning and I need to read some Hegel (of all people).

Horizons and Power to Act

We’re over one year into the pandemic and I only posted to this blog once in that time. But I’ve still been feeling an urge to write, to work things out, even though I don’t feel like I have the capacity to do that. All the writing I’ve attempted on a serious, long-term project has come out as unstructured word-salad whose preoccupations seem to change from one day to the next. It feels like I’ve just been treading water. So I’m writing this blog post, which will be very self-indulgent, to try to think about what the hell has been going on.

My COVID situation has been, admittedly, not bad. I’ve been working from home, in a mostly empty house, in a city where I don’t have much of a network yet. I’ve been able to limit, likely more than most, my risk of exposure to the virus. Yet I feel stupider than I did over a year ago, even though I’ve passed the academic checkpoints I’ve needed to in my degree. The predominant feeling of COVID isolation has been horizonlessness. I noticed this early. A few months into the pandemic I commented on a post in the grad philosophy Facebook group, half-jokingly, that I finally understood why Spinoza defined sadness as a decrease in capacity to act.

The notion of a horizon is one I’ve encountered predominantly in phenomenology, mostly in Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It’s a word many phenomenologists use without defining or characterizing, maybe because they think it’s meaning is obvious. And it’s true the definition isn’t hard to grasp. Like the literal horizon, a phenomenological horizon is something within perception that suggests that there is more to see. For Merleau-Ponty, when we see the edge of an object we don’t just see the limit to which that object extends in our perception (like the black lines of a cartoon character) but, in addition, we see that there is more to see, that the object has a side turned away from us. Merleau-Ponty’s more controversial claim is that this is not a cognitive or rational inference that we make: i.e. In my past experience, objects that have edges tend to have back-sides that I could potentially see, X has an edge, thus X has a back-side that I could potentially see. Instead, Merleau-Ponty claims that horizons are a feature of the structure of perception itself. I see immediately that there is more to see.

The concept of a horizon occasionally gets extended to describe all cases where we intuitively sense there is something more. This is more like what I mean when I say the isolation from COVID lockdowns produces a feeling of horizonlessness, or, more accurately, a great shrinking of horizons. It’s not that I literally see fewer horizons (though this is perhaps also true, since I’m leaving my house less), but that there are now fewer promises of something more.

I’ve been equivocating here. I’ve talked about Spinoza’s view of sadness as a reduction in capacity to act and Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the presence or absence of horizons as if they were the same thing. A feature of Merleau-Ponty’s account of horizons is that they’re immediate to perception; they’re not conceptually or rationally mediated. Just as I don’t deduce or induce that the object in front of me is red (its redness is, as is sometimes said, given to me), I don’t make a conceptual inference that the object in front of me has horizons. But is that still true when we start talking about the bodily world of capacities to act?

An obvious naysayer here would be someone like the Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. You may feel trapped, but if you evaluate your beliefs rationally then you’ll inevitably identify possible opportunities that you’ve missed. Spinoza may advocate for this, or he may not, I’m not sure. But it seems doubtful that he’d think you can, in all cases, reason yourself into increased capacities to act. Sometimes the cause is bodily, sometimes the cause is environmental. In that case, what is called for is not a change in belief, but a change in action and/or a change in environment. The latter two are not necessarily rational evaluations (though they may lead to them). But what is common to both Spinoza and the Cognitive Behavioural Therapist is that these non-perceptual horizons of potential change, a promise of something more, are not simply given to a standardized bodily or mental apparatus, but depend on a body’s capacity to act: the greater the capacity, the more we encounter obstacles as horizons rather than dead ends.

The things we can change are, in order of easiest to hardest: environment, actions, beliefs. This is somewhat of the motivation for my return to blogging. It is, in some ways, like changing both environment and action. Entering back into the blog “environment” and altering my writing activity so it’s directed towards some sort of publication. What’s motivated this move back to blogging, as well, was an unanticipated invasion of something from “outside” that has forced me to engage directly with the medical system (not COVID, but a less serious medical condition, more of a nuisance, that needs prompt treatment and a few follow-ups). It’s annoying that that is what triggered the latest change for me, but it produced a desired effect. I had to take responsibility for my body, contact others to make plans, and now follow through on those plans to accomplish a goal. It was like a forced stretching of horizons, reminding me that I am actually capable of acting to achieve some future goal not related to my immediate enjoyment (as much of the lockdown isolation has reduced me to).

The other motivation for a return to blogging has been diving into Xenogothic’s archives again, searching for his own writing on writing and blogging. I’ve always found Xeno’s commitment to openness and vulnerability admirable, even his openness about his anxieties about being so open. While I don’t think I’m able to go as deep as he does, I found (re)reading his post on “The ‘Value’ of Openness” invigorating, particularly the discussion of writing about what you’re working on:

And when I hear other people say they’d like to join that community but don’t know how or think they’ve not got the chops or whatever, I say bullshit. The best thing about blogging for me, and the best way to blog is: “show your working.”

“Showing your working” is exactly how I used to describe my old photography blogs. I’m all for big, somewhat secretive and long-term projects, but I think there’s a great benefit and excitement that comes from showing your working online, quite literally. And I really don’t mean this in the Instagram sense of showing that you’re busy. I mean showing your trajectory, your method, in all of its unruliness. I think of it a bit like a maths quiz, where just writing the right answer in the box isn’t really the point — half the marks are for showing your method in the margins and showing that it’s sound.

I see the same value in Xeno’s practice of photography and of cataloguing Twitter conversations. Because they all exhibit a strong documentary impulse that I think is freeing. (Though I also know he has, in a post that I can’t seem to find, criticized the reduction of photography to photo-journalism; acting as if photography only has aesthetic value when it’s documenting world-historical events). I think this documentary impulse is freeing particularly in an academic environment, thought perhaps also with writing in general. Within academia, specifically the humanities, there is a huge emphasis placed on insightful analysis, evaluation, or critique. It sometimes feels like simply documenting is worthless; straight exegesis is an exercise for undergrads. Or else one is sensible enough to realize that all documenting is already an act of interpretation and evaluation, and so before documenting we should reflect on the interpretive frame we bring to bear on our “object.” In either case there’s a resistance to even attempting to neutrally describe what is (physically or mentally) in front of you. In order to do any critical or evaluative work you need some handle on what it is you’re critiquing or evaluating. Unless, of course, you’re Hegel. But the corollary is that Hegel had to walk a path of falsehood and despair before arriving at his goal.

I think this impulse to skip the step of documenting is where a lot of my blockages have been coming from. In the past I’ve used a return to straight documenting to combat writer’s block. Early on this took the form of writing out, in as neutral language as I could, scenes from the graduate department. In class, in the hall, in the lounge. The attempt to neutrally report people’s actions and utterances produced unintentionally funny writing. So they weren’t neutral descriptions at all, but revealed a natural tendency of mine to find humour in banal moments; a tendency that I often end up repressing. So while I do think that neutral description without a simultaneous evaluation is (probably) impossible, what I don’t agree with is that we need to get our personal interpretive values critiqued and sorted out prior to any attempt to document. To do so is either very hard or even impossible; it either puts off the writing process for too long or else never unearths what would get unearthed by just ploughing ahead with writing. This is not to say that our interpretive values should never change or themselves be evaluated, but that this change and evaluation is much easier when you’ve discovered your values through trying to aim for neutrality and allowing yourself to be surprised by your efforts at simply documenting. By documenting what’s outside, you document yourself as well. Perhaps, in some way, Hegel was right: the best path to the truth is through the false (or sub in your own values for “true” and “false”).

I’m getting the sense that if I continue on things will fly off into abstractions more than I’m currently comfortable with; I think, with that last paragraph, I hit a writing limit. So I’ll end things here.

Starting to Read A Thousand Plateaus

Over the past few days I’ve been reading Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus for more or less the first time (aside from reading the “Introduction: Rhizome” chapter once in a seminar).

I’ve been avoiding this book for a few reasons. First is the terminology. D&G throw a lot of new concepts at you at lightning speed: strata, deterritorialization, abstract machine, regime of signs, expression, content, various forms of assemblages, and so on. Usually these concepts are not explicitly defined, at least, not when they’re introduced. Perhaps this is due to Deleuze’s apparent commitment to the pragmatist semantic thesis that meaning is use. However, to their credit, Deleuze and Guattari do give explicit definitions, make lists of characteristics and features of the concepts they’re defining. It’s just that these definitions don’t feel final or, well, definitive. It’s just another use of the term among uses. But skimpy definitions is a characteristic feature of much French and German philosophy, so I’m not that put off by it. What does fatigue me a bit with the incessant concept creation is trouble seeing the necessity of the concepts. Do we really need the concept of an “order-word” when we already have the illocutionary? Perhaps it’s doing more work than that. It emphasizes, as Brian Massumi claims in a footnote, the utterance’s double action of imposing order and of giving orders. It also, as a common French term meaning “slogan” and occasionally “password” encapsulates the sort of work Deleuze and Guattari want the concept to do.

The second reason is the scope and size and complexity. At first it’s hard to see what ties the book together. A perhaps unfortunate blurb on the back describes the work as a “series of brief, seemingly random essays on hot topics.” And that is indeed what it seems to be. Though it can be hard to tell from the titles of the “plateaus,” the topics span psychoanalysis, linguistics, music, politics, semiotics, anthropology, religious history, geology, biology, and so on and so on. This initially appeared to me as a veering away from philosophy. It’s a commonplace that Deleuze and Guattari are philosophers of multiplicity so perhaps an enthusiast is tempted to say: “See? There is no unity. That’s the point!” But, at this point in my reading, I think that does a disservice to the book and misses one of its central preoccupations.

I should mention here that I’m doing a very superficial reading of A Thousand Plateaus at the moment, not getting hung up on what I don’t understand. And I’m only six plateaus deep so far. So anything I write here should be seen as manifestly provisional.

I believe there is a unity to the book. It’s a book of metaphysics and it’s carrying out a rather standard metaphysical programme, with two twists which makes it unique. First, it’s no secret that Deleuze expounds something resembling a process metaphysics: becoming is prior to being, or all being is becoming. Though this is a somewhat baffling and unintuitive idea (I still have not achieved the capacity to think difference-in-itself), it has a clear consequence of reversing the classical (meta)physical problem of motion or change. If we took a broadly Aristotelean perspective and saw the word as made up of self-identical individuals (what Aristotle in the Categories calls “primary substances”), then the conceptual problem becomes: can a primary substance change into a different primary substance? How is a primary substance destroyed? Or: how does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly? How does an apple rot and turn into soil? This is a caricature of the problem, but the general question of the double tendency of things to both change and stay the same has been a metaphysical question since before Plato.

The standard history says, prior to Plato, there were two radically opposed answers to this question expressed in the philosophies of Heraclitus and Parmenides. Heraclitus viewed being as an illusion, and affirmed a world of pure becoming or flux. Parmenides viewed becoming as an illusion, and affirmed a world of pure being or stasis. Plato, famously, integrated the two ideas by positing an ontological division of labour. There is the realm of the sensible, the realm of sensory experience, in which things are always becoming other things, and the realm of the intelligible, or the forms, in which everything is always and only what it is.

We can see Deleuze and Guattari’s intervention here as taking a broadly Heraclitean starting point: the world is fundamentally becoming, and so much so that we can’t even say it’s made up of “things becoming other things” since to claim there are “things” that becoming other things is to presuppose identity and stasis as prior to change. The world is just always pure becoming. But, they seem to be less ready to accept the view that stasis is an illusion. The fundamental metaphysical question for them, which they are working through in A Thousand Plateaus seems to be: if the world is pure becoming, why is it not chaos? How is it that the constant flux of the world organizes itself and persists in that organization? Under what conditions is this persistent organization broken? It’s those questions which unify the book, and the central concepts they create: strata, assemblage, abstract machine, content, expression, are meant to be a terminology they can use to discuss the tendency of various phenomena towards stasis and change.

This brings me to the second feature that makes this otherwise traditional book of metaphysics unique. Due to the rejection of identity prior to change, Deleuze and Guattari need to take the stance of a certain openendedness to the project. They discuss a few strata: chemical, organic, technical. But they make it clear that this discussion is not exhaustive, and one gets the sense that new strata could emerge in the future. Likewise with regimes of signs. Moreover, the work is empirical in the sense that it is not simply applying these metaphysical concepts to phenomena, but exploring how the phenomena in question reconfigure the concepts used to describe and make them continuous with other seemingly desperate phenomena. For instance, each strata will have a unique relationship between its content and expression. This relationship cannot be known in advance prior to an empirical investigation of the stratum. This seems to be what explains the insane scope and bibliography of the book. They can’t just use stock metaphysical examples (Socrates is white, Theaetetus flies, the cat is on the mat, the morning star is the evening star) and generalize from there. They have to appeal to as great a multiplicity of phenomena as they can, using scholarly material from those who have actually studied the material empirically. Hence an interdisciplinary bibliography full of linguists, biologists, geologists, authors, musicologists, anthropologists, and so on and so on.

This attitude of appeals to empirical research is part of what I’m starting to think of as Deleuze and Guattari’s “bizarro-naturalism,” of which the basic thesis is something like: nature is all that exists, but nature is more than what scientists tell us it is.

Those are my initial thoughts so far. Once again, this is extremely provisional and I reserve the right to revise or disavow anything I’ve written here at a later date.


It’s been a while since I’ve posted to this blog. Since my last post I’ve moved to a new city (though not far) and started a doctoral degree in philosophy. The experience of moving was like a factory reset in terms of my daily habits and patterns. So much of what I did on a daily basis seemed to be tied to the physical spaces and people I interacted with. On the one hand this is a good thing. A few bad habits of mine have disappeared since abandoning the environments that functioned as their cue. However, this also means I’m confronted with a massive project of habit (re)creation, since I’ve lost some good habits on the way as well.

I’m taking this period of “rehabitation” to try to change my attitude towards writing and academic work. This year (if all goes well) will be my final year of course work. Moving from coursework to a dissertation feels like a transition from prioritizing reading to prioritizing writing. My previous study habits have been very reading focused: superficial readings, close readings, outlinings of texts, marginal notes, notebook notes, computer notes, all staying very close to the material due to the fear of deviation into erroneous interpretation, and reading for days or weeks before beginning to write. I’m realizing this soft treading (dare I say: perfectionism) is unsustainable. I don’t want to give up close reading or outlining a text for understanding, but merely start to prioritize writing (even, especially, shitty writing) over obsessive exegesis.

Practically, I plan to implement what I’m calling the Alphonso Lingis routine (which he, in turn, stole from Faulkner, or so he says). It’s described by Graham Harman here and by Lingis himself here (at 11:36) It consists in three steps:

  1. Wake up
  2. Complete a daily writing quota (2 pages to begin with, more as one’s writing muscle grows)
  3. Go out and have adventures (or, more realistically in my case, go to campus and do non-writing work)

This also means, I think, abandoning my overly ambitious Logic of Sense series that I started on this blog. Giving a close reading of each series (sometimes multiple close readings) before moving on to the next was too paranoid, too anxiety inducing. Since I want the Logic of Sense to be a key text in my dissertation, I threw up my hands and read the whole thing front to back in about three days. Needless to say, I didn’t understand most of it. But I think I now have enough to go on to meet with my potential supervisor. In fact, that meeting is happening this afternoon, so I better finish preparing for it.

Rat City

I’ve been watching through Fredrik Knudsen’s YouTube channel. It’s wonderful. He makes addictive amateur documentaries that are very well researched. I enjoyed this one on John Calhoun’s Rat City/Mouse Utopia experiments. Something about the ethos of 20th century American science. As one of my philosophy of language profs told me once, apropos of nothing: “The 60s were weird.” Evidently, the 70s were weird as well. Imagine today trying to publish a journal article with an opening like this in a peer reviewed publication:

I shall largely speak of mice, but my thoughts are on man, on healing, on life and its evolution. Threatening life and evolution are the two deaths, death of the spirit and death of the body. Evolution, in terms of ancient wisdom, is the acquisition of access to the tree of life. This takes us back to the white first horse of the Apocalypse which with its rider set out to conquer the forces that threaten the spirit with death. Further in Revelation (ii.7) we note: ‘To him who conquers I will grant to eat the tree’ of life, which is in the paradise of God’ and further on (Rev. xxii.2): ‘The leaves of the tree were for the healing of nations.’

John Calhoun, Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise
of a Mouse Population

Deep, man.

Though I think the fact that Americans were so quick to think of their fellow citizens as so much like rats tells us more about Americans than Calhoun’s experiments do.

Internet Brain


In my undergrad I wrote a film theory term paper in which I attempted to adapt Apparatus Theory to the Internet. I titled it, with what I probably thought was ironic hubris, “Internet/Ideology/Algorithm” (a not-so-subtle reference to Comolli and Narboni’s “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”). Apparatus Theory, for those who don’t know, was a brand of film theory popular in the 70s. It was a hodgepodge of Marxism, Saussurean structural semiotics, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. It argued something like this: the effect of viewing a Hollywood film caused one to revert to the mirror stage and identify with the image on screen as an ego ideal. Thus, everyone wants to be Marilyn Monroe or James Stewart or whoever. And this is exactly what capitalism wants. There was also something about signifiers in there, because Saussure, but I don’t exactly remember how it fit in.

I’m too embarrassed to reread the paper, but from what I remember I attempted to translate Apparatus Theory to the act of browsing the Internet. I used C. S. Peirce’s tripartition of symbol, icon, and index as three ways that the Internet mirrors us, and pointed to advertising and search algorithms as that which construct ego ideals out of these mirror images. Theoretically, it was a bunch of nonsense and my TA responded with something like “very interesting but I don’t buy it.”

Despite that I keep thinking back to that paper. I realized that what seemed like an radical idea at the time—that the Internet recommendation algorithms would exert a fundamental grasp on how we think and how we think about ourselves—has become so banal that it seems not even worthy of blogging about. I’m not trying to say I foresaw any of this; my paper was a bunch of pseudo-Lacanian nonsense. But I think everyone in my generation at the time had a sort of intuitive understanding of how the Internet was affecting us, even if most of us were in denial about the extent that it did.


Recently I started using the phrase “Internet Brain” to describe a set of symptoms I noticed myself experiencing that I suspected somehow tied back to Internet use. The first, which I think everyone is getting, is the inability to sustain attention on anything for a prolonged period of time. Luckily I spend most of my day in the library reading without my phone, so I’m not as bad as some other people I know who are no longer able to sit through a movie without getting antsy, let alone read a book. But I can feel myself slipping too; the attention that I give to the book feels not as singular as it could be.

Another related symptom is general forgetfulness. I recently deleted my Twitter (or, as I call it, The Bad Affect Machine). Now I struggle to remember 99.99% of the tweets I read. Straining, I can recall that one about getting absolutely twisted and bringing home a bunch of swords. I also read many threads about activism, social justice, and other things that were “so important.” I remember the content of zero of these. This is what I mean when I use “Internet brain” as an excuse for taking weeks to reply to a Tinder message.

One last symptom, particularly related to Twitter, is the rise of unwanted or impulsive thoughts that come in the form of 280 characters or less. Frequently I found myself dedicating precious brain energy to thinking up dumb things to say about Elon Musk, Brian Leiter, or that gamer guy who cheated on his elf wife. For a while after quitting Twitter I’d express these thoughts via texts to friends who would at least think they were slightly funny. As such, I texted a bunch of people asking them which nipple was the gay nipple to get pierced. Consensus: both are gay.

Deleting Twitter has been helpful and has generally increased my wellbeing. I recommend it to everyone except my enemies. However, I’ve found my desire for novelty and distraction just find new outlets. Maybe not just Twitter but the entire Web 2.0 is The Bad Affect Machine? Maybe Twitter was just the asshole of the Affect Machine? I’ll let someone else answer these questions. In any case, my now empty Twitter time became full of watching Kitchen Nightmares clips on YouTube. So I tried to cut down on YouTube by culling my subscriptions and subscribing to them via my RSS reader, which has helped mindless browsing, but I still feel this Machine thinking through me.


So I read Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. It was entertaining, and though the depth of argumentation was about what you’d expect from a non-academic non-fiction author, it was more than just hand-wringing about brain-scans. He performs a very interesting, if perhaps simplistic, history of how various information technologies have influenced human thought. This makes it easy to follow Carr’s argument regardless of your position on the metaphysical status of the brain and the mind. Though, incidentally, considering my Spinozist biases, I can accept that certain “brain states” might parallel certain states of mind, though I’m still unsure about the question of causality and the extent to which we can be certain that a particular arrangement of neurons can be isolated as directly corresponding to a particular capacity of the mind.

But we don’t have to worry about that too much because we can just look at the intellectual history Carr lays out. He focuses on writing, the clock, and the map. Aristotle’s conception of time as a feature of motion becomes much more reasonable once you remember the only timekeeping device he had, the sundial, was explicitly connected to motion of an independent object. Clocks allowed us to think that we were measuring time itself, and thus conceive of time as a sort of graduated container in which events happened, measured by seconds. Likewise, writing, Carr maintains, shifted us from a “bottom up” way of thinking to a “top down” way of thinking.[1] Bottom up thinking was one that responded reactively to changes in environment; when something stimulated us, it singled to us a change in our environment that might have direct consequences for our survival, so we drew our attention to it. The acts of reading and writing, however, produced a literary culture which valued “top down” thinking. To read deeply, one has to suppress the “bottom up” instincts to respond to every environmental distraction and rather train oneself to focus on the text. What the Internet is doing, Carr thinks, is drawing us back to our pre-literate brains. Not in the sense that we will no longer be able to read, but that our reading will be dominated by surface-level skimming, always prone to distraction. Carr thinks these two ways of thinking, bottom up and top down, are more or less inversely proportional. While everyone can do both to some extent, training one weakens the other.


While Googling the phrase “Internet brain” to see if anyone else was using it, I found this article by Alexandra Samuel from 2018. In it she criticizes Nicholas Carr’s position and advances one informed by neurodiversity activism. She approaches the issue specifically from autism activism, and her position is that our aversion to the Internet changing our brains is, at base, a fear of disability and neuroatypicality. She asks: “Maybe the internet is changing our brains, but what makes us think different means worse? Why are we treating these changes as problems to be fixed? Could we, in fact, learn to harness these adaptations so that they work for us instead of against us?”

She says the answer is yes, if we accept “digital neurodiversity,” which, she says, “recognizes that there are enormous variations in human cognitive styles and experiences, some of which are caused, shaped or affected by digital technology” and “allows us to recognize that these effects offer advantages as well as challenges.”

Samuel notes that Carr acknowledges that there are advantages to Internet brain: it strengthens “functions that help us speedily locate, categorize, and assess disparate bits of information in a variety of forms, that let us maintain our mental bearings while being bombarded by stimuli.” Carr notes that these skills are “very similar to the ones performed by computers.” Samuel criticizes him for this point, saying that he is advancing a trope of characterizing neuroatypical brains as inhuman, computer-like. But I think Samuel’s criticism here is too hasty. Carr acknowledges, at length, in his book that the computer-brain analogy is a bad one that limits our ability to understand the brain. His position, to me, seemed to be less that excessive Internet use turns you into a computer, but excessive Internet use will cause you to think of your own brain and the brains of others as nothing more than computers. Internet brain itself has a dehumanizing effect.

I also find Samuel’s analysis of our resistance to the changes the Internet affects on our brains to be unfair. She claims it is fundamentally a fear of disability and a romanticization of “pre-Internet brains.” First, Carr himself characterizes the literary pre-Internet brain as a kind of aberration from the normal “bottom up” brain. In his account, the Internet brain is just a return to this older, normal brain. Though I recognize that I’m slightly equivocating on the word “normal” here; in Carr’s instance “normal” is “natural” or the way our brain functioned before being introduced to the technology of writing. Samuel, I imagine, is using neurotypical to mean something like statistically normal. But even in light of this I still think the characterization that this aversion to Internet brain is a fear of difference is unfair. Samuel asks “what makes us think different means worse?” The answer, to me, seems straightforward: because there are things of extreme value that are lost due to this difference.

First, we lessen our ability to engage with a literary culture. The ability to focus and reflect deeply on a book, to memorize poetry, to think through an author’s argument deeply enough that we are actually engaging them on their own terms. However, I think something more valuable is lost as well; I’m worried that the capacity for ethics, not just as a capacity for right action, but as a capacity to give attention to others, to attend to other people on their own terms rather than as a narcissist, is diminished. And I think Alexandra Samuel, as an activist, should be concerned by this. It seems to me that the way of thinking promoted by the Internet, the distracted thinking that “shift[s] rapidly from link to link or from topic to topic,” is precisely the kind of thinking that is unable to meet the ethical demands her activism requires. Someone who has an aversion to neuroatypicality, and whose mind has been shaped by the Internet, is more likely, when they stumble upon an article about neurodiversity, to skim it, think it’s stupid, and click away (or maybe even make fun of it on Twitter). The Internet may train the mind to do many advantageous things, but ethical self-awareness and reflection is not one of those things. By now that claim should be uncontroversial.


After years of training my mind to think with the Internet, it feels like I have lost something valuable. And I think what has been lost is this ethical sensitivity. Again, not as an ability to discern right action but as an experience of the bonds between oneself and another, and an experience of one’s own sense of character. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Hegel, Levinas, Heidegger, Weil, et al. but I’m starting to understand how the communal bond between oneself and the others around us can constitute the religious element of life. That what has been lost is the properly religious experience of everyday life.

Thinking about my own childhood with the Internet has got me interested in narcissism. Over the next few days I might dip into Freud’s paper “On Narcissism” and, even bigger maybe, write something on it.

[1]: These terms, “bottom up” and “top down” are examples of what I find to be overly vague psychological concepts, like “flow” and “grit,” which I think tell us more about the ideological assumptions of the psychologist than about the object they are studying. But since I’m not in the place to do a systematic investigation of where Carr gets “bottom up” and “top down” I’m just going to run with these.

Reading the Logic of Sense – Part 2b: A Science of Events

Once again in the “Second Series of Paradoxes of Surface Effects.” I want to focus on a single paragraph where Deleuze starts to discuss the relationship between events and logic. In particular, he describes dialectics as the “science of incorporeal events as they are expressed in propositions, and of the connections between events as they are expressed in relations between propositions.” What follows are some tentative thoughts on how this might be.

First a basic hermeneutic point. By “dialectics” here I’m certain Deleuze means the Ancient Greek practice of dialectics as a kind of logical game or contest of question and answer. He does not mean Hegelian dialectics, though his phrase “science of events” makes it tempting to go there. But let’s just not. Why am I so sure about this? Well, we’re talking about the Stoics, who would have practiced this form of dialectics and, further, Deleuze explicitly mentions propositions and relations between propositions which is easier to understand in terms of Ancient Greek dialectics than Hegelian dialectics. So this is the assumption I’m working under here.

Deleuze also refers to dialectics as the art of conjugating. This seems to capture both aspects of dialectics that Deleuze mentions above. When we express an event in a proposition, we’ll have to conjugate a verb from the infinitive to a form appropriate to the proposition. “To sit” becomes “Socrates sits.” I think Deleuze has in mind the ambiguity of this act of conjugating, and that it is here that a reversal might take place. Though, to be honest, the characteristic of events to allow for reversals is what confuses me the most so far.

We can also read “conjugating” in its more etymological sense as “joining together” (con-jugum; yoke together). Here we can think of this joining together as the relations between propositions which seem to be expressed through deductive force and validity more generally. If A and B are true then C must be true. This reading makes sense because Deleuze mentions “confatalia” which he glosses as “the series of events which depend on one another.” Confatalia is a Stoic term that I had not come across before but, from some quick Googling, I learned it means “co-fated” and it seems was used to mean something like the force of deductive validity. I might return to this if I can find more on Stoic confatalia and if it’s actually interesting.

This reading of conjugating as the joining together of events in the dialectical form of deductive validity has led me to a possible way of showing a reversal of causality that occurs on the level of events, and to show what Deleuze might have in mind when he describes events as having a “quasi-causality.” We can consider a classic syllogism:

  1. All humans are mortal
  2. Socrates is human
∴ 3. Socrates is mortal

Here the conclusion (3) follows of necessity from (1) and (2). That the truth of (1) and (2) requires the truth of (3) can be seen as a quasi-causality. It appears to be a causal relation: something about (1) and (2) determines a feature of (3). But it also seems strange to call this feature of logic causal since (1) and (2) are not acting on (3) in any way to effect this determination. Furthermore, this causality can be reversed if we move from Aristotelian term logic to sentential logic. Stoic logic is a sentential logic rather than a term logic, so this seems appropriate.

Consider this basic argument:

  1. Q → P
  2. P
∴ 3. Q

This is Modus Ponens and it is, obviously, valid. If (1) is true and (2) is true, (3) must be true. But we can play around with these three propositions:

  1a. P
  2a. Q
∴ 3a. P → Q
  1b. P
  2b. Q
∴ 3b. Q → P

Both of the above arguments are valid; the truth conditions of a conditional are such that if the antecedent and the consequent are true the conditional is true. Conditionals also seem to capture deductive force; validity itself takes the form of the conditional: if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. (I have to be careful with this point though; it’s inevitable that Deleuze will bring up Carroll’s What The Tortoise Said to Achilles which questions whether validity is just a proposition among propositions). Yet, here, we have validly reversed this “causality” of the conditional. To see the strangeness that results from this, we can fill in the variables with propositional content:

  1a. Socrates is human
  2a. Socrates is mortal
∴ 3a. If Socrates is human, then Socrates is mortal
  1b. Socrates is human
  2b. Socrates is mortal
∴ 3b. If Socrates is mortal, then Socrates is human

Both (3a) and (3b) are conclusions that validly result from the same propositions. Though (3a) seems to fit more readily with what we would describe as the states of affairs (Socrates is mortal in virtue of his being human and not the other way around; there are mortals which are not humans) both conditionals are, in fact, true. The conditional, then, does not express a relation of direct causality between bodies but rather a quasi-causality between events that, under certain conditions, is reversible.

The above is the best I could do to figure out how the reversibility of causality works. I think there’s still more to be said, since the propositions I used all used the verb “to be” rather than Deleuze’s preferred infinitive verbs. This raises another complicated question that I don’t think I’m ready to approach yet: what is the status of “to be” as an infinitive verb? Is “to be” an event that is somehow outside of Being? Does Deleuze want us to understand Being in terms of the event of becoming? This feels like Heideggerian territory that I’m not yet comfortable traversing.

I want to move on to a second example of a reversal which Deleuze only briefly mentions, one that I think helped me get a better understanding of Deleuze’s conception of becoming. He claims that “The event is coextensive with becoming, and becoming is itself coextensive with language; the paradox is thus essentially a ‘sorites,’ that is a series of successive additions and retrenchments.” If we remember back to the First Series, Deleuze characterizes the paradox as something that affirms both senses or directions at once. To refer to this as a ‘sorites’ is helpful to think about why we cannot reduce events to states of affairs. The sorites paradox is typically one about vagueness. The classical formulation is about taking away sand one grain at a time from a heap of sand; at what instance is it no longer a heap of sand? We can also formulate it in terms of balding: if a man is becoming bald, how many hairs does he need to have left before we can call him bald?

Typical analyses of the problem would reduce them to isolated states of affairs expressed as propositions. For instance:

1. 1000 grains of sand is a heap
2. 999 grains of sand is a heap
3. 998 grains of sand is a heap
x. n+1 grains of sand is a heap
y. n grains of sand is not a heap

Then, we either need to find out what number n is or explain why n cannot be found.

However, this attempt to analyze down the becoming bald or becoming a non-heap to an ordered set of moments (one hair falling out, one grain being taken away) and then search for the precise moment that the man is bald and the heap is a non-heap seems wrongheaded. Yet it also makes no sense to say that men do not really become bald or heaps of sand are never really cleared away.

Deleuze’s seems to think that the sorites means we need another view of time. Becoming bald and becoming a non-heap happens but not at the level of states of affairs and not in any given present; rather it is an inherently paradoxical event that stretches into the past and future while precisely avoiding the present. In fact, I think the sorites paradox is a quite elegant way to think about what Deleuze means when he says events and becomings evade the present; there is no identifiable present moment we can point to when the man becomes bald or the heap becomes a non-heap. The becoming here only happens in a past and future that it brings together.

But Deleuze thinks all the paradoxes of becoming function like the sorites paradox due to “terms which do not cease to displace their extension and which make possible a reversal of the connection in a given series.” First of all, this suggests that, if my above example of reversing the necessity and sufficiency of a conditional is indeed an example of a reversal Deleuze is talking about, we must be able to think of it as a kind of sorites paradox. I’m not sure yet how to do this.

Second, we would have to think of another paradox that Deleuze cites from Chrysippus in terms of the sorites paradox of shifting extension. We can parse the paradox as an argument:

  1. If you say something, it passes through your lips
∴ 2. If you say 'chariot,' a chariot passes through your lips.

So this is a paradox of shifting extension, and we want to think of it as a variation of the sorites paradox. But how? I’m not entirely sure but I’ll give it a shot.

The typical Analytic response would be that there is a confusion of use and mention going on here. Chrysippus is, in the first instance, mentioning the word ‘chariot’ and in the second instance using the word ‘chariot.’ This would be indicated by the quotation marks in the first instance and lack of quotation marks in the second. This means ‘chariot’ and chariot have different referents; one refers to the word ‘chariot’ which passes through your lips, and the other to the physical object ‘chariot.’

However, this treatment seems unsatisfactory. It’s not clear how this is a sorties paradox (unless the shift from thing to word is meant to be analogous to the shift from heap to non-heap). It also seems unsatisfactory since it doesn’t take into account the first proposition, which seems uncontroversially true. If you say something, it passes through your lips. The extension of “it” here is coextensive with “something,” yet when “it” and “something” get replaced with the word “chariot” the extension shifts; in one instance to the word and in the other to the thing. The central question, then, is what is the “something” that one says when one says something?

This is about as far as I can take this train of thought right now. But the task seems to be this. There is some connection between Chrysippus’s paradox, the sorites paradox, and (if I’m right) my example of reversing the conditional. And that connection is going to be their dependence on events.

Exegesis and Evaluation

Martin Lenz over at Handling Ideas published a post on the “paper model” of philosophy and how it affects our handling of historical texts. His main point is that by focusing on using philosophical texts as evidence to construct arguments for our own “abstract” claims in the context of a wider, academic-paper-led discussion, we avoid having to engage closely with the text, to do what he calls “linear reading” of the text on the level of sentences.

He has two concerns about the dominance of the paper model. The first is that only training students of philosophy to write papers attempting to advance abstract, evaluative claims within the context of an ongoing academic discourse is doing them a disservice. Students are not immersed in the cutting edge scholarly discourse on whomever they’re writing about and would benefit more from focusing on how to do a close reading of a text instead. Getting them to evaluate before learning how to interpret causes them to parrot the positions of secondary sources. Lenz’s proposition is to have students write fewer papers and more commentaries. I’ve thought about this a lot, the gap between exegesis and evaluation, especially in relation to the philosophical commentary tradition. I do think academic philosophy (especially on the Analytic side) tends to jump too quickly to evaluation. I’ve more than once half-jokingly complained to other grad students that we should be writing commentaries rather than theses.

All of my paper ideas have come from close reading texts. Maybe this is a paranoia on my part; that if I abstract away from the text too quickly I’ll end up saying something inconsistent with it. Or a perfectionist tendency to want to build up only from the text itself without having to rely on previous interpretations. But, whichever neurosis this results from, it’s the most enjoyable and effective way I’ve found to write papers. (Though this has made me have to awkwardly add some secondary sources ad hoc to seminar papers for professors who required them).

But Lenz also brings up a second concern that I hadn’t thought about before. The commentary model is not just good for training the student, but re-establishing the prestige of the commentary model will encourage the diversification of the philosophical canon, where the paper-model hinders it. This seems like a strange claim considering basically 99% of philosophical commentaries throughout history are on Aristotle and Plato, but it makes sense. If academic philosophers are only incentivized to write papers that respond to other papers in an ongoing discussion, then they’re incentivized to publish papers on philosophers who lots of people have already published on. So the Devil always shits on the biggest pile and we get another paper on Kant. But if publishing commentaries carried the same weight as publishing papers, then academic philosophers would be encouraged to start discussions on philosophers who do not have a lot of scholarly coverage. This is a good thing.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen the paper-model attitude endorsed more by Analytically-inclined professors and the commentary-model endorsed more by Continentally-inclined professors. (Mandatory aside: I know the Analytic/Continental divide is problematic, but for better or worse most North American philosophy departments are structured around it and, if the terms don’t designate clear-cut historical traditions or methodological approaches, they definitely designate a cultural divide in North American philosophy. So that’s how I’m using the terms here). Analytic professors frequently tell me they’re trying to train students to “contribute to scholarly discussion” on a topic, which implies getting up to speed with current debates. So for instance the Analytic virtue ethics course I took was less about figuring out what Aristotle was saying in the Nicomachean Ethics and more about situating our own position between Hursthouse, Swanton, Foot, Anscombe, and Slote. Continental professors, on the other hand, have frequently told me that an exegetical paper that “merely” argues for a particular interpretation of a primary text is just as valuable as one that advances an evaluative argument. And so a seminar paper I wrote on Maurice Merleau-Ponty had exactly two citations: his Phenomenology of Perception and his Structure of Behavior. The last paper I wrote on Hegel cited The Phenomenology of Spirit and nothing else.

If you couldn’t already tell, I’m in favour of more exegesis and less evaluation. Though I can appreciate frustrations some people have with this when taken too far. One of my friends, more on the Analytic side of things than me, has complained that when taking seminars in Continental philosophy there’s a sense that it’s taboo to attempt to evaluate the philosopher under discussion. When reading Spectres of Marx, for instance, the question was always “What is Derrida saying here?” and rarely “Is Derrida wrong?” Taken to the extreme this can come across as a sort of hagiographic approach to reading the history of philosophy in which even Heidegger can never err. Yes, this should be avoided, and the point of exegesis is to get to evaluation, but I think the bigger problem is the “understanding by objecting” approach that I’ve seen go on among Analytic philosophers. I think, at best, it can risk the charity and generosity that we should give to a philosophical text and, at worst, be a form of confirmation bias. By being primed to object we’re going to read the text as if we already know it’s wrong.

This discussion reminds me of François Dosse’s gloss, in his duo-biography Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives, of Deleuze’s approach to philosophical training. Deleuze’s attitude here is basically the same as my own:

Just as Van Gogh began painting portraits before undertaking landscapes, so too the philosopher should begin by trying to recreate the singularity of his predecessors so that, once he is prepared by other’s thinking, he can begin his own work. Before becoming a colorist like Van Gogh or Gauguin, a painter should work through ‘potato colors and earth tones, not at all bright.’ Deleuze cautioned anyone trying to bypass this initiation: ‘You have to do this work on the history of philosophy, it’s a work of humility. You have to paint portraits for a long time.’

Graduate school in philosophy, I think, should be an opportunity to paint portraits.

Reading The Logic of Sense – Part 2a: Bodies and Events

A lot goes on in the Second Series of Paradoxes of Surface Effects, so I’m going to do two posts on this Series. In this post I want to focus on the distinction that Deleuze finds in the Stoics between states of affairs and events, the implications he thinks this distinction has for a conception of time and causality, and its relation to Aristotelian and Platonist ontology. Okay, whew, here we go.

States of Affairs

We can begin with states of affairs, as Deleuze does, since these seem to be the easiest to understand. States of affairs are the “mixtures” of bodies which includes their actions and passions in relation to one another. These relations of action and passion are commensurable such that a total unification of all bodies, something like a plenum of bodies which each action having a corresponding equivalent passion, can be conceived. This seems to be the Stoic concept of the Whole, which Marcus Aurelius likes talking about. The Whole is unified in the present; a sort of “fat” present that includes a present-past and present-future, though more on that later. The basic characteristics of states of affairs seem to be this: they exist in the present, and all qualities and quantities exist as measurable bodies. All of these bodies are causes (in a double sense, as we’ll see).

Deleuze says the unity of bodies here is called “Destiny.” I can’t find the term Destiny in Inwood and Gerson’s The Stoics Reader and my copy of Epictetus’s Discourses doesn’t have an index. Marcus Aurelius uses the term, though it’s unclear whether he thinks of it as a technical term or not. This seems to be the most helpful mention of Destiny in the Meditations:

“Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny – what fraction of that are you?” (5.24)

Destiny seems to encompass time and existence. But, as we’ll see, Deleuze maintains there is another time and another (non-)existence.


Bodies are causes in a double sense. A body can act and produce a passion in another body. However, bodies also produce events as effects. This is the crucial distinction between states of affairs and events. Events are incorporeal effects produced by states of affairs and are captured by infinitive verbs (to grow, to shrink, to become X, to cut, to be cut, etc). These are not qualities but, Deleuze says, “logical or dialectical attributes.” These events, being incorporeal, do not “exist” properly but rather “subsist” or “inhere” within states of affairs as necessary effects. There is something in these events, Deleuze thinks, that cannot be analysed down into mixtures of bodies, qualities, quantities, in states of affairs. I’m not yet sure why this is, why we need to insist on the dimension of events, but hopefully it will become clear.

Duality of Time

This dualism of states of affairs and events produces “two simultaneous readings of time.” The first is what we might call “body-time.” It includes what I referred to above as the “fat” present of states of affairs, what Deleuze also calls the “living” present. I’m not sure what import “living” is supposed to have here but it suggests something moving or dynamic. Since, of course, movement happens over time, it seems the present here should be conceived of as more than just the immediate instance of “now” but a present that has a stretch of time within it. This is possibly what Deleuze means when he says this present “absorbs” past and future. In this present, all bodies are unified yet still analyzable in terms of active and passive bodies.

The second time is “event-time.” This time is “infinitely divisible” into past and future, effectively doing away with the present moment. Events as effects from bodies exist simultaneously in the past and the future and, it seems, cannot be understood merely through reference to a present. Deleuze uses an example from Bréhier of a scalpel cutting flesh. We can understand this as an action of the scalpel producing a passion in the flesh. The scalpel is sharp. The scalpel moves in a straight, 3-inch line through the flesh. The flesh now has a wound. All of this is still on the level of states of affairs, mixtures of bodies. Each sentence describes the state of affairs as a present, though sometimes including a past and future, such as in the 3 inch movement of the scalpel. But, this action of the scalpel also produces as an effect the event of being cut. Being cut is irreducible to a present or to bodies, qualities, quantities, actions, and passions; Bréhier describes it as a “way of being” and not a being itself. Being cut is not identical to the quality of possessing a wound, rather, it is a verb that is not itself a substance. “Being cut,” somehow, stretches into the past and the future while evading the present.

That’s the best description of event-time I can give at the moment, though I find it inadequate. I’m hoping this will become clearer the more I read.

Splitting the Causal Relation

The dualism of states of affairs and events also produces what Deleuze calls a “splitting of the causal relation.” Rather than dividing up causality into different kinds of causes, like Aristotle did, the Stoics place cause wholly on the side of states of affairs and effect wholly on the side of events. This is how states of affairs or mixtures of bodies become doubly causes. All bodies are causes in relation to one another, since bodies act on other bodies to produce passions. Since every action produces a proportional passion, we can perform a total unity of bodies in virtue of their relation to each other as causes, and thus get the Whole. However, states of affairs or mixtures of bodies also produce events as incorporeal effects. Events, Deleuze says, are also unified but not in the same way that bodies are. There is no relation of cause between events. Deleuze isn’t clear on how events are unified, but does mention there is a sort of relation of “quasi-causality” between them which, I think, will become more salient later when he discusses the “reversible” nature of events.

This is still kind of obscure, but I think we can understand it through the example of falling dominos, a classic case of direct causality. In a common sense conception of causality, we could model the falling of dominos by first isolating the dominos as distinct bodies and modelling their causal interaction using the material conditional in the following proposition:

∃x∃y∃z((Dx ^ Dy ^ Dz) ^ (Fx → Fy) ^ (Fy → Fz))

Where D is “is a domino” and F is “has fallen.” This proposition, however, only represents the relation of action and passion between the existent bodies. Each body here, the Stoics maintain, are causes. The effect of this mixture of bodies, the falling dominos, is the event “to fall” that is carried out over time, and not captured by the above logical reconstruction. This event “to fall” is an effect of the mixture of bodies, but is not itself a cause of anything. Thus, rather than causality being a chain in which A causes B which causes C, etc., causality is instead a two-step operation in which a state of affairs causes an event-effect. These event-effects are not themselves causes and do not produce further effects.

After discussing this splitting of cause and effect onto states of affairs and events respectively, Deleuze makes the following strange claim: “Thus freedom is preserved in two complimentary manners: once in the interiority of destiny as a connection between causes, and once more in the exteriority of events as a bond of effects.” Why has freedom suddenly come up? What is the interiority of destiny? The exteriority of events?

I have a tentative interpretation of this claim about freedom, which I think is at least coherent with what Deleuze has said so far. If we think of the freedom Deleuze is talking about as a negative freedom, we can then ask: what is the interiority of destiny free from? What is the exteriority of events free from? If the “interiority of destiny” is this deterministic relation of action and passion between bodies, then it is free from the influence of events. Deleuze describes events as neither active nor passive but impassive. They cannot be active since they themselves produce no effect either on each other nor on bodies. But neither can they be passive, because they are incorporeal and thus cannot receive actions of bodies. Instead, they are pure effects, pure events. The exteriority of events, on the other hand, seems to refer to the ontological status of events as “outside” of Being or the Whole. How is freedom maintained in the exteriority of events? Events are free from the influence of each other. Unlike bodies, they are not causes for each other and thus (strangely) one event does not cause another event. This, I think, is why Deleuze says freedom is preserved in two manners.

He concludes by saying this is how the Stoics can oppose destiny and necessity. Again, obscure. But we know that destiny is on the side of states of affairs and, I’m speculating, describes the deterministic unity of action and passion in bodies in the Whole. So, necessity must be on the side of events and so, possibly, signifies the relation between states of affairs as causes and the event-effects they produce.

Contra Aristotle

Deleuze has already hinted that this metaphysics is not Aristotle’s, as the Stoics divide up causality not into types of causes but rather into a domain of causes and a domain of effects. But the Stoics also oppose the Aristotelian ontology of the Categories. There, Aristotle tackles the homonymy of Being, all of the different things that are said of Being. The Categories is a difficult text and often ambiguous, but what seems important for Deleuze here is this. Aristotle identifies substances as basic, and all other categories (quality, quantity, relation, position, etc.) exist only as accidents of substances. Aristotelian substances are, however, not homogenous “matter” or pre-Socratic elements, but what we would identify as kinds of objects. Primary substances are lowest-level species such as “human”, “horse”, “book.” There are also secondary substances which are higher-level genera such as “mammal”, “animal”, “tool.” Lower-level species are defined by their essence which consists of their genera and a differentia. So, for instance, humans are rational animals (animal = genus, rational = differentia). Thus, within substance are essential differences which divide secondary substances down into primary substances. Multiple entities of a single primary substance are then individuated via accidental qualities (a brown horse and a black horse are both of the same primary substance but distinguishable as individuals through the accidental property of colour). The upshot of this is, in Aristotle, we have an ontological distinction between essential being (substance) and inessential being (accident).

The Stoics do not recognize this; for them all bodies, qualities, and quantities–all Aristotelian categories–are unified in substance. Their determinism on the level of states of affairs seems to make accidental properties incoherent. This substance is then contrasted with what Deleuze terms the “extra-Being” of events.

The Reversal of Platonism

Perhaps more interestingly and significantly, the Stoics effect a reversal of Platonism. Deleuze says they are the first to do so. This reversal seems rather straightforward. In Platonic metaphysics, material objects participate in ideal Forms which impose on them their essence. We thus have a direction of influence down from the heights of the ideal Forms to the depths of bodies. However, Plato recognizes that the depths of bodies do not always conform to the influence of the forms. I touched on this already in my preliminary discussion of the simulacrum in Plato. Bodies have a tendency to evade Platonic forms and the simulacrum does exactly this by appearing to be an object while being incongruent with the Forms. The simulacrum is thus that which must be suppressed for Plato, or, identified from the position of height and exposed for what it really is. The Stoics, in reversing the order of causality here, reverse Platonism. Rather than Forms shaping their material copies, the material bodies produce incorporeal events as effects, with these incorporeal events as analogous to Platonic Ideas. However, this reversal does away with the simulacrum. Bodies can no longer evade Ideas since they are their direct cause; the simulacrum is just one more effect among effects. The Idea is no longer the Form imposed on bodies, but rather represents, Deleuze says, “all possible ideality.”

While this reversal of Platonism seems straightforward in abstract terms, I’m still left with some questions. Most significantly: what is the ontological status of these events, effects, ideas? I can’t see anything in Deleuze’s treatment of events that rules out events being merely ideas in the (human) mind rather than objective non-existing entities. Though, Deleuze’s language so far has been very careful to avoid stating this; he talks of events as if they are objective things, not merely artifacts of thought. I’m hoping the next series, on the proposition, will present something like an argument for why events cannot just be human interpretations of states of affairs.

There is also the more basic question: what do we get out of acknowledging events? I suspect Analytic philosophers, on reading this, would be eager to analyze events down to states of affairs, and then claim there is nothing added by speaking about events. Why speak of infinitive verbs like “to cut” when we can simply talk about A cutting B as a relation of action and passion between bodies?

Reading The Logic of Sense – Part 1: Alice Becomes Larger

Only the First Series in The Logic of Sense and things are already becoming strange. Deleuze begins by describing a relation between three things: events, becomings, and paradoxes. It seems the outline of this relation is that events are becomings which are inherently paradoxical. I’ll try to say how.

He begins with a deceptively simple image from Alice in Wonderland: Alice becoming larger. Deleuze’s very counter-intuitive analysis of this event (indeed, he later says that events go against “good sense”) is this: “When I say ‘Alice becomes larger,’ I mean that she becomes larger than she was. By the same token, however, she becomes smaller than she is now.” Deleuze is quick to say that she is not bigger and smaller at the same time but rather her becoming bigger is also a becoming smaller in the opposite direction. It seems this consequence is due to “bigger” and “smaller” being relatives. As Alice gets bigger, the size she started out as gets smaller relative to her bigger size.

(I also want to point out that Deleuze is already speaking about language; his example is not “Alice becomes larger” but “When I say ‘Alice becomes larger,’ I mean…” This discussion of events also implicates how we use language to communicate events. I wonder, even, if the two will be inseparable: no events without language.)

This description of Alice’s becoming both bigger and smaller already suggests an uncommon view of time. It seems that this description is willfully ignoring the fact that we could say that Alice at t₁ is 5′, at t₂ is 5’1″, at t₃ is 5’2″ etc. But this would do away with becoming and divide up time into a procession of fixed presents. The event of becoming would be replaced with an ordered collection of states of affairs (Deleuze will address this distinction explicitly in the Second Series). To preserve becoming we must think of becoming, and events, as “[eluding] the present.” I’m not sure exactly how to think about this yet, but in any case a proper thinking of events will involve a rethinking of time.

However, Deleuze does recognize the tendency in the history of philosophy to divide up time into a sequence of present moments. He finds this in Plato, evinced by Plato’s anxiety over pure becoming. This appears as a distinction between fixed, measured presents or fixed qualities and “a pure becoming without measure, a veritable becoming-mad, which never rests.” This distinction in Plato is not the common one between Form and material copy (the Idea of the table and the physical table), but rather a subtler distinction found most explicitly in the Sophist: the distinction between copy and simulacrum. The copy is the fixed object identified by its participation in the Form, while the simulacrum is, it seems, on the side of events and evades participation in the form.

In the Sophist, around 236a-c, Socrates distinguishes between “likeness-making” and “fantastic art” (but which we might more clearly call “appearance-making”). Though this distinction will be instrumental in attempting to distinguish the sophist from the philosopher, Socrates describes it using an sculpture-making analogy. There are two ways to make a sculpture. On the one hand, one can make a correctly proportioned, life-sized sculpture of a thing. This is what Socrates terms “likeness-making” and he describes it as an imitation produced “by following the proportions of the original in length, breadth, and depth, and giving, besides, the appropriate colors to each part.” On the other hand, one can make a gigantic statue. In this case, says Socrates, the sculptor cannot maintain the measures of the original since “if they reproduced the true proportions of beautiful forms, the upper parts, you know, would seem smaller and the lower parts larger than they ought, because we see the former from a distance, the latter from near at hand.” The sculptors of giant statues thus “abandon the truth and give their figures not the actual proportions but those which seem to be beautiful.” The difference, then, is that the likeness is in-itself adequate to the original that it copies in virtue of maintaining the measures of the original. The appearance, on the other hand, is inadequate to the original, yet appears beautiful in virtue of our vantage-point. The likeness is thus a relation between copy and original while the appearance is rather a relation between the viewer and the appearance. Socrates evaluates this distinction by claiming that the appearance is only beautiful “because it is seen from an unfavorable position.” If we could see the appearance “adequately” we would see how much it deviates from the original it claims to represent.

The move from appearance to likeness seems to mirror the Platonic move out of the cave. We cease aiming for the pleasures of beauty observed from an inadequate position, trapped in a relation between ourselves and the surface appearance (the shadows on the wall) and move into the world of Forms where we can observe with detachment the relation between Form and adequate copy, and thus weed out the inadequate appearances. Deleuze is aiming to reverse this valuation of likenesses (copies) and appearances (simulacra).

The above digression on Plato was just based on my own reading of the Sophist. I’m sure Deleuze will have more to say about this later. Perhaps, if I see the need, I’ll add an excursus to this series where I discuss Deleuze’s essay “Plato and the Simulacrum” (also included in my edition of The Logic of Sense). In any case, it seems that events, becomings, by eluding congruence with the Form, will have a special affinity with the simulacrum.

So, back to the event: Deleuze calls the paradoxical nature of the event, its ability to go in both directions at once, the Paradox of Infinite Identity. The identity here is between the contrary sides that the event, in eluding the present, brings together. This, says Deleuze, is the reason for the reversals we see in Alice in Wonderland. He gives us a list of these paradoxical identities that events affirm and corresponding examples of reversals from the work of Lewis Carroll:

IdentitiesReversal in Alice in Wonderland
Future and Past“jam tomorrow and jam yesterday–but never jam to-day.”
More and Less“five nights are five times hotter than a single one, ‘but they must be five times as cold for the same reason.'”
Active and Passive“‘do cats eat bats?’ is as good as ‘do bats eat cats?'”
Cause and Effect“to be punished before having committed a fault, to cry before having pricked oneself, to serve before having divided up the servings.”

The effect of these reversals, the effect of the Paradox of Infinite Identity in Alice in Wonderland is, Deleuze says, Alice’s loss of name and the contesting of her personal identity. And here again we find language, though this time language as naming is on the side of fixed identity. Alice’s name fixes her personal identity as stable and present.

But language will not only perform a “fixing” function. Deleuze speculates, throughout this Series, that language might have a double nature; one that Plato already saw in the Cratylus. Deleuze cites a passage in the Cratylus where Socrates show the ambiguity of etymologies of Greek words. Socrates and Cratylus agree that The First Namer named things in accordance with his conception of the nature of things, and this can be uncovered through examining the etymology of words. However, Socrates initially gives etymologies that suggest names affirm that the things they name are in continual flux, but later gives opposing etymologies for the same Greek words which suggest the things they name are fixed. I’m not certain how Deleuze is reading this, but in any case he suggests both sides of the Platonic dualism between fixed presents and pure becoming are at play in language. He divides up these dimensions, generally, as between “substantives and adjectives” on the side of fixed presents and “verbs” on the side of pure becoming. This language of events, with its focus on verbs, seems to be less about naming a referent and more about a sort of expression. Deleuze is still vague about this, but he characterizes it as “a ‘flow’ of speech, or a wild discourse which would incessantly slide over its referent, without ever stopping.” This strange relation that the language of events has to its referent seems to motivate Deleuze to say “It is as if events enjoyed an irreality which is communicated through language to the savoir and to persons.”

In all this it’s unclear what the ontological status of events are. More precisely: do events exist outside of human experience? Deleuze’s anti-anthropocentrism makes me think the answer to this question should be yes, but so far I can’t see how that’s likely or even possible.

That’s what I’ve gotten from this Series so far. Events are paradoxical. Plato can’t handle becoming. Language might have two dimensions. Events trouble names and personal identity. As is usually the case, it’s easier to describe the kind of thinking that Deleuze is trying to draw our attention away from than the kind of thinking he is trying to draw us toward. Moving forward I’m especially interested in how Deleuze will bring in the Stoics, and whether this book allows for a Deleuzian Stoicism.