¥ØU$UK€ ¥UK1MAT$U @ Boiler Room Tokyo

Today I found this incredible ¥ØU$UK€ ¥UK1MAT$U DJ set from 2020.

I’ve been listening to a lot more electronic music throughout the pandemic, especially industrial techno (it helps me do the dishes). I still don’t know how to write about electronic music though, or music in general. So all I can say is: this is good.

Pornography and Eroticism

I’ve been wanting to write something on eroticism, and thus something on pornography (not because the two are the same, but precisely because they are not). But I haven’t been able to find a way in. I couldn’t even decide what book to start with to see how others have been thinking about it. Bataille’s Erotism: Death and Sensuality seemed like an obvious choice, but so did Linda Williams’ Hard Core. But both had drawbacks. Though Bataille’s book looks important, a skim of it revealed that it didn’t seem to be getting at the question I was interested in, which is the antagonism between pornography and eroticism. Williams’ book, while also important as an early study of pornography, takes pornography as a genre of film text and analyzes it as one would any other genre of cinema. Again, this didn’t seem to get at the stakes I saw in this question (though it is another book I will have to revisit, since it might contain surprises).

I’ll try to get at the question I have in mind through an anecdote. I was out with a friend the other night and, both of us being gay, we were talking about gay sex. The discussion turned to pornography and I struggled to express my mixed feelings about it. In the queer community, particularly the gay male community, sexuality and sexual norms have been profoundly conditioned by pornography. There are many reasons for this, and much empirical evidence I could provide to support this claim, but I don’t want to go into it here. Just trust me. Much of gay male culture can be understood as a dialectic between “real life” and pornography. We might think of gay pornography as a particularly popular technology of the (gay male) self.

In a struggle to express the reservations I had with this situation, the best I could come up with is this claim: “the pornographication of sex is endangering eroticism.” Despite not quite knowing how to explain myself, my friend told me he thought he understood what I meant and that he agreed. But I don’t yet understand what I mean by this claim. It implies a distinction between pornography, sex, and eroticism that I do not yet know how to draw in a productive way, in a way that gets at the problem.

I found a philosopher, however, who might be able to help me. I had heard of Byung-Chul Han a few years ago; a friend of mine was reading his book Psychopolitics when it first came out, but at the time I didn’t have much interest in any books with the word “neoliberal” in the title. But recently I came across Han again, first his recently translated book Capitalism and Death Drive, then The Agony of Eros and Saving Beauty. I quickly got my hands on as many of his other books as I could. “Porn” is a term he uses frequently, and his use of it is the closest I’ve come across to how I want to use the word myself. Not as a dismissive moralizing term, not as a genre of film or image whose boundaries need to be determined, but porn as a way of being that can appear in situations which do not contain instances of what we would recognize as “pornography.” In this way Han seems to be using “pornographic” in a similar way to Heidegger’s use of “technology”; not designating a type of object but, again, a mode of being.

Han talks about porn in Saving Beauty, The Agony of Eros, The Disappearance of Ritual, The Transparent Society, and probably other books that I haven’t come across yet. I could quote from any of them, so I’ll choose one at random:

Porn is a matter of bare life on display. The antagonist of eros, it annihilates even sexuality. In this respect, it is more effective than morality: “Sexuality does not fade into sublimation, repression and morality, but fades much more surely into the more sexual than sex: porn.” Pornography derives its appeal from the “anticipation of dead sex in living sexuality.” What is obscene about pornography is not an excess of sex, but the fact that it contains no sex at all. Today, sexuality is not threatened by that “pure reason” which puritanically avoids sex as something “dirty,” but by pornography. Porn is not sex in virtual space. Today, even real sex is turning into porn.

The Agony of Eros, p. 29

Han is quoting Jean Baudrillard’s Fatal Strategies here, which is perhaps something else I should read.

I’m still not certain I have a worked out view of pornography yet, but I can see the beginnings of it in what I have read of Han so far. For him, pornography above all means an unambiguous laying bare of something, something that discloses without holding anything back. Thus, he calls “information,” “data,” and even pointing with a finger “pornographic” in Saving Beauty. Eroticism, on the other hand, traffics in misdirection, ambiguity, and secrecy. These are the conditions of actually relating to another (or an other). This brings the issue of pornography together with the issue of loneliness. Pornographic enjoyment is narcissistic since it effaces the other as other; they are completely disclosed as an object of sexual consumption (Han makes a point like this around pp. 85-86 of The Disappearance of Ritual). This could lead to another way of thinking about the phenomenon of gay loneliness. It is directly related to the pornographication of gay culture. But could we even imagine a de-pornified gay culture?

Before I end this post which, like all my other posts, always ends up longer than I plan it to be, I want to note a way I could potentially set Han and Williams against each other. One of the claims of Hard Core is that pornography is a type of discourse on sex:

“Throughout this study we have observed hard-core film and video’s attempts to make sex speak through the visual confession of bodily pleasures. We have seen that however much hard core may claim to be a material and visible thing, it is still fundamentally a discourse, a way of speaking about sex.”

Hard Core, p. 229

This is not true for Han:

“In contemporary films, the face is often shown in close-up. In a close-up, the whole body appears as pornographic. It divests the body of language. This muting of the body is pornographic. In a close-up, all its parts appear as if they were sexual organs: ‘The close-up of a face is as obscene as a sexual organ looked at from a close distance. It is a sexual organ. Any picture, any form, any part of the body looked at from a close distance is a sexual organ.’”

Saving Beauty p. 17 (maybe? I’m citing an epub. Also, emphasis mine)

The pornographic (and not just in a hard core film, but in a banal close up!) robs the body of its language, which I suspect, for Han, is its capacity for ambiguity and poetry. For Williams, pornography is a discourse on sex, the problem of which is that it has been, as Williams says, a discourse “by men for men” (p. 229). However, for Han, a characteristic of the pornographic is that it is not even capable of discourse. The pornographic mutes all erotic discourse, since it is a discourse that depends on the ambiguity of the body.

I’ll end things here, but might pick up this thought again.

Individualism and Individuation

I’ve been on a psychoanalysis kick recently after starting to listen to the wonderful lectures by Doris McIlwain collected in the podcast Philosophy of Psychoanalysis. She recommended Jonathan Lear’s book Love and Its Place in Nature, a book I never would have picked up if it were not recommended. In the introduction Lear lays out his own approach to reading Freud, an approach that seems somewhat Hegelian. He’s attempting a psychoanalytic investigation into psychoanalysis that will slowly uncover what it was doing all along. He will discover the latent content of psychoanalysis and, by making it manifest, transform it. And the result of his transformation (or so he says in the Introduction, which is all I’ve read so far) is that the project of psychoanalysis is one of individuation through the basic natural force of love.

Now, since I’m just starting the book, I can tell that I don’t have a full appreciation of that thesis yet. But one thing that did strike me in the Introduction was Lear’s insistence that a lesson of psychoanalysis was that individuation is not given. Rather, individuation or the production of the individual is a psychological accomplishment. Further, this accomplishment is only possible in a society that values the individual.

Individualism is falling out of fashion lately, and I myself have been feeling dissatisfied with what I take to be the basic principle of individualism: do whatever you like so long as you don’t hurt anyone. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that if living in a society structured around this rule feels dissatisfying, it is because there is something essential to human satisfaction that we can only get in collectivist societies, in social arrangements where individual significance is gained through knowing oneself to be part of a collective project more valuable than your own individual life. Lear suggests another source of this dissatisfaction. He suggests that if we are dissatisfied with individualism, it could be because we are not yet individuals.

It is by now a commonplace that the modern West is concerned with the individual. Some think this is good, others that it is bad. Those in favor think that Western societies allow the individual to pursue his desires just so long as he doesn’t interfere with the legitimate interests of others. Those against think that individuals are encouraged to be self-indulgent: all those aerobic classes and Nautilus machines, those self-help books and luxury vacations numb us to our responsibilities to society and to humanity. In reaction, one sees people turning to Eastern religions and philosophies which do not stress the individual. But to debate whether or not our concern with the individual is a good thing is to assume that we are a group of individuals. Are we? Is it possible that the entire debate over individualism, pro and con, proceeds by ignoring the individual? Certainly, individualistic political philosophies, while paying great attention to individual rights and liberties, tend to remain silent on what individuals are. Individuals are treated as atoms, with little notice given to subatomic structure. But then it seems there could be an individualistic society full of members pursuing their own interests while the society as a whole frustrates the development of individuals. An individualistic society with no individuals!

Therein lies the problem with self-help books: selves are not that easy to help. An individual requires a kind of nurturing and growth that goes far beyond aerobics and quick-fix therapy. We can all imagine someone whose muscle tone is great, who is successful at his job, who ‘feels good about himself’ and yet remains a shell of a human being. However relentless that person is in the pursuit of his desires, there seems to be something wrong with thinking of such a person as selfish. There does not yet seem to be a self on the scene capable of selfishness or selflessness. Who, after all, has set this particular conception of physical fitness as a measure of self-esteem; who has determined the model of success; who, indeed, has put forward the picture of what it is to ‘feel good’ about oneself? It becomes tenuous to think of this person as pursuing his desires.

Love and Its Place in Nature, pp. 19-20

This was written over 30 years ago, in 1990, but all we need to do is swap “aerobics” and “Nautilus” with “CrossFit” and “Peloton” to turn it into an apt description of our situation today. I’m not sure if I buy Lear’s suggestion totally, but it is at least a possibility that I can’t immediately discount. The problem may not be that our society is too individualistic, it may be that it is not individualistic enough.

Deleuze’s Eternal Return

This is a quick post (I hope) that I’m dashing off just to note down an objection to Deleuze’s reading of the eternal return and the beginnings of my reply to it. I’m currently (re)reading Nietzsche and Philosophy. Though the first time I read it was a summer in undergrad during which I’m sure I got nothing, not seeing the forrest for the trees. I think that is the most frustrating thing about reading Deleuze and what a good reader of Deleuze needs to strategize: Deleuze almost never shows you the forrest. He takes you for a walk through the trees and trusts you to make your own map. That is, he rarely tells you what he’s doing, he just does it. It’s up to you to figure out what the big picture is and how all his movements fit into it.

Anyway, one of the current things I’m trying to contextualize is Deleuze’s extremely idiosyncratic reading of Nietzsche’s eternal return. The standard reading, as far as I’m aware, is that the eternal return is the return of the same: everything as it is will recur exactly how it is. This interpretation is a problem for Deleuze’s pluralistic reading of Nietzsche, where difference and diversity are never exhausted. So Deleuze reads it as a doctrine about the eternal return of chance, of the eternal creation of the radically new. Difference is the eternal being of becoming. There are, of course, objections.

One objection I found recently is in James J. Winchester’s Nietzsche’s Aesthetic Turn. Winchester’s approach is historical; he’s attempting to determine whether Deleuze’s reading is what Nietzsche himself had in mind. There are reasons for not liking this approach to Deleuze, since it seems Deleuze wants to read philosophers in ways that bring out aspects of their work that are hidden even to them. Deleuze is more faithful to the concept than the intentions of the philosopher. But let’s go along with Winchester. Here is his objection:

The problem with [Deleuze’s] interpretation is that Nietzsche often claims that everything recurs exactly as it has been. Some passages support Deleuze’s reading of the eternal return, but his interpretation seems directly to contradict those passages from Thus Spoke Zarathustra suggesting that it is not chance that returns but the identical moment. The unbearable nature of the eternal return in Thus Spoke Zarathustra is incomprehensible unless the doctrine means that everything comes again exactly as it was:

“. . . not to a new life or a better life or a similar life: I come again to this life which is the same [gleichen und selbigen) in both the big events and the small ones. . . . The small man returns eternally!” (Z, “The Convalescent”)

Curiously enough, it is exactly this section—which I find the most problematic for his understanding of the eternal return—that Deleuze chooses to support his reading of the doctrine! He men­tions Zarathustra’s bemoaning of the eternal return of the small man, but interprets it to mean, in what seems to me a flagrant mis­ reading of the text, that the little man does not return. Deleuze quotes from Ecce Homo, where Nietzsche writes of the eternal joy of becoming (EH, “BT,” 3), and concludes that since the little man does not share this joy, he cannot return.

p. 78

Winchester’s criticism is fairly elliptical. He points to a passage from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra where we find the claim that “the small man” (i.e. reactive forces) return eternally. This is exactly what Deleuze wishes to deny. Winchester presents Deleuze’s only recourse here to be pointing to the fact that, in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche claims that there is an “eternal joy of becoming.” And since joy is active, reactive forces cannot return.

Winchester is quoting from §14 of Chapter 2 of Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy here, where Deleuze is discussing the ethical dimension of the eternal return. In this section, Deleuze indeed cites the passage from Zarathustra that Winchester quotes. However, Deleuze discusses the same passage a few pages earlier, in §12 of Chapter 2, even quoting it at more length than Winchester. Here we see Deleuze give an defence of why he reads this passage as supporting his interpretation. This is Deleuze:

This [reactive] condition of man is of the greatest importance for the eternal return. It seems to compromise or contaminate it so gravely that it becomes an object of anguish, repulsion and disgust. Even if active forces return they will again become reactive, eternally reactive. The eternal return of reactive forces and furthermore the return of the becoming-reactive of forces. Zarathustra not only presents the thought of the eternal return as mysterious and secret but as nauseating and difficult to bear (cf. also VP IV 235, 246). The first exposition of the eternal return is followed by a strange vision of a shepherd ‘writhing, choking, convulsed, his face distorted’, a heavy black snake hanging out of his mouth (Z III ‘Of the Vision and the Riddle’ p. 180). Later, Zarathustra himself explains the vision: ‘The great disgust at man – it choked me and had crept into my throat… The man of whom you are weary, the little man recurs eternally… Alas man recurs eternally!… And eternal return, even for the smallest – that was my disgust at all existence! Ah, disgust! Disgust! Disgust!’ (Z III ‘The Convalescent’ pp. 235-6). The eternal return of the mean, small, reactive man not only makes the thought of the eternal return unbearable, it also makes the eternal return itself impossible; it puts contradiction into the eternal return. The snake is an animal of the eternal return; but, insofar as the eternal return is that of reactive forces, the snake uncoils, becomes a ‘heavy black snake’ and hangs out of the mouth which is preparing to speak. For how could the eternal return, the being of becoming, be affirmed of a becoming nihilistic? – In order to affirm the eternal return it is necessary to bite off and spit out the snake’s head. Then the shepherd is no longer either man or shepherd, ‘he was transformed, surrounded with light, he was laughing! Never yet on earth had any man laughed as he laughed’ (Z III ‘Of the Vision and the Riddle’ p. 180). Another becoming, another sensibility: the Overman”

Nietzsche and Philosophy, p. 65

What is important is that this doctrine of the eternal return as the return of the same, the return of the reactive, is put in the mouth of Zarathustra. It is not straightforwardly asserted by Nietzsche (at least not here). Deleuze notes this and interprets it as Zarathustra’s first encounter with the idea, which is the eternal return seen from the point of view of reactive forces. A reactive view of the eternal return sees it as the return of reactive forces, as a nihilism, since the reactive posit the illusion of another world beyond this one in which all is redeemed. The doctrine of the eternal return denies that other world, and so all they are left with is this world. We might say, to see the eternal return as the return of the same, and to be disgusted by this, is precisely to confront one’s own nihilism. The challenge is to see the eternal return in a way that invites affirmation. The fact that Zarathustra understands it as the return of reactive forces does not mean this is how Nietzsche thought we should understand it.

Now, there are two qualifications to my defence of Deleuze’s reading. First, it’s been a long time since I read Zarathustra (I can’t remember if I even finished it). And when I did attempt it I was very young. Since I haven’t, at the moment, gone back and read the relevant sections in context it could be that Deleuze’s interpretation here is still way off the mark. Secondly, this passage from Zarathustra is far from the most devastating textual counter-example to Deleuze’s reading. For my money, a defence of Deleuze’s interpretation of the eternal return will have to reckon with “The Greatest Weight” section of The Gay Science in which Nietzsche has his demon describe the eternal return as follows:

“This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

There seems to be less wiggle room here. We could again point out that it’s a demon who is speaking these words (and, as philosophers know, demons have a reputation for being deceptive). So it could be that this demon is intentionally falsely describing the eternal return in order to test one’s reactivity. But this reading still seems pretty flimsy to me, and as far as I know Deleuze does not address this passage from The Gay Science directly.

Deleuze in the Shadow of Kojève

This term I’m TAing a course on Hegel, so I got a chance to finally sit down and read (at least a section of lecture 2 of) Alexandre Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. I was passively familiar with Kojève’s work, and was coming at the text with a fairly irreverent view of him. The story I had in my head was this: Kojève gave his lectures to a French-speaking audience before the Phenomenology was translated into French, so he felt he was able to say whatever he wanted about Hegel without worrying about his audience being able to challenge his reading. This led to him over-emphasizing the master-slave dialectic and giving a too anthropological reading of the Phenomenology, treating it as if it was an account of the development of “Man.” This interpretive laxity led to Kojève saying prima facie absurd things like this:

To understand what absolute Knowledge is, to know how and why this Knowledge has become possible, one must therefore understand the whole of universal history. And this is what Hegel has done in Chapter VI.

p. 32

These errors were corrected by Jean Hyppolite, who produced the first French translation of the Phenomenology as well as two masterful works on Hegel (Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Logic and Existence). Basically, I was (and to an extent still am) on team Hyppolite.

But, of course, when you actually read something you find it’s much more complex than the caricatured story you hear about it. While I still suspect that Kojève’s reading is too anthropological, I was surprised how enthralling the lecture was. And, what’s more, I was surprised at the ways in which it contextualized many of the concerns of 20th century French philosophy. I want to mention two of these that jumped out at me and that I see as related to two of Gilles Deleuze’s concerns in his early work. I am fairly confident that Deleuze would have had Kojève’s words in mind while developing these problems for himself. At the moment these are just hypotheses; but I’m putting them here so I’m sure to have them in mind when I read the relevant Deleuze texts.

1. Transcending the Given

Here is Kojève:

For Self-Consciousness to exist, for philosophy to exist, there must be transcendence of self with respect to self as given. And this is possible, according to Hegel, only if Desire is directed not toward a given being, but toward a nonbeing.

pp. 39-40

Kojève goes on to explain that Desire directed toward a nonbeing is a Desire directed at another Desire. This is the starting point of what will become the master-slave dialectic and the account of Self-Consciousness achieving the Holy Grail of mutual recognition.

There are two interesting connections with Deleuze here, that also allow us to link a theme from his earliest work with a theme from his later work with Guattari. Deleuze in his Empiricism and Subjectivity makes the following claim about David Hume:

The problem is as follows: how can a subject transcending the given be constituted in the given? Undoubtedly, the subject itself is given. Undoubtedly, that which transcends the given is also given, in another way and in another sense. This subject who invents and believes is constituted inside the given in such a way that it makes the given itself a synthesis and a system. This is what we must explain. In this formulation of the problem, we discover the absolute essence of empiricism.

pp. 86-87

This seems to me largely the same question. Deleuze and Kojève are both inquiring into transcendence as the condition of philosophy (as systematic knowledge, which includes knowledge of the knower). Both are attempting to give an account of how this transcendence is possible if we are starting from the given; for Kojève the given self as an animal self with biological desires and for Deleuze the self as a collection of ideas.

I’ll make some general comments here. First, it is interesting to note that Kojève sees desire as a condition of transcendence (in fact, the necessary and sufficient conditions of this transcendence are language and desire; language allows for consciousness of the object and desire allows for self-consciousness of the subject). And, moreover, this desire is desire understood as a lack. This position ends up being one of the main targets of Anti-Oedipus. Could this late theory of desire as a pure positivity be (in part) the filling out of an account of transcendence that resists Kojève’s story?

2. Grounding and Claiming a Right

Shortly after the claim about transcending the given, Kojève says this:

Desire is human—or, more exactly, “humanizing,” “anthropogenetic”—only provided that it is directed toward another Desire and an other Desire. To be human, man must act not for the sake of subjugating a thing, but for the sake of subjugating another Desire (for the thing). The man who desires a thing humanly acts not so much to possess the thing as to make another recognize his right—as will be said later—to that thing, to make another recognize him as the owner of the thing. And he does this—in the final analysis—in order to make the other recognize his superiority over the other. It is only Desire of such Recognition (Anerkennung), it is only Action that flows from such a Desire, that creates, realizes, and reveals a human, non-biological I.

p. 40

There’s a lot going on in this passage. It is easy to read Kojève as simply talking about property rights, but I think we should extend this epistemologically to rights to believe or assert something. This, admittedly, is a fairly Brandomian reading but I think it’s there. Desire will desire not only that others recognize their claims property and territory, but also recognize their right to claims to know, or their claims to truth. This can be done in a one-sided way; where one party recognizes the “truth” of another party on pain of punishment. But the master-slave dialectic is meant to show that this model is unsustainable. Thus the only way of achieving mutual recognition here is through a rational practice of giving and asking for justifications.

The interesting connection with Deleuze here is that this is precisely how he defines grounding in his early seminar What is Grounding? And he also sees this as a distinctly human practice, and one that becomes self-reflexive in the act of philosophy. Thus, Deleuze:

We have seen that to ground is to appeal to a ground, to pose a question as already grounded. Now, what is the one who appeals to a ground? Who needs one’s action to be grounded? It is one who claims. To claim is to claim something by virtue of a right. Perhaps this right is invented, it will be said of it that this right is not grounded. We lay claim to the hand of the girl and to power, and perhaps to both at the same time (cf. Odysseus).

p. 21

The ground is thus that which will or will not give us the right. It will present itself as the third. The ground or third ground. To claim is to lay claim to something. In claiming one claims to appear before that which can give or confirm one’s right. It is to accept to submit to the test. The ground is the third, because it is neither the claimant, nor to what he lays claim to, but the instance which will make the claimed yield to the claimant.

p. 22

This is only the initial account of grounding that Deleuze begins with. His full account of grounding will involve the unconscious and psychic repetition, which I’m still working on figuring out. But I’ll end again with a comment and question. It’s interesting to note that, while Hegel is very concerned about the failure of one-sided accounts of “grounding,” Deleuze seems to affirm it as one sided. Deleuze will say that appealing to a ground is submitting oneself to a test; the ground is what tests. And here there is an asymmetrically that Hegel seems to eradicate; the tested and the one who tests. How does Deleuze, then, get around Hegel’s challenge of one-sided accounts of recognition?

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.