From Hall of Mirrors to Shattering Crystal (or Reply to Graham Part II)

So here’s some more thoughts in regard to Graham’s reply post of August 6.


One thing that I really like about the Hjelmslevian frame radicalized by Deleuze and Guatarri is that it takes away hierarchy, in that ANYTHING can signify anything else. Its not just language or even 2D images we’re talking about. When an asteroid hits a planet, the asteroid is a sign of what caused it to hit the planet, and it causes signs to radiate outwards from it (say, the impact crater on the moon). This is why D&G like both Hjelmslev and Peirce, because for both of them, but more explicitly Peirce, there is not distinction between matter and signs, for matter and signs are ways of looking at
things that go ‘all the way down’.

Incidentally, this also parallels debates in information theory, in which some theorists argue that information is only there if it
registers to a conscious agent which acts as a reader, while others define information more physically, in regard to entropy, probability, etc. I take issues with both definitions, for different reasons (but that’s a discussion for another time).

That said, however, we do not get the ‘hall of mirrors’ here that so worries Graham, and which Ian nicely describes in Unit Operations as existent in the Saussurian system. Saussures’s system IS a hall of mirrors, when abstracted from conditions of space and time, which is likely how Saussure, as the grandaddy of what would become structuralism, liked it.

But languages in the world just aren’t like that. As soon as you add one new letter to Saussure’s differential network, the whole apparatus shifts, and things reflect differently. But there’s also the fact that each letter is not simply a sign for a sound, but part of a recomposable system in which double articulation gives rise to meaning at a second level. And this is the manner in which Saussure’s hall of mirrors of a differential network of signifiers, in which one letter signifies one sound, has given rise to an infinity of potential words, and from this, an infinity of potential works of language, literature, etc. If there were really nothing but a hall of mirrors here, how is it that Joyce could’ve written his Ulysses out of the same materials as Shakespeare wrote his plays? At a variety of levels, difference enters the system.

In real life, beyond Saussure’s abstraction, languages are dynamic entities, they layer on top of each other and shift around, mutating, so that what we really get is such an overlaying of mirrors, a shattering and recomposing of mirrors, all within the shifting flows of extended cultural spacetime, that the result isn’t reflection, but refraction within a continually readjusting, layered set of crystals. Nothing comes out of such a crystal the way it goes in, its all difference, all the way through. You’d never get a reflection out of such a thing, only refractions. And refractions don’t respect the boundaries of pre-composed objects, they shatter, recompose, rework, warp, etc. Out of the old, they give rise to not only the new, but the radically new.

If the boundaries of precomposed objects are respected, you end up with a set of legos, with a large if finite number of possibilities (and as we see with the 26 letters of the English language, this is hard to exhaust!). This is what a very complex hall of reflective mirrors can do. But when you get to refraction, you violate the boundaries of even precomposed objects, and the possibilities for newness literally become infinite, even if from finite quantities of matter.

This is why I think the model espoused by Bergson/Deleuze in Matter and Memory and the Cinema Books, in which all is image and imaging, if differently, of the whole, is able to account for difference as network, without falling prey to the hall of mirrors effect.


If EVERYTHING is a refraction, then there’s no originals, only iterations of iterations. This is where the difference comes from. But as soon as there’s a ‘real Paris’, you have the same essence/accident dynamics that you see in (gulp) Hegel. Which is not to say there’s not something ‘real’ there. Its real all the way down. AND not real. Homologously, this is why Spinoza has mind and matter interpenetrate at ALL levels, its his solution to the Cartesian binary. And it seems to me that object-oriented approaches still are, in some ways, very binary, in a Cartesian-Kantian sense. For while they get rid of the human centered
aspects of correlation, they push this over to objects. But this too is a form of ‘hot-potato’. Just by saying that there’s a ‘real Paris’ underneath the ‘phenomenal Paris’, you still call it Paris, and this is just too much to say about the real. It imports personal/cultural filters under the guise of the god’s eye view of ‘reality’.

Unless, UNLESS, you mean Paris as an IDEA. In which case, of course that IDEA exists, as an object in the world, an immaterial one. And it is bound up with matter in a variety of ways, by a variety of actors, human and non-human, conscious and non-consioucs. But to say that Paris the idea has anything DEFINITE to do with the spacetime location
in which me and Graham and many others would say the city of Paris is located is to import our idea of Paris, a cultural one, into matter, which knows nothing of culture. I don’t dispute that there’s a real spacetime location at stake, nor that there’s real matter there, nor that there’s a real idea of Paris living in the brains of real people. But to call the matter or spacetime location in question ‘Paris’, linking idea to matter and location, in a non-mediated manner, well, that hits me as problematic.

If, however, you say that there is matter there, a spacetime location there, and LOTS of graspings of both, by entities like Graham and myself (who see ‘Paris’ there), and things like electrons (which see nothing but patterns of charge and density), and these potentially incompossible phenomenal objects all can coexist with each other, WITHOUT one being more ‘right’ or ‘true’ than any other, then great, I’m in. Because then to call that bit of matter or spacetime location Paris is shorthand for saying ‘for those who see it as Paris’, and obviously, the electron won’t.

So long as you reduce Paris to an ‘it’, with unclear boundaries and meaning, one which can be divided in infinite potential ways (and here’s where Badiou’s notion of the empty set that is included in all sets as the foundation of his definition of multiplicity comes in), then I’m game. Because then calling this conjunction of matter and spacetime location ‘Paris’ is a shorthand for a much more complex situation. Is there any irony here, though? I don’t think so.

Once again, I don’t believe that the real is foreclosed because of some metaphysical faith, a la Lacan. I believe the real is foreclosed, and foreclosed from us even getting to call Paris ‘real’ in any sense, because the universe is extended, in the Whiteheadian sense. Unless you have a god’s eye view, of all that happens to a spacetime location and its matter, for all spacetime, then you can’t really say anything definite like that about a given worldline and its matter. You’d need
a Leibnizian god to do this, and given the choice, I’d rather my god be Spinozist. Because even if a Leibnizian god shows up on the scene, and says, ‘throughout the history of the cosmos, this worldline is best referred to as ‘Paris’, well, who’s to say he’s right? From what perspective? All? But unless you have this impossible figure, how can you say with any definitiveness that its really Paris? Or, better yet, and here’s where I get Spinozist, why would you WANT to? Doesn’t that foreclose precisely the role of its ability to differ from itself, at a level which goes beyond differing in essence?

Don’t get me wrong, I really LIKE the idea that Graham and Levi have that Aristotle’s notion of substance isn’t radical enough. This is why I like Spinoza’s infinite substance much better, because it is truly multiple. And in a sense, as Whitehead says, anything which exists as an object has some form or another of ‘objective immortality’, it will be remembered in its reverberations in the universe for all time, in its way. So the particularly of any object, no matter how aleatory,
remains. But I’m not sure calling the real Paris ‘Paris’, or calling Paris ‘real’ beneath its phenomenal graspings, solves these issues.

Going back to purport, think of purport kinda like clay. You can make many objects out of clay before you fire the kiln, but you can also divide the clay up into multiple objects. In a radicalized Hjelmslevian format (which Deleuze and Guattari pursue), there’s clay on both the level of content and expression, or, in terms of OOO, real and phenomenal. I think there’s a lot to be said for this.


~ by chris on August 18, 2010.

2 Responses to “From Hall of Mirrors to Shattering Crystal (or Reply to Graham Part II)”

  1. Dumb question and this probably just highlights my not being versed enough on Spinoza and Leibniz. But how would you characterize the difference between God in both systems? My understanding (perhaps incorrect) is that Spinoza’s God isn’t a normal pantheism ala the Stoics but has a kind of transcendence not unlike that of Leibniz.

    • Hi Clark-
      Actually, Spinoza’s god is incredibly similar to the Stoics, it is completely immanent, it is everything. But the intellectual love of god, which leads to the most ethical and most pleasureful life, requires understanding god’s immanent logics, and this is why it may seem that there’s some transcendence at work, because there still is a project of betterment. We understand god’s ways poorly, so the question is, how do we liberate ourselves of the constraints of our bodies, full of passions, and our situated perspectival nature, and the task for Spinoza is to understand the deeper logics of the world around us. This is why Deleuze loves Spinoza so much, because he provides a completely immanent, naturalistic, non-transcendental, flat onto-ethics. Great stuff.
      Leibniz is also great, but for different reasons. His god is completely transcendent, the great watchmaker who harmonizes the possible worlds to come up with the ‘best’ one. I find both models have so much to offer us in destabilizing the hegemony of the cartesian/kantian tradition. Ok, hope that helps!

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