Phasespaces, Normal Science, and Goo: On Tim’s reply to Gary

In a recent blog post, discussing, among other things, how to explain the evaporation of water, Tim Morton answers Gary Williams with the following:

“Its Virtual field contains the possibility of crystal actualization”? Yet I and my chemistry professor uncle have a simpler explanation. Water begins to evaporate from the solution because of heat in the surrounding environment. Which one is true? The monist one or the chemistry one? Why the latter, of course. Why bother with the former, then, if all you want to do is do science and predict stuff?

And “immanent processes of organization” means that everything is made of goo.

For what it’s worth, I think Gary’s point is solid. Reducing Deleuze’s complex ontology to lavalampism really oversimplifies things to the point where the illustrative aspects of metaphor start to fall away, and instead key details of Deleuze’s philosopher are just plastered over.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love a good argument, I think they are healthy and fun and often educational for all involved, and hyperbole and metaphor in one’s argument are half the fun. And I realize Tim is having fun with the lavalampism argument, and that he knows a helluva lotta science in addition to philosophy, and so we need to take this all tongue-in-cheek.

But it’s one thing to play fast and loose here and there,  particularly at the pub, or to simplify for purposes of explanation or limitations of space, but when the dust settles let’s make sure we don’t end up saying things like Deleuze is actually an Australian, and the whole French thing was just a ruse. So, a few points.

The reason why I believe the virtual makes sense in regard to the water example cited above is because when you encounter a molecule of water, it magically evaporates at exactly the same temperature as all the other molecules of water. Now THAT’S pretty damn cool. Does this mean that all these water molecules communicate by walkie talkie? How the heck does nature do that?

One way to describe that is to say that there is an abstract graph in ‘phasespace’ (and yes, scientists certainly do use phase-space (see link for more info) and state-space diagrams!), in which there are singularities, like the triple-point of water, which govern the behavior of all those water molecules.And yes, mathematicians do actually call them singularities (see Rene Thom on catastrophe theory).

Where exactly does this magic graph live? Now, you’re right, no self-respecting engineer would ever call it ‘virtual’ or whatever. But a Deleuzian would say that this graph, with all its abstract potentiality, is immanent to the water. And of course, this is exactly what science says, it just doesn’t quite metaphorize it this way, cause it isn’t interested in ontology, it’s interested in what works, so, if you ask an engineer something like ‘ok, but where does the graph with the triple point live, in the ether?!’, they’ll just be confused.

But everyday life is full of the virtual. When I play peek-a-boo with my nephew, he goes in and out of my field of view. Is it simply poetry to say he is virtually present even when I can’t see him (because my eyes are closed)? Or another example, my wooden table has potential fire in it, so long as I supply a match. That’s not Aristotelian teleology, because I don’t think the table pulls towards fire in some sort of entelechy like an acorn to a tree. Deleuze uses virtual over potential precisely to distinguish himself from these sorts of Aristotelian ghosts haunting the world potential.

But we know that the water in front of us has latent potentialities to become steam or ice, and thus it is immanently governed by singularities and lines of flight. These are metaphors that are able to link philosophical approaches and scientific  approaches quite nicely, and I think that Manuel DeLanda does quite an excellent job of detailing how this happens in Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy.

Thus, we have a dual (water as actual thing in front of me/all it’s virtual potentialities as they are organized in a phasespace graph) ontology, but in a monist shell (the later is immanent in the former as its mode of organization, such that the result is neither monist or dualist. That is, what we’ve got here is  between and beyond monism and dualism, and that’s precisely what’s so cool about Deleuze, he’s both-and.

And this is why Deleuze carefully delineates his transcendental approach from a more binary Cartesian/Kantian split world approach, which he categorizes as transcendent. No matter how you spin it, Deleuze is very clear that he’s not a monist materialist, and he takes great pains to distinguish himself from both that and its opposite.

Even if you don’t take him at his word, or feel he’s being ingenuine, you’d have to prove that with argument, because Deleuze is very very clear to argue that he is neither monist nor materialist. This is simply just a matter of what he said in print. And while Badiou seems to believe otherwise, he takes a whole book’s worth of labor to argue this point. He still warps Deleuze in the process, I believe, but he doesn’t just ignore the fact that Deleuze put a lot of theoretical effort into distinguishing himself from both monism and materialism (unless you consider the virtual materialism!).

Tim poses a very important question, however, when he asks the following:

But the bigger question is, what does the Deleuzian description add that I can’t simply see with my own eyes, aided by a decent chemistry textbook?

Why indeed! I mean, we can say that those things which govern water molecules, such as phase space diagrams, don’t actually ‘exist’, or not even pose the question, which leaves most engineers completely satisfied. But as philosophers, don’t we need to ask, ok, what exactly is the ontological status of these abstract diagrams? Are they real?

And this is where we need something like a Deleuzian metaphysics in order to supplement science. Either we give up asking these questions (the engineer approach), and stop being philosophers, or we do what philosophers do, which is contextualize things like science, and connect it to the bigger picture, in ways that science often isn’t interested in (at least when all is going well, though in a time of crisis of what Kuhn would call ‘normal science’, then it’s time to bring in some crazy people, historians of science maybe, or philosophers, to help imagine paths outside of a dead end . . . )

So, that’s why, I think, we need something like a Deleuzianism here. Whether or not Deleuze solves the puzzle is up for debate. But the fact that there’s a need for something like this I think is important to see, lest we throw away philosophy with the bathwater. Of course, many have posed the question of why philosophize in the first place, but here it’s precisely because we think what’s beyond the normal, and normalization, of science, methinks.






~ by chris on January 13, 2011.

2 Responses to “Phasespaces, Normal Science, and Goo: On Tim’s reply to Gary”

  1. Excellent post. You touched on many points that I should have addressed, but didn’t, especially in regard to the use of “phasespace” in real science.

  2. Much as I often enjoy reading Tim Morton’s blog, I’ve been a bit frustrated with this ‘lavalamp’ thing. It’s a nice image, and sounds catchy, but applied to Deleuze it strikes me as a shocking reduction of a fantastically detailed and rigorously-argued ontology.

    Even restricting discussion to ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ would leave us with an array of concepts (strata, abstract machine, plane of immanence, etc.) which have very extensively elaborated explanatory functions. And paragraphs such as the one on ‘machines’, though admittedly quite funny, don’t attempt to actually deal with the substance of Deleuze and Guattari’s thought at all.

    I’m not expecting a page-by-page critique of ‘Difference and Repetition’ from a blogpost, but it’s a bit disheartening to see someone as serious and significant as Deleuze dismissed off-hand. Perhaps Morton does have specific philosophical disagreements with Deleuze, but so far I have no real idea what they are.

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