What is Philosophy? A Networkological Spin On the Age Old Question “Why”?

•July 7, 2015 • Leave a Comment

What is philosophy, and why should we care? Many people tend to think of philosophy as something done by professors or experts, such that it’s just out of reach of everyday folks. But what if we all do philosophy on a decently regular basis, and just don’t think of it this way? What might that mean for us, or for philosophy?

Let’s say you’re doing something relatively simple, like cutting the grass in front of your house. While at times you may zone out and not think at all, and lapse into simple unconscious rote habit, perhaps daydreaming as you do it, just following your muscle memory, usually you are thinking while you do most tasks, at least to one extent or another. You make sure you are covering all the parts of the lawn with the mower, squaring the corners, that sort of thing, all of which requires some degree of conscious thought. Rather than simply mowing the lawn, which is at its simplest merely doing something, you are also thinking about it, and while all doing involves some degree of thinking, this is conscious thinking. It’s this thinking which transforms this doing into an activity.

Sometimes, however, you reflect on how you’re doing things. Returning to the lawn, perhaps you think “I’m not really doing this efficiently,” or “I could do this better,” or “perhaps I should try this other technique instead.” At this point, you transform the activity of moving the lawn into a practice, in the sense in which you say a doctor “practices” medicine. That is, there is a reflection on how you are performing that activity, one which is constantly assessing the activity in regard to particular standards that seem pretty obvious, such as, in the case of mowing the lawn, making a nice looking lawn without expending too much energy in the process with arcane techniques.

From there, however, you may start to reflect even further. You might start to question these very standards, in this case, what constitutes a nice lawn, or what should determine the amount of effort one puts into something like a lawn. There’s a shift from assumed norms of lawn mowing, questions of technique and “how,” to questions of value, which is to say, what sort of lawn does one want at all? Is mowing really the best way to get a good lawn, or even moreso, a good looking front of your house? Maybe a lawn simply isn’t the answer, maybe a small garden would work better. Asking these sorts of questions, these meta-level questions, transforms the practice of mowing the lawn into what the Marxists would call a praxis.

Of course, you may still mow the lawn after asking these sorts of questions, but you will not only be asking yourself if your technique is good, questions which exist at the level of practice, but also, how questions at the level of technique relate to those of value. And so, you may ask yourself if spending so much energy on trying to figure out the best technique for mowing the lawn isn’t perhaps a waste of time, when planting a garden might not only make things look nicer, but provide some produce to eat as well. Whatever you decide, lawn or garden, so long as you do this while questioning not merely the technique of what you are doing at the level of practice, but also the value of the activity in and beyond questions of technique, you are engaging in an activity which is not only a practice, but also a praxis.

Of course, things get really tricky if you start to then question not only the technique of what you’re doing (ie: can I mow this lawn better?), or how this relates to your larger scale goals and values (ie: is a mowed lawn really the best thing for the front of my house?), to the question of why you have these values in the first place. That is, you might ask yourself why it is important to have a nice looking area in front of your house in the first place. You might start to question whether or not you are doing this to simply impress the neighbors, or whether perhaps your desire for a nice area in front of your house is part of the myth of private property foisted on us by the way we are brainwashed by the capitalist system. Of course, this opens an entire potentially infinite regress, in which you start to question why you want anything at all. Eventually, you just have to decide on your values, and go with them, and work from there.

Either way, when you start to question not merely “how” you are doing something, or even “why” in relation to your values, but rather, “why” you have any of those values which could even help you answer these questions, you are doing something like philosophy. That is, you are thinking about “why” questions on a second, meta- level. Instead of merely asking “why” you are doing something, you are asking “why” it matters to ask “why” you are doing something. You are inquiring into the foundations of what you value, or in this case, why it matters to you to have a nice area in front of your yard in the first place. This sort of meta-thinking about anything we do is, I’d like to argue, precisely what philosophy is.

From this perspective, some of us never engage in philosophy. We just act mostly out of habit, and we do what is normal for those around us. Some of us try to be more efficient or better at what we’re doing, and this makes not mere doers, but technicians. Beyond this, we may even reevaluate our technique in relation to larger questions of big-picture goals, and this makes us true practitioners. But if we even question if perhaps even our big-picture is misleading us, such that perhaps there is a better way, in a much more fundamental sense, then this is what is meant, I believe, by philosophy.

Philosohpy is then, in a sense, always already meta-ethics. It asks the question of why we should value what we value. Everything else flows from here. This even includes what we think we know, because our knowledge is shaped by the ways we study the world and what we do, and if we change the way we gain and use knowledge, we end up changing that knowledge and/or its use in the process.

Another way to look at this is that philosophy is what happens we start thinking about how we’re thinking. That is, it’s meta-thinking about meta-thinking. For if I’m not only thinking about what I need to do mow the lawn, but how to mow better, as well as why I should mow in the first place, and even why it matters to question why I should mow in the first place, there’s ultimately four levels of reflection going on. That is, one is thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking about what one is doing.

All of us likely engage in the first few levels quite often. Most of us can’t help thinking about what we’re doing on some level, even something as simple as mowing the lawn. Most of us think on occasion as well about how we could do it better. On occasion, we might even think about whether or not mowing the lawn really helps us reach our bigger picture goals. But to question why we even have these goals, and if these are the sorts of goals we want to have, as an individual or society, now that is quite uncommon.

Many of us might only reach the last two layers of reflection when are depressed or anxious. The reason for this is that we’re really questioning everything, up to and including our place in everything we’ve ever known, up to and including the cosmos, any notions of the divine, our value to society, our friends and family, our self-worth, etc. When you start to question all that’s made your life meaningful up until then, this can often lead to anxiety about the possibility that one might need to change one’s general ways of looking at the world and acting within it, or rather, depression thinking about all the time wasted with ways of looking at the world and acting within it may have been wasted energy, or even, both anxiety mixed with depression.

And so, most of us tend to stay away from philosophy unless it’s absolutely necessary. True philosophy is uncomfortable. Academic philosophy, however, skirts this danger. It makes philosophy into a game, one without any real stakes. This is like going on a roller-coaster at an amusement park. The fun is the illusion of danger, you know there is no real danger, even if there is simulated danger when you engage in fast drops or curves but are really strapped in safe and tight.

But often times, you don’t have the option of doing philosophy. You start questioning your entire life and your place in it, because your old ways of working simply have stopped functioning. Life seems meaningless or frustrating, and you need to try ways of looking at the world and acting in the world which are different. Philosophy is then thrust upon you, like it or not.

While sometimes we solve this sort of problem by means of reflection, and meta-reflection at even more abstract levels (ie: what is the value of asking why I’m doing what I’m doing, how might I even evaluate my possible new values?), this is not often explicitly the case. That’s not saying this sort of reflection isn’t potentially quite valuable, and in fact, I think we often do this in semi- or unconscious forms whenever we are philosophizing. But most times, we simply act, and then look back, and say, oh, I must’ve changed pretty radically at some point, because I was in a state of crisis, I looked into the abyss, and then came out the other side and acting differently. My entire way of looking at the world changed in the process.

I think those are the times when you look back and can say that you have been philosophizing. How much you were explicit in this is another story. And while I do think there are benefits to the more abstract layers of philosophizing, the differences between them become I think less distinct than at more basic layers. Nevertheless, the differences, often rarely picked apart when people are “staring into the abyss” of philosophy, is nevertheless I think helpful for dealing with that abyss.

If we return to the abyss in relation to lawn mowing, and you start to ask why do I want something like a mowed lawn in the first place, asking why you have the values you do, then from there, you can start asking the first real question of philosophy, which is what values do I have for deciding my values? This is the question of meta-ethics. But even more abstract is the question of what the value of having values is about at all, a question of why we have values in the first place. From there you might start questioning how humans ever came to have values, how individual human values relate to the values of our societies, and how these relates to humanity as a species which values, in relation to a world which has produced us by something like a process of evolution, which itself has an implicit value system. From there you might start to wonder how evolution came about, and whether or not it implies some sort of value system inherent in the very structure of our worlds of experience as such.

And from there, you might start to ask why the hell you should care about any of this! After all, why should the cosmos matter, if all you’re really wondering is if it matters at all, in the grand scheme of things, if you should mow the lawn. But this is the real grit of philosophy, this is when it starts getting deeper into being philosophizing, when one sees everything in one’s life as suspended in the air, up for grabs, when the meaning of the entire universe, and everything in it, past and future, condensed up in the question of whether or not to do the action in front of one, as one would always have done. Should I not simply mow the lawn and be done with it? Just stop thinking and just “do”?

These sorts of questions have inspired philosophers and poets throughout the ages. Zen Buddhists have argued through the ages that to understand one grain of sand is to understand the cosmos and oneself, for these are all aspects of each other. Surely this is the approach to the world of philosophy. When T.S. Eliot famously said “do I dare eat a peach?,” he was asking a question of philosophy. William Carlos Williams famously stated in his cryptic, terse poem that

“so much depends
upon a

red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens”

it seems to me that he was dealing, in poetic fashion, with questions of philosophy. Or when Franz Fanon asked, “What does a black man want?,” he was asking a question of philosophy. Moreso than Eliot or Williams, however, Fanon was asking this not in a merely abstract sense, however. If you know anything about Fanon, his was a question of action. That is, not only what does a man want, but what does a black man want, and in regard to the context of how he is asking this, in regard to the possibility of changing the world, to make it a better place, a world with less racism.

Fanon’s approach to the question is similar to that put forward by Marx, in his famous Theses on Feuerbach, when he stated that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” And here we see another level of reflection going on. For if the first level of philosophy is meta-ethical (ie: why I value what I do?), and the second is meta-meta-ethical (ie: how can I determine the value systems whereby I choose, implicitly or explicitly, what I value?), the level beyond this, as described earlier, is to question what value is in the first place (ie: in relation to my community, species, cosmos, etc.). But the next level of reflection brings us back to where we started in the first place: what do I need to DO, once I have reflected on all these things? That is, how does doing impact my thinking, and how or should my thinking impact what I’m doing?

This sort of thinking about thinking just ups the ante. We start to ask what it means to think, what value there is to thinking, whether or not there are better or worse ways to think, how we should evaluate our thinking, what criterion we may want to use to evaluate our thinking, and even what we think about our thinking in relation to our society, species, and cosmos, and what to do about our thinking and how it relates to our acting in the world.

Of course, by the time you are at this level of reflection, you are deconstructing the very difference between acting and thinking. For in the process of thinking in this way, you likely come to realize the ways in which your thinking is impacted, at least in part, by the world which gave rise to you, and the values you were produced to value, and the modes of thinking, evaluating, and doing which are you are only now starting to question with all this thinking. You also likely start to realize that when you change what you do, it has subtle influences on how you think. And when you change what you do with others, you change not only how your own actions impact your thoughts, but how the very world you live in changes your thoughts. You start to change the world, as a way of impacting how you change your thinking, which in turn changes how you act in the world.

For how did thinking even come to be, in the first place? It seems nerve cells evolved from the need to coordinate increasingly complex sets of organs to help us respond ever more complexly to a rapidly changing world. And these nerve cells, feedback systems, increasingly began to feedback into each other. And yet, evolution too is a sort of thinking, of which the organisms it produces are like the thoughts, just as evolution itself is like one of the thoughts of the cosmos which produced it. It’s all brains, all the way down, distributed attempts to more richly come into sync with the world in ever more complexly changing ways over time, and in ways which can give rise to this more intensely and constructively, which is to say, robustly, in the future. Our thinking brains and the languages and cultural ideas we produce are just evolutions best attempts at thinking through the problem of how to develop ever more robustly creative entities to make the most out of this world. If we don’t end up killing each other first, of course, having not been able to work our way out of the evolutionary baggage from evolution’s earlier, more violent, survival oriented stages. Still, evolution learned to think that acting in cooperation, from individual proteins to living cells, from cells to organisms, from organisms to those with brains, from thinking beings to those with language and culture, that things work better when we cooperate, syncing things together in ways that maximize the potential for creativity for all. Thinking can perhaps help us to imagine ways to sync up this sort of big picture with our everyday possibilities for action. For imagining better ways in which the world can start to think these sorts of thoughts, through the small ways in which we can contribute to this.

All of which brings us back once again to where we started. By shifting from thinking about doing to thinking about values in relation to what we do, to finally thinking about thinking about what we do, we then arrive at thinking about doing and thinking as aspects of each other. We shift from practice to praxis to philosophy as something one does, to something one practices, to a praxis of philosophy, a philosophical praxis.

Perhaps the earliest stages described above are a sort of proto-philosophy or theorizing, and the more abstract levels are perhaps meta-theorizing and ultimately philosophy itself, that is, meta-ethical thinking about values as theorizing, thinking about values as such as meta-theorizing, and thinking about thinking as philosophy itself. But even these more basic levels, theorizing and meta-theorizing and whatnot, looking into the abyss while mowing the lawn, are a sort of philosophy. They are the opening of the philosophical in our everyday world. They are the start of the questioning of everything which can lead to a change in everything. It’s all philosophy, just in differing degrees of refractive intensity.

Viewed as such, philosophy can, in this sense, then be very dangerous. No wonder the powers that be want to keep it locked up in stuffy universities. Or keep us all focused on popular culture, distractions, petty competitions, and motivate us with petty theft. If we all started thinking about how things play out in terms of the big picture, that would be dangerous indeed.

To return to those who do philosophy for a living, a group in which I must include myself. My sense is that the sort of philosophy we do is rarely philosophy in any true sense. It is philosophy reduced to doing, much like mowing the lawn. It’s only when we start to question our technique, and why that matters, and our values in relation to this, in relation to value as such, and how this relates to the thinking and doing which produce these values in relation to the contexts which produce all of this in the first place, that I think we start doing real philosophy. Real philosophy, the hardest thing to do properly, is stuff which can change the world.

And perhaps then any sort of thinking which does change the world is a sort of philosophy. Notions like God, money, or science are fictions, in a sense, words which describe abstract notions which nevertheless organize our practices. As Nietzsche famously argued, all language is a sort of slight of hand or “lie,” to use his term, a “mobile army of metaphors.” For, to use a famous example employed by Hegel, I’ve never seen a notion of “tree,” only individual trees. A real tree is leafy and full of a near infinite set of particular details. But as soon as I say to someone “that is a tree” I erase these details, I make that tree part of a set, I implicitly argue that this particular thing in front of me is in some sense “the same” as many others which might be quite different from it. When I say both an “oak” or “maple” are both “trees,” I am fudging, faslifying, perhaps over simplifying, at least to put it nicely. Or as Nietzsche would say, lying.

Language is a set of useful lies, a set of slight of hands which make it possible to deal with the world and each other in particular ways. When I say “look at that tree over there,” I’m using a set of gross oversimplifications, but you still look about where I want you to and see something like I’m hoping you do. But we so often forget that it’s all efficient fictions. While relatively concrete notions are easy to work with and around, what about notions like God, money, or science? Economies rise and fall on money, but what is it, other than the fiction of value? We treat scraps of metal as valuable because they are rare, durable, and relatively useless. But what if we decided to make special slips of paper into fictitious value holders instead? Clearly this is all paper currency is, a set of mobile fictions. Just like property ownership. After all, what does it mean to own land or stuff other than that other people believe the fiction that you do? And in regard to money, what does it represent other than that everybody believes together that the special paper slips are valuable?

That said, entire societies rise and fall, lives are dramatically changed, around fictions like money. Or god, or science, or any other words. After all, once you see a word like “tree” as a fiction, then notions like “money” or “god” or “science” are easy. And yet, also peculiarly difficult, because these are the fictions to which we adhere so strongly, because these are the fictions which we use to organize our practices, fictions to which we anchor our values. These are what Lacan would call “master signifiers,” terms in our discourses which we can think of as grounding terms of a sort. Philosophy tends to come into its own when it starts to question not only whether to mow the lawn in a certain way, but how to relate that to issues such as money, god, or science, and perhaps more important still, why we value these notions, and how thinking about these things could then impact our ways of thinking or even acting.

While language is important to all of this, however, it’s not the whole thing by any stretch. We wouldn’t believe in money, after all, if people didn’t act as if the fiction were real each and every day. Perhaps there is nothing more real, then, than the fiction of money. Perhaps money, god, science, and grounding terms are the most real fictions of all. Philosophy had better question these, then. Why do we have things like money, philosophy, or science, what is their value, and how do they relate to thinking and doing, and what is the value of those things in relation to notions like god, money, or science? And how might this all impact how we do these things, or change to start doing other things? For surely if we started to act differently, say, we stopped exchanging and hoarding money, we’d stop thinking it was so real. Change how you act, and you change in often unforeseeable ways the way you think.

When you look into the void, and begin to philosophize, you question everything. And then you generally either return to doing what you were doing before, either cynically and in detached fashion, or passionately with renewed vigor, or you change what you are doing itself. Hopefully you don’t get stuck locked into a cycle of depression or anxiety, the dissolution of skepticism or the paranoia of fanaticism. When you do actually change the way you act, it always retroactively shifts how you look at things, particularly how and why you were doing things in the past. Perhaps this sort of changing the way one thinks about what one was doing is one of the most important forms of doing we can ever do, for it is where thinking impacts and changes what we do in a way which changes how we think.

But if this awareness keeps us tied up in ourselves, it only ever goes so far. For after all, what we think and do is always the product of our world. While we can question why we do and why we even value questioning these sorts of things, even the ways in which we question our questioning are always already shaped by the world which made us. If we’re really going to question everything, we’ve always go to question the relationship of each to the all, ask the question of the big-picture beyond big-pictures. And if we are ever going to change the way we think and act, the only way to really do this is the change the world which makes us the way we are. And isolated individuals can only do this to a minor extent. To really impact how one sees the world and acts in it, you need to change that very world. And this requires others.

And this is where I think philosophy can be really important. Because if one is always questioning, one can’t settle into this or that too easily, one is always tentative. Of course, being too tentative makes one indecisive, and that’s not good either. But there are optimal levels of questioning and doing, feedback and questioning which allow for modification without getting one stuck in never being able to do anything, as much as helping to keep one from getting stuck in one’s ways. These are both extremes to be avoided, which is to say, philosophizing as its own end, and the complete amnesia of a world without any philosophy.

Why do we think? What is thinking? Why do we value it at all, and how can it make the world better? What sort of thinking can make the world better, and how can we think of ways to think more like this in relation to the worlds in which we find ourselves? These seem to me likely important philosophical questions. And important questions which, if we keep asking ourselves, not so much that we stop doing anything, but enough that we stop doing the same thing simply because it’s what we’ve always done, or what others are doing, could help make us change the way we relate to our worlds for the better, both as individuals, and collectives.

Because philosophizing I think is what gets us out of ruts. It stops us from being fixated, even on philosophizing. After all, philosophy should not only help us to detach from ways of acting and thinking which don’t work as well anymore, but also, help us to realize when our thinking has become caught by a fetish or fixed idea, even by the fixation on philosophy itself for its own sake. Between the abysses of pure thinking and unthinking doing, between getting stuck in reflection for its own sake and doing because it’s what’s done, there is a middle path. This is, I think, the path of philosophy.

And this path is one which can never be merely for oneself or one’s group, merely for one set of ideals or values, but rather, the continual investigation of these in relation to actions within the dynamic set of contexts in which one finds oneself, questioning and in feedback relations which can help one stop getting stuck, stop making the same mistake, help one go back to experimenting with new ways of acting and thinking. Easier said than done, of course. But it’s all about experimenting. Good philosophy should do a lot of that, experimenting with new ways of thinking to potentially give rise to new ways of doing.

And this is why philosophy has impacted society as much as nearly anything else. Every religion, every science, every economics, these are all the results of, implicitly or explicitly, philosophy. They are the use of useful fictions, ideas, to help organize our actions which relate us to our worlds. A philosopher is then, for Nietzsche, something like a “cultural physician,” someone who attempts to intervene in the collective fictions we use to help structure the ways we relate our actions to those of our worlds.

Or perhaps, following Alfred Jarry, philosophy could be cast as a sort of pataphysics. Jarry, a writer and artist of the absurd, famously described pataphysics as the “science of imaginary solutions.” But isn’t that what philosophy is? After all, Jesus and the Buddha created new ways of looking at the world, they intervened in the realm of ideas, and as a result, the worlds around them changed in dramatic ways. Communism is an idea which changed the world in incredibly profound ways, and clearly this is as imaginary as any “tree” any of us have seen, in manner not unlike that of god or money. These are all imaginary notions, as imaginary as any word, even if these words are some of our most powerful organizing fictions.

Philosophers, when they are truly philosophizing, are perhaps those who work to help us shift our relation to these fundamental grounding notions. And in ways which think about how this all relates to the big picture. About our values, and why we value, and how we think about what we value, and how and why we value this sort of thinking, and what we could do about any of that. Philosophers, at least in theory, intervene in our relation to the imaginaries which help us structure our relations to our reals. After all, my hands may touch the wood in the trunk of a tree, something very real, but I can only really relate to this by thinking about this tree as a “tree,” especially if I’m going to describe any of this to someone next to me, or even try to coordinate my actions with theirs. We often think that fiction is elsewhere, but nothing is more real, it’s what helps us structure the real right in front of us, even if it often remains unseen. Philosophy helps us tweak our relation to this, shifting how the real appears by shifting the imaginaries we use to structure it. This is about much more than language or even ideas. It’s about shifting reality.

And you shift reality by shifting what we all do to impact the world which creates us as thinking and doing beings. Philosophy is how we learn to impact this, actively, rather than passively let it all happen to us. Philosophy is how we question what a better world might look like, and how we might get there, necessarily for any and all, because a better world for one would never be possible or even work in the long term. We need something like philosophy if the world is ever going to get better, and we are ever going to get better at relating to our worlds.

For it’s when we listen to our fears that we treat others around us, and our world, like hell, and in the process, make hell reality. While no fear is dangerous, too much fear makes us paranoid, makes us close up, makes us stop thinking and questioning, and just do what feels best for right now, which is usually what protects me and only me right here and right now. Philosophy is always about undermining this, because it always looks at the bigger picture. Philosophy makes it impossible to merely be satisfied with short term fixes or goals which only work for now. It makes for the penetration of each by all and vice-versa. When philosophy is truly philosophizing, it undermines any approach to things for only one way of looking at things, a valuation of any one type of thing, be this a country, gender, sexuality, race, class, my stuff, my way of thinking or acting, or anything like that. It’s all up for grabs, always, particularly as the world changes and new possibilities come to light. Philosophy always rips us out of our self-enclosures, relating things that would otherwise seem separate and discrete. For philosophy puts each in touch with any and all, the particular with the biggest of pictures, the mowing of the lawn with the why of the cosmos. And in a way which doesn’t fixate on itself either, but thinks by doing and does by thinking.

Such a thinking as philosophy is necessarily always already an ethics and meta-ethics, at least if it is truly philosophical thinking. It is always a questioning of if we can do a better job of thinking and acting, of shaping the world which will shape our forms of thinking and acting to as to give rise to the type of uses which will shape the future of our worlds. It’s a danger to the status quo, whatever that is, even if it is overthinking, or more likely in our world, overdoing.

Because if there is one thing which paranoia makes us do, it’s stop thinking. Act now, or there’ll never be a deal like this again, kill the person next to you or they’ll take your stuff. But if the other person is thinking, and you are too, you’ll see quite logically that things are better if you can cooperate. That the type of world which is the best for all is actually also the type of world which is best for me in the long run, because it is the richest in diversity and hence the richest world for me to live in. A world on the brink of chaos, but which skirts dissolution and rigidity, by means of thinking and what leads to and comes from thinking.

Between fixation and the abyss of fixation on questioning, there is the middle path. This is, I think, something for philosophy today to be thinking, particularly in relation to the horrifically exploitative conditions of increasing inequality in every sense our world today. How can we start thinking again?

It might not seem evident at first, but what I’ve described above is in fact an approach to the question of “what is philosophy?” which is quite networkological. It views thinking as always already related to the contexts and processes of its production, and sees thinking relationally, as networking which seeks to give rise to ever more complex forms of networking. My sense is that the robust emergences of networking is thinking, and that this only ceases to be thinking when it ceases to robustly emerge in relation to its worlds. My sense is that this is the sort of thinking which emerges when we are thinking relationally and networkedly, and I also think that this is the sort of thinking which is most philosophical, which is to say, the most about the robust emergence of thinking as what thinking is all about in order to bring about thinking which can potentiate robust emergence of networking. Such an approach might seem a bit circular at first, but thinking always has a circular aspect to it, even if there are circles which go nowhere, and circles, like going up a mountain and coming back down, that can change the way you look at, and hence do, everything.

Continental vs. Analytic Philosophy: Rethinking the Debate, Relativism, Objectivity, and Politics

•June 24, 2015 • Leave a Comment

The website Against Professional Philosophy, written by a self-described collective of anonymous “anarcho-philosophers,” seeks to critique institutional philosophy as we know it.  One hot button issue which has come up is that between analytic and continental philosophy in contemporary academic philosophy. I originally wrote an email response to this website, and my email was quoted nearly in full in this post “Analytic” Philosophy vs. “Continental Philosophy”: WtF? Why Does it Still Matter So Much? An Edgy Essay by Z, With Critical Discussion by Y, X, and W. Midway through this essay is the citation of most of my email, followed by a quite reasoned discussion.

What followed, however, was a post called APP’s Readers Talk Back! 1, in which a reader identified as JdB wrote a screed against continental philosophy, and Judith Butler in particular. The tenor of what he wrote was disturbing to me, yet symptomatic of so much of this debate from the analytic side. What follows is my response to JdB’s post, his concern about the attack on objectivity which he sees at stake with continental relativism, along with feminist and post-colonial critiques of contemporary analytic philosophy and science as a whole.

While my response addresses JdB’s points specifically, my intent here was to address the larger issues of which they are a symptom. For his entire post, which I find philosophically problematic, as well as implicitly problematic on much more concerning levels, see the final link above. For more of my thoughts on this issue, see a previous post I wrote called On Description: Or Moving Beyond The Linguistic Turn and Philosophies of Certainty, A Networkological Relational Approach.

What follows is a response to JdB’s response (and BobZ’s followup responses to him) regarding continental vs. analytic. My argument is that his response is philosophically problematic as well as offensive, and that these are related issues worth philosophical reflection, due to their symptomatic nature in regard to the analytic/continental institutional divide. I’ll address these claims roughly in order.

The Issue in the Abstract: Relativism

Firstly, despite providing lip service to the intent of “reconciling these traditions,”JdB’s response regurgitates boiler-plate attacks on Continental thought. Rather than attempt to understand why continental philosophers do what they do, and why they still consider it philosophy, JdB keeps the lenses of an analytic philosopher fully on as he writes his attack on things continental. Rather than try to reconcile with the other side, he wants to subsume it. Now, as a self-identified continental, I find most everything about what analytic philosophers do strange to my sense of what constitutes philosophy, but I still recognize analytic philosophy as a type of philosophy, even if one I find highly problematic. And I clearly see the “family resemblance” between analytic thought and other types of philosophy, even if I see more of a “family resemblance” between analytic philosophy and forms of science. But JdB doesn’t even try to see beyond the divides at the heart of contemporary philosophy, rather, he looks to reinforce them. His approach is a classic case of simple “othering,” one which uses the logic of “for or against.” But isn’t the purpose of this sort of website to imagine ways beyond the deadlocks created by the institutions of professional philosophy, and all the baggage which goes with this?

What is needed, I think, is to subject the division between analytic and continental philosophy to philosophical reflection, and JdB’s rhetoric can provide a starting point for this. JdB lambasts continentals for their lack of adherence to “objective” truths, their espousal of”cultural/epistemic relativism,” and their “[p]rivileging science vs. ‘science is just another narrative,’ and to be accorded no special epistemic privilege.” To me, this is the crux of the issue, and a typical one to hear from analytics, or at least, those with little experience dealing continentals on a regular basis (or at least dealing with continentals who don’t regurgitate their own boiler-plate, allowing both sides to opt for easy modes of argument).

One place to start in problematizing JdB’s approach is with the very tools provided by the discourses of science and math themselves. The very same scientific methods which lead to anything and everything that goes by the name science today produced the early twentieth century revolutions which shook the foundations of science and math: relativity and quantum physics in science, and incompleteness in mathematics. Both make it necessary to describe any attempt to espouse a form of objectivity, at least in any traditional sense, highly problematic. Indeed, they render it 19th century. Science today cannot simply ignore the fact that when practiced in a 19th century manner, it unearths its own contradictions, for as science and math have themselves shown, when pushed to the limits, pure objectivity is a fiction. What is more, it was the very parallels of this within philosophy which lead to the division between analytic and continental. This was over how to handle Russell’s paradox, and whether to return to the early Wittgenstein as a model, or late Wittgenstein (more in line philosophers who, after the rise of Logical Positivism, at least, would come to be retroactively called “continental”). Whether in science, mathematics, or philosophy, there was a crisis of foundations in the early 20th century, and we are still reeling with its implications. The divide between continental and analytic is merely a symptom of this.

What are the primary differences then, between continental and analytic approaches to these issues? Goedel can provide a way of thinking about this. If any formal system will either be incomplete, inconsistent, or incoherent in the last instance, analytics opt for the incomplete. This the path of the early Wittgenstein, who famously argued that we “must be silent” about “the things about which one cannot speak.” This is an approach which goes for logical consistency within very strict bounds, admitting that the “irrational” exists, and in a manner inextricably tied to the “rational,” even if it wants to prioritize the rational and have nothing to do with the irrational. “Continentals” (for lack of a better term), on the other hand, take the late Wittgenstinian approach, that of incoherence. This is not to say that everything they write is incoherent, as JdB argues. Rather, as with late Wittgenstein, there is an attempt to be more complete, to talk about everything, even those matters which are left out by the analytics and early Wittgenstein. The argument is that a) when we leave out that about which “we must be silent” we lose too much to make what remains worthwhile, and b) even when we pretend we are leaving out that about which “we must be silent,” we are often really speaking about that of which “we must be silent,” even if negatively. Such an approach views what both sides often do as forms of inconsistency, as a constant shuttling between incoherence and incompleteness as needed to shore up the seeming necessity of whatever position is to be defended. Viewed as such, the analytic approach can be seen as structured by its absence, just as early 20th century set theory was structured by the absence of Russell’s paradox, much like a pearl is structured by the imperfections in a grain of sand which forms its germ. Continental thought wagers that it is worth it to talk about pearl, germ, oyster, and ocean, and that in fact we are always doing some form of this anyway, even if that might not seem immediately apparent.

This is, of course, a wager, as is the analytic approach. The question, perhaps, is the stakes of such a wager in regard to their contexts. And this very notion of stakes and contexts, the fact that these are even taken into a consideration, indicates a difference as well. That is, continental thought generally believes that the context matters, such that it refuses to bracket the ways in which “external” factors may influence “internal” ones, even as analytic thought believes that the context should not matter, while for continentals, such issues always matter. In many senses, this is the same issue as that of objectivity and relativism/particularity of bias, viewed from a different side.

No matter what, however, to call objectivity in any traditional sense science, at least in the contemporary sense, is to radically oversimplify. Rather, there are two differing approaches to the issue. One can side with incompleteness, and see science and math as fully consistent within their purview. Or, one can risk incoherence by taking a more directly 20th century scientific approach to this (ie: many different explanations for the evidences of quantum phenomenon, category and sheaf theory over set theory, etc.). But to deny that there are different approaches to this issue within contemporary science and math, and to simply articulate a 19th century position which denies the existence of these foundations crises (“pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”), and to frame the division as that between science/math and their detractors, however, is to ignore the history and practice of science. And rather, in its place, to worship an idea of science, a form of scientism which is quite different from science which adheres to anything like the scientific method. Such an approach to science necessarily realizes that the foundations crisis existed and works to take it into account in one way or another. And there are two primary approaches within contemporary science on how to deal with the problem: exclusion/incompleteness (ie: Cophenhagen/Many Worlds interpretations of quantum physics, Zermelo-Frenkel set theory), or inclusion/incoherence (ie: Bohmian/decoherence/Fenymanian interpretations of quantum physics, category/sheaf theoretical post-foundationalist mathematics). Likewise, there are two primary ways of dealing with the issue in philosophy, one roughly adhering to the distinction between analytic and continental.

Nevertheless, there are different levels of subtlety on how to deal with this issue. On the surface, for analytics, objectivity is still a goal, if a distant one and one which is difficult to achieve. And on the surface, continentals see objectivity as a fiction, and a dangerous one at that, for all paradigms need to see themselves as ultimately relative, including ones which see themselves as striving for objectivity. But underneath this set of distinctions lies a more subtle one. For take “objectivity” to its extreme and it logically deconstructs its own foundations, in that its definition of being without bias must be a bias if it cannot be applied to everything equally well, as evidenced by incompleteness (whether in the form of Russell’s paradox, Goedel’s incompleteness, or simply the ways in which objectivity fails to account for each and every subjectivity, and certainly fails to do so equally well). Likewise, take “relativism” to its logical extreme, and it too deconstructs its own foundations, in that once universalized it becomes a pseudo-objectivity of in disguise, in which the only objective truth is the lack of objective truth. This sort of rippling set of paradoxes, symmetrical in their asymmetries, are precisely what early 20th century researchers in math, science, and philosophy encountered. Some chose to embrace the paradoxes, others tried to purge it.

Just as the issues are more subtle the more one investigates them, so too there have been coarse and subtle ways to deal with these. A more subtle objectivism doesn’t exclude relativism completely, but rather argues that while objectivity might not itself be fully objective, it is an approach which is quite useful in particular contexts. Such an approach uses the tools of relativism to argue for a modified objectivism. Conversely, a more subtle relativism argues that the approach of viewing all worldviews as ultimately relative is in fact a tacit form of objectivity, even if this is the only form of objectivity which is less relative than the others, and hence, the best there is. This approach uses the tools of objectivism to argue for a recast relativism. I think the most sophisticated philosophy, both analytic and continental, engages with issues such as these, and this is why I think that, in their ability to at least recognize the value of the other and to engage with it, this sort of thinking on both sides of the divide indicates at least one set of places where I think work could begin between analytic and continental approaches.

The differences between forms of objectivism and relativism, subtle or otherwise, however, are not merely limited to philosophy. Both show up in varying approaches to crises related to foundational issues within the disciplines of science and math, with those who believe in the very possibility of absolute, universal, and objective foundations, and those who do not. This also shows up to some degree in the difference taken to issues of objectivity and relativism between disciplines, with the sciences largely on one side and humanities on the other (with a few outliers on either side, such as those who work on foundations and history of science as outliers in math/sci, and those in the humanities smitten with objectivity via scientific method as outliers in the humanities). Broadly speaking, analytic philosophy tends to model itself on mainstream science, and continental thought on mainstream humanities (each again with their own outliers).

The Issue in the Concrete: Relativism’s Other side, or the Issue viewed through Judith Butler

If the approach I describe above views the difference between analytic and continental philosophy from the perspective of the abstract, it is also essential to view this from the concrete. Relativism, for JdB, comes with Judith Butler (the first name in the list of continental thinkers, and the one he attacks most specifically, the epitome, it would seem, of what he sees as a problem, even as the second time, the first name on his list is Luce Irigaray, another feminist). Now I agree, Judith Butler (who I will refer to with her full name, for while she has referred to herself as “Judy” in print she generally uses her full name, and so it seems patronizing to me to refer to her otherwise) writes some dense prose. But as BobZ rightly points out, Butler’s prose is no more obscure or difficult than that written by some analytics. Each tradition has those which go very deep into jargon and don’t make many efforts to reach out to those who are beyond their ways of speaking. That said, when I have seen Judith Butler speak in person, she is engaging, dynamic, reaches a wide audience, and is an activist. There is a division of labor in her ways of engaging with the public.

But the problem is, as JdB admits, at least in part the “feminist criticisms of science” and those who criticize analytic philosophy with notions such as “how dare we with out tendencies towards imperialism, sanctify our distinctly Western moral code as The Moral Code.” He then follows this with this statement: “But making criticisms such as these is not merely to attack the make up of these arguments, as though a different shade of lipstick would’ve made them more cogent.” Now, does JdB have a problem with lipstick, or in the sentence before this, make-up (a Freudian slip, perhaps)? Or is his issue with philosophers who may wear such things? Or feminist and post-colonial or anti-racist attacks which argue that the so-called “objectivity” he so prizes might in fact not be so objective if it in fact leaves out the perspective of so much of the world?

All of which leads me to say that I must admit I was really shocked to see BobZ concur with JdB that Prof. ABC was such a nice man, even though he worked hard to “blacklist” Judith Butler from teaching in philosophy departments. How nice could he be if he did this? Doesn’t this just reproduce the parochial nature of institutional philosophy that this site is supposed to work against, especially when Butler’s work is so highly regarded by so many, just not those within “institutional analytic” philosophy? Why not even a mention from BobZ that while nice to some, Prof. ABC’s intentional campaign to blacklist Judith Butler took the form of what, based on what was described, could only be seen as a personal vendetta, if one likely motivated by a sense of “saving philosophy” from, more than just a merely toxic individual (departments are full of these), but rather, someone with dangerous views? What is more, might this not indicate that the “niceness” of ABC, as stated by BobZ, or the clear admiration of ABC by JdB, might be symptomatic of other things? That is, might this not indicate that ABC is nicer to some people than others, or admirable because of how he holds back the tide of critique by people “like” Judith Butler? And might Judith Butler then have responded to her analytic courses with “Fuck this shit!” because she had fundamental criticisms, not of particular positions, but the entire foundations and methods of the discipline, both abstractly as philosophy, but also in its institutional formations, and how they exclude the perspectives of those who aren’t empowered in society, even as this is made to appear as objectivity because it can frame itself as simply common sense, when really it is status quo?

While one can look at the issue in the abstract, by casting the issue as one between objectivism and relativism, for example, perhaps this too is too abstract, an approach which leans towards the “objective” side of things by abstracting away the particularity which may often underlie things. For what if the clinging to objectivity in its traditional sense were more symptomatic of a desire (and by someone who uses “balls in a strip-club” as one of his choice metaphors, no less) to ward off feminist, queer, post-colonial, and anti-racist critique which argues that traditional objectivity is a Western, largely heterosexual white male enterprise to disenfranchise those who do not fit its molds? And that traditional objectivity works to obscure this very fact, to epistemically erase considerations of those who are do not fit a certain mold from view, and then erase this very erasure? Granted, there are people who are not white male heterosexual Westerners who advocate for traditional notions of objectivity. But they have taken on the lenses and discourses of those whose very definition of traditional objectivity is whatever seems “common sense” to the majority in dominance. But traditional approaches to objectivity and the desire for it are after-effects of power. Rather than state and need to justify its values, so-called “objectivity” pretends it does not have any. If JdB values Nietzsche as much as he says, he would see that deconstructing such an approach would simply be a good Nietzschian reading of the situation, one which ultimately leads to the quite difficult question of meta-ethics, the terrain of asking how to determine what we should value, the value of our values, and how this could relate to issues of the production of knowledge.

What I am arguing is that “traditional objectivity” is the parochial, limited, and relative perspective of a particular subset of our world: white, heterosexual, Western men and the world they’ve come to dominate by means of the very science they’ve developed. Does this mean all science is bad? No. But I believe scientism, however, the embrace of an outdated 19th century approach to science, is highly problematic. I believe it is anachronistic science, for it does not even acknowledge the incompletion at its core in the manner of the “subtle objectivity” I described above. What is more, however, I think its ultimate motivations are an admiration for the structures of power which made our current world the way it is, and this includes the structural disempowerment and epistemic erasure of those who don’t fit the mold and their perspectives on the world.

Science does not need to be scientism to work well. Relativistic approaches to science and math can still help us deal with the world, if within a frame which often feels less certain and secure, and is multiple to its core. There are benefits of such an approach, particularly in what they are not. 19th century science and 19th century colonialism were two sides of the same power structure, just one was more abstract than the others. 20th century science, that which adheres closer to the scientific method itself, as opposed to the reactionary willful ignorance of a bracketing of the early 20th century developments in science, does not ignore these developments. Anymore than the history of the 20th century should ignore the 1960’s, and the ways in which it indicated the beginning of the end of Western colonialism, androcentrism, heterosexism, capitalism, and racism. The beginning of the end, but certainly not the end. A more inclusive science and mathematics, which are postfoundational in nature, still work to make our lives better and extend our knowledge and practices in relation to the world, but they do so in ways which tolerate ambiguity and multiplicity better.

But wait, you may say, objectivity is color blind, and blind to gender, sexuality, culture, etc. Is it? Should it be? Stephen Colbert rightly criticizes such a position when he asks viewers if they are white or black, because he says he does not see race. Blindness of this sort is just that, willful incompletion. But what motivates this?

My fear is that it is fear of Judith Butler and her positions, and those of post-colonial and Marxist critics and critics of color. And moreso, of the power of their critique that what seems objective is only objective to those who are in places of social dominance, or those who identify with the perspective presented by this, perhaps because they want to become part of it. For in fact, philosophy does not start and end with problems which “find their genesis in Athens.” Has JdB taken classes in non-Western philosophy, and been exposed to different notions of what constitutes knowledge, ethics, value and what we call philosophy in different cultural contexts? Studying the past and other cultural formations tend to show the parochial and non-objective sides of what we often take for granted as the best or only way. After all, was it an accident that the foundations crises in math and science just happened to occur at the same time as Western colonial dominance, masculinism, and Eurocentrism began to collapse under their own weight, even as our technological developments began to show their dark side?

I firmly believe there are forms of science, math, and philosophy which can learn to do these better by means of the contributions of not only people from backgrounds which are not those of white male Western heterosexuals, but also a perspective shifted to take into account perspectives developed from more than one perspective on the world. A perspective which values more than mere objectivity. For what is objectivity, other than the value of having no value, a value like any other? And one which always supports, structurally and implicitely, whatever group currently determines the status quo, even if they are the minority? Isn’t the very way in which power manifests epistemologically, in the ability to act as if its exercises of power are not the particular overpowering the general, the few over the many, by simply appearing as common sense, that which goes without saying, that which is without bias or prejudice, even if in its dishonesty it is perhaps simply a more pernicious form thereof? Isn’t this lack of objectivity at the core of any pretense to objectivity? And doesn’t this indicate that the abstract approach taken earlier in this response is in fact too abstract, unless it opens onto the concrete, thereby demonstrating the stakes behind the issue of objectivity versus relativism? That is, might not an abstract approach to this issue be the symptom of the concrete, which is to say, that objectivity is perhaps a symptom of fear of a loss of the ability of the few who have determined the status quo to be able to continue to exercise their epistemic privilege to determine what gets to count as “objective”?

Science and math are richer, fuller, and more flexible when they take multiple forms of value into account. Yet in our contemporary world, we have reduced science and math support systems to other goals, only there to develop technology for markets and governments. The search for anything like “the way the world works,” a disinterested inquiry into scientific or mathematical truth, has never been the case, for science and math as we know them are secondary to profit and power, to the money which funds and directs their research agendas and the political and war machines which intertwine with these. Science and math as currently practised hardly deserve the name until they cease being pawns for the wealthy and powerful. For even according to traditional notions of scientific method, science and math should at least in theory be based on reproducibility and the consensus of the community regarding methods and results. But when science and math only allow the perspectives of the dominant power group to count as evidence or determine research agenda (often via financial, political, or social power), then any pretense to objectivity ceases becomes particularism in disguise. And when has Western science, ever been anything but this?

Science and math which are truly inquiries into the way the world works, however, would not be this parochial and biased, not because they would eschew all bias, but rather, view all determinations of what qualifies as evidence, methods, or worth researching as a not removed from questions of values. Separations between epistemology and ethics are only ever institutional, but in practice, these are always linked, even biologically, we only ever perceive what evolution has programmed us to value perceiving. To divorce epistemology from ethics, and vice-versa, is always to opt for incompletion, and in most cases, a non-subtle form at that.

But to embrace the possibility of other ethico-epistemologies, risking “incoherence” in regard to the “incomplete” perspective of a dominant majority, is to broaden and enrich what science, math, truth, and objectivity can be. And I believe, this is the better approach to these issues, because I believe that the most objective and best truth is the lack of any objective truth. Whether I justify this because I prefer multivalued logics over binary ones, or relativistic science over 19th century scientism, or a more inclusive world to the status quo, these are ultimately aspects of each other. Which is the determinant in the last instance? My guess would be the latter explanation and not the former, because I think highly abstract discourses like philosophy are symptoms of more concrete issues in society, and while I think philosophy can enrich society and its practices, including science and math, it can also impoverish it.

CONCLUSION: Turning the Lens Around…

Overall, I find JdB’s post offensive, and sexist in particular. Many have long lamented that professional philosophy, analytic and continental, is a hetero, white, Western, economically privileged man’s game. Full of fantasies of world mastery. Might there not be a link between this and certain philosophical positions, such as the love of scientism and its cult of objectivity? Analytic philosophy can and should be more than this. And continental philosophy too needs to guard against issues such as superficial inclusivity, or lack of inclusion of the concrete which drags philosophy back out into the real world from which it, I believe, ultimately finds its value.

In many senses, I read JdB’s post as highly symptomatic of why, if we are to truly work against the institutional cultures of contemporary philosophy which make it less than what philosophy can and should be, including the divide between analytic and continental, we need to get beyond boiler-plate caricatures of one side by the other. Ad hominem attacks are the result of structural issues, and boiler-plate arguments the result of wanting to keep structures in place which limit what philosophy could become. If we really want to get beyond traditional institutional philosophy, we need to get beyond these things, and really start thinking about if and why philosophy should matter today, and what sort of philosophy we think we should value creating, in and beyond the reifications of contemporary institutions.

This is course must include a process of self-interrogation by continental philosophers and those in the humanities, to see the ways in which we too produce boiler-plate caricatures of analytic philosophers as well, because this too impedes real discourse. Often there is a form of relativism which does not want to acknowledge any value to science or math, or abstraction of any sort. I believe science, math, and abstraction all have their uses, particularly when inclusively recast in regard to a general multiplicitous and inclusive frame of an effort to make the world a better place. And I think this is possible.

Of course, this raises the question of precisely what is meant by better, and metaethical concerns related to this. What is needed is a discourse on values. Clearly, I think inclusion, and not just superficial inclusion, but structural inclusion which shifts what is at stake in a fundamental way, makes our practices, including our intellectual and abstract ones, better. But ultimately, I think any notion of better, just as with any notion of truth, ultimately hinges on what matters to any and all, not as determined by finance capital or any other system which rigs the playing field for those who already have access to power, but rather, an approach which imagines what democracy, science, and truth could be if they weren’t limited by our prior notions of these things.

But most important, I think, is that we question why we take the positions we do, in the present, here and now, and interrogate all of these things, to look for the hidden motivations, the social, psychological, historical, and institutional biases which influence our choices of positions, and to question how these could change to make things better. Questioning such things, I think, is believe, that which starts the process of “know thyself,” of self-reflection on the foundations of why we do and think what we do, and to question if we could do it better in relation to the worlds in which we find ourselves. And I believe for this to be the case, we need to imagine how what seems necessary and essential to us is necessarily always partial, and to remain open to the ramifications of this in terms of our epistemology as much as our ethics, our thought as much as our action, our political as well as personal interactions.

I realize that there are strategic inconsistencies in what I wrote above, of the sort used by all philosophy. But I believe that, meta-ethically, we are able to influence the ways in which we strategically deploy our inconsistencies as incoherences and inclusions so as to impact the world around us. It’s a wager I feel we always make anyway, so I feel it’s worth it to do so in a manner as self-aware and meta-ethically engaged as possible. And I choose inclusion as much as possible.

Pictures from Book Talk “What Are Networkologies?” At Unnameable Books, in Brooklyn, NY.

•March 16, 2015 • Leave a Comment

We had a really great time, thanks to all the folks who came out for this! Introduced the basic ideas from the book, and some great questions afterwards. Thanks so much to everyone!

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On an Ungrounded Ooze: Dark Vitalism, Deleuze, and Ben Woodard’s Philosophy of Radical Disgust, Decay, and Dissolution

•March 15, 2015 • 4 Comments

Book Review: “Towards an Ungrounded Vitality – Ben Woodard’s Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life (Zer0, 2012), and On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy (Punctum, 2013).”

Woodard’s Dark Vitalism: From The Earth to Slime

The horror and fascination of that which is in-between, neither here nor there, neither one nor many, the multiplicitous, the excessive and the extreme – such concerns, and their potential impetus for thought and philosophy –  are the primary starting point of the work of Ben Woodard’s philosophy of “dark vitalism” as described in his two recent books Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life (Zer0, 2012) and On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy (Punctum, 2013). An entry point into this porous corpus can be found, amongst many others, in the metaphor of the slime mold, a fantastic yet quite living biological wonder which can either be either a uni- or multi-cellular organism, depending on the circumstances (Slime Dynamics, 6). The slime mold is, in this sense, a concrete and even living deconstruction of the very boundary between uni- and multi-cellular organisms so central to biological classification, as are, Woodard points out, viruses, and their undead cousins in fantasy such as ghosts, zombies, vampires, etc., in relation to the boundaries of the living and dead.

It is this uncanny and disturbing slippery deconstruction of categories, and in particular in relation to the slime mold, its inability to be nailed down as one organism or many, which Woodard takes as fundamental to their importance for thought. For since the time of Parmenides, the notion of the One, the unitary, has fascinated philosophy, and continued its legacy, in various forms, to the Ideas of Plato, the One of Plotinus, the Kantian ding-an-sich, etc. And yet, if what presents itself is neither one nor many, if the boundaries cannot be drawn, or once drawn, flee before one in the manner of what the Buddhists often refer to as “trying to write upon water,” what then? Without the notion of the noumenal ding-an-sich, the entire Kantian apparatus, and so much of the history of Western philosophy which grounded itself in analogous notions into the wake of Kant, is without anchor and ground. And yet, as Woodard, citing Nick Land, points out, noumena “are fanged,” they pierce and bite through any attempt to place them into the categories of Kantian thought which seek to domesticize the stuff of the world into knowable and manageable strictures. It is this messiness, and the disgust it often provokes in those who desire a pure ordering of the world, which provides the very starting point for a thought which, for Woodard, works to go beyond reactionary attempts to restrain the creative destruction which Woodard, Land, and their compatriots see as being at the heart of any and all aspects of our world.

Woodard’s frontal assault is in many ways on organism and bodies. For the boundaries these require to cordon off destruction both within and without are not only, for Woodard, futile attempts to perpetuate what, citing Ray Brassier, sees as the ”circuitous detour” which is life from death, decay, and dissolution. Rather, they are also evidence of endeavors to preserve life which, in the process, actually serve to radically impoverish it, disconnecting life from the “darkness” which makes vitalism vital, a life beyond life and death which is hardly the property of the living. Deconstructing the boundary between living and dead, animate and inanimate, it is decomposition, the fungoid and viral, which for Woodard holds the potential for the new, and it is the already concretized organism which

in its conservative reaction to the true creative destruction of the worlds around and within it which try to hold the “creep of life” at bay. In this sense, life which is truly living is often seen as disgusting to those manifestations of what Freud famously called “the death drive” which, by means of a compulsion to repeat, cling to the boundaries of what they were, the death drive which is in fact the very conatus of the organism, at least to the extent to which it seeks to perpetuate its already existent being, as such. For Woodard, organisms are precisely that which keeps life from being the fully disgusting, protruberant, slimy multiplicitous growth it has the potential to be.

But should we then embrace decay, or following Stanley Kubrik’s turn of phrase, come to “learn to love the bomb,” and all other means of destruction and dissolution for their own sake? Hardly, for what Woodard is advocating is hardly so simple as a mere hatred for life, for in fact, he embraces the putrid profusion of the life beyond the coherent organism, the life of the saprophytic, of worms and bacteria,life-beyond-life and unto-death which perhaps finds its clearest representation in the myth of the lamella (see SD, 56), beloved of psychoanalysis, a creature which supposedly embodies the pure life-drive turned into its opposite, a drive for pure death-in-life and life-in-death, the pure desire to reproduce unto death, destabilizing the very boundary between life and death in the process. Such a creature reaches its embodiment in fiction, as Slavoj Zizek points out, in the creature known as the Xenomorph in the Alien film franchise, a creature which exists purely to reproduce. For if pure death-drive leads to horror, the Freudian “return to an earlier state,” so does pure devotion to the cult of life, the encore! which demands ever more, the Eros which Freud describes as the perpetual “troublemaker” which taken to its extreme, would also lead to, if not an earlier state, then a simpler one. Taken to their extreme, both life and death end in death for Freud, and the only true life, or at least, life worth living, is one which deconstructs the difference between life and death not by means of the extreme but rather the middle ground. Such a life would, to take a phrase from Zizek, “tarry with the negative,” it would be a life which tarries with death without pursuing either pure death or pure life, but rather, giving death the unlife, the perpetual negation of life, which it needs to transcend itself, and with this, the boundary between life and death itself. Only such a life is not a living death, and rather, a perpetually relying and reliving life. Only such a differentiation followed by intertwining can truly be called something like a creativity which goes beyond the strictures of organism as a stagnant and rigidifying living death.

It is this attempt to move beyond the cheerful optimism of organism which helps explain the “darkness” of Woodard’s vitalism. For if the self-enclosure of the bounded entity is one of Woodard’s primary targets, so is facile “humanistic optimism” (Ungrounded Earth, 94) and embrace of “life” which can so often serve, in vitalistic philosophies, as an attempt to valorize particular forms of life against their others. Such boundary policing operations can easily abject the animal, the vegetable, the mineral, and in fact, anything which is inhuman. Humanism’s dark other side, the inhuman, that which Francois Lyotard famously saw as opening onto the politics of the differend, is in fact, for Woodard as much as Lyotard, the very foundation and ground of the human itself. As such, any attempt to value the human bases itself upon an abjection whose violence makes us inhuman. For how many times in history has the notion that some humans are less than “fully” human been used as justification for various forms of violence, from enslavement to genocide, reduction to bare life in its various forms, from sexual violence to closeting, silencing and so many other forms of violence, physical to symbolic and beyond? Few notions are more inhuman than the human, and in this sense, to value the inhuman is an ethical corrective to centuries of justification of colonization and oppression, if not outright attempts at destruction, of what is deemed “other” by those who lay claim to the human. And such notions of the human so often find their inverse and obverse in images of the earth as either “thing to be exploited, or as an object of nostalgia” (OE, 2), interdependent visions of self and world whose constitution is based on an originary repetition of abjection which seeks to exploit and oppress all which is deemed other. It is precisely the attempt to deconstruct such abjective mechanics that Woodard embraces that which promotes destruction, for destruction here is of purity and all the violences which this brings in its wake.

Woodard’s project is in this sense, like that of so many others fascinated with the “dark” side of theory today, a corrective to the destructive optimism which evidenced itself historically in forms which range from Renaissance humanism and the dream of human perfectibility during the heydey of Victorian colonialism, to the embrace of the fundamentalism of the forced spread of democracy and the “free” market under the Bush regime. But if there is one thing which seems to truly horrify Woodard, it is our “contemporary capitalist drenched being” (UE, 87). For if, as Gyorgy Lukacs famously argued, capitalism is nothing if not a machine for reification, or thing-ification, it is capitalism which today more than anything else convinces us that things are real, necessary, and beyond the play of production and history, a crucial lynchpin linking together so many of the mechanics of abjection at work in the world today as their economic substratum and ideological webbing. It is for this reason that Woodard urges us to foreground, like Lukacs, the very opposite of the thingified, laying bare whenever possible the fact that “bodies themselves are completely envoided, swirlings of matter and forces” (OE, 86), leading to an embrace of “a materiality made of powers and flows and not objects” (OE, 28). It is the reifying power of capitalism and all its related abjections which are in this sense the primary target of Woodard’s critique. For in a world whose boundary policing operations enact the divide-and-conquer logic of capital, a world in which production and labor are alienated and commodities seem to fall like acts of God from a glorious abode in the heavens, it is hardly surprising that Woodard prefers the role of Milton’s Satan against what, if one believes the hype, at least, is the “benevolent” dictatorship of TINA, “there is no other way,” the new world order of capitalist consumerism. And if God is a capitalist, the Leibnizian engineer creating the “best of all possible worlds” (of profit for the masters of the universe, that is), then to be a Marxist in today’s world is a dark and infernal endeavor indeed.

Or yet, perhaps to take a Freudo-Marxist tack on things, perhaps one needs to simply embrace the darkness already at work within all products of life, the pact with the death drive which allows any concrete entity to retain its repetition of corporeality, by pushing the poles of life and death within organisms to their natural breaking points, separating out the tendencies of life and death from each other, unleashing the powers of dissolutive creativity within and without the encapsulated organism. That is, take the very notion of capitalism as, in the Schumpetrian sense, as “creative destruction” literally, and free up the powers of destruction to destroy the capitalist machine which destroys all in its wake to accumulate more capital. Taking capitalism at its word, however, would be to destroy and destabilize its own ability to accumulate. It is this accelerationist approach which is championed by Nick Land today and Jean Baudrillard before him. Embracing the black sun of Bataille, the accelerations desire to liberate the powers bounds by the rigid frozenness of the repetition compulsion of the organistic, the embodied, and the human. The accelerationist, and Woodard with them, thereby flees the solar economy of cheery consumers hating their life working in cubicles so they can imagine being ever more like their idealized images in the media, images more alive than they are, all the while escapistly consuming products which are never as glamorous as their images, up to and including the images of war which are the only possible end for barely constrained aggression which such a dissatisfaction machine produces. Who steals the jouissance of the paranoid masses? The accelerations says the only way to get beyond such dynamics is to up the ante, and to help capitalism dig its own grave by liberating the powers of destruction which it works so carefully to not only nurture but also channel into precisely cordoned zones so as to maximize accumulation for the few. But if accelerated beyond the recuperative strategies of the system, it could all come crashing down, liberating destruction for newly creative ends. Or as Cronenberg would say, “long live the new flesh!”

A Destabilizing Grimoire: From Metaphor in “On An Ungrounded Earth” to Speculative Realisms

If Slime Dynamics is a statement of principles, Ungrounded Earth is Woodard’s grimoire. Continuing the bestiary of the corrupt which began in Slime Dynamics, with its particular emphasis on the fungoid and the viral, Ungrounded Earth is structured around an examinations of various avatars of the decrepit: the demonic and the infernal, the volcanic and the molten, the relic and the hyperbolic alien object, the appetites of worms and the destroyers of worlds, the torsional and Charybidic. There is a method to this madness, however, as metaphors are played off each other, such that a horizontal vector of destruction, a less intense form of ungrounding, is itself undercut, according to Woodard, by the more radical, vertical pole of ungrounding which destroys the very ground within which more superficial unravellings occur. Similar to the Kantian notion of evil and radical evil, beloved of Zizek, particularly in Lacanian comparison to de Sade’s notion of death and second death (or a modern day fantasy of human and final death in vampire fantasies), there is for Woodard not only mere horizontal dissolution but also radical vertical dissolution. The former unweaves bodies and boundaries, while the latter is a principle of unweaving as such. It is the dark sun, the ungrounded earth as opposed to the mere worming of the world. The goal for Woodard, if there can be something like a goal here, is to uncover the more radical potentials of putrescence, an “ungrounded earth,” that which can accelerate the capitalist reificatocracy towards its own breakdown, unfettering the powers of destruction which are the only thing which he sees as being able to lead to something beyond thingified hell.

What is clear within all this is that this is certainly a philosophy which, inspired in part by the theoretical fictions and fictional theories of Reza Negarestani, takes metaphor seriously. For it turns a series of cultural tropes into provocations for thought. This, of course, raises the issue of the status of these metaphors. That is, what might it mean to produce a philosophy of the fungal, the molten, or the viral? Certainly since Nietzsche’s essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1882) it has become a commonplace to see language as a “mobile army of metaphors,” and philosophy as an extension of this. Jacques Derrida radicalized this position in his essay “White Mythologies” (1967), arguing for the ultimately undecidability of any attempt to distinguish the merely metaphorical from the seemingly apodictic, taken-for-granted, or otherwise foundational aspects of a philosophy. Many have claimed, however, that such a line of thinking leads to a radical sort of relativism in which it is not possible to say anything that is more meaningful or true than anything else. From such a perspective, so the argument goes, any attempt to make meaning about the world, and to distinguish this from “the world,” is to fall prey to the ability of language and discourse to capture us with the seductive but ultimately illusory power of metaphor, such that any attempt to separate out the distortions produced by this seduction from what is ‘really there’ is itself ultimately as undecidable as any of the other seemingly undecidable logjams (ie: what is the true, the good, the beautiful? how should I live?) the attempt to find a solution to which, at least in theory, got one into trying to philosophize in the first place. Of course, for Derrida and following Nietzsche, a play of the meta-, of the transfer and slight of hand which is precisely the meta- in both reflexivity and metaphor themselves. That said, Nietzsche does seem to feel that metaphor can be deployed strategically and usefully, as works such as his Zarathustra, with its intentional rewriting of religious tropes towards the development of a philosophical religion of sorts, and Derrida does seem to believe the same, if in a much more local and less grand fashion.

It is in an attempt to sidestep the twin abysses of apodicticism and relativism that the philosophical movement generally known as “Speculative Realism” has come to be. Speculative Realism, a term which both Woodard and myself have at various points used to describe our own work, has generally been seen as arguing, if in incredibly diverse ways, that it is nevertheless possible to speak about the world, and even speculate beyond what appears immediately to our experience, in ways which are productive and useful. Some within this so-called movement, such as the Object Oriented Ontologists (OOO), often seen as including theorists such as Grahman Harman, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, and Tim Morton, have argued that this is because there is an irreducibility in the “objects” which compose our world. From such a perspective, while aspects of objects, from stones to people to fictions to gods, reveal themselves in experience, not all of any of them do. As a result, it makes sense to discuss objects ontologically, as having an existence beyond the ways in which various epistemological filters, including various biases inherent to individual embodiment and psychology, as well as group linguistic and cultural formations, warp our ability to apprehend these objects. On the flip side of the speculative realist movement, there others who argue that it makes no sense to discuss entities ontologically, because we only ever have access to aspects of our world, conceived of as objects or otherwise, through our experience. Rather than dispense with the world, however, these more ‘relational’ or ‘process-oriented’ speculative realists,’ including writers such as Steven Shaviro and Ian Hamilton Grant, argue that we can speak about the world, even the world seemingly beyond our individual experience, because these very notions are in fact aspects of our experience. That is, even the seeming non-relation we have with various aspects of our world is itself a form of relation, such that even if aspects of our world are seemingly withdrawn, this only makes itself manifest by means of their virtual presence in what is not withdrawn.

Both of these sides of speculative realist philosophies, those based in more ‘object-oriented’ and ‘relational-process’ based approaches (and I generally include my networkological philosophy in the latter grouping), can be seen as responses to the challenge posed to traditional philosophy and its discontents by Quentin Meillassoux in his highly influential text After Finitude (2006). In this work, Meillassoux argues that Western philosophy since Descartes, and even moreso following Kant, ascribed to the notion of “correlationism,” a way of looking at the world whereby humans can never have access to the world “itself,” but only a limited experience of the world. Meillassoux sees this as a massive problem, for a reason similar to that of the post-Kantian German Idealists, such as F. Holderlin, F.W. Schelling, and G.W.F. Hegel, who, inspired by Baruch Spinoza, argued that any division of the world into subject and object, as well as any hope of correlation between these, must arise from a ground which precedes these. While Meillassoux takes an almost neo-Kantian, scientistic and mathematically inclined approach to solving this problem, one which replaces the ‘Idealist’ forms of post-Spinozist absolutism with an absolute of mathematical ideals pointing towards a hyperchaotic real, many speculative realists seem to feel that there is a problem with the strictures of Descartes, Kant, and their heirs, whose position Meillssoux calls “correlationist,” without necessarily ascribing to what Meillassoux puts in its place.

And so, followers of OOO replace correlationism with an ontology of objects, while the more process/relational oriented theorists tend to indicate a primordial substrate which cannot ever fully be captured by any one of its aspects. According to the relationalists, all aspects of the stuff of the world are continually in process, related to each other fundamentally, and continually grasping other aspects of this primordial substance in ways which gives rise to what has generally thought of as subjectivity, objecitvity, ontology, epistemology, language, ethics, science, and any other forms of experience, practice, and knowing, even if these are only ever aspects-in-relation as well as aspects-in-process. While some of these theorists pull their basic models from Whitehead (Steve Shaviro), Schelling (Iain Hamilton Grant), of Gilles Deleuze and Complex Systems Science (which is where I’d situate my own work, along with that of many other post-Deleuzians and folks influenced by the complexity sciences), the result is some sort of post-Spinozist alternative to the Cartesian dualisms which have haunted philosophy in and through Kant and beyond. While some of the folks who are often grouped with ‘speculative realists’ do not easily fall into such categories (ie: Catherine Malabou, Ray Brassier), most speculative realist thinking of the past few years has at least generally been understood in regard to the object-oriented and process-relational responses to the challenge initially posed by Meillassoux (for more on these issues, the first chapter of Peter Gratton’s Speculative Realism: Prospects and Problems (2014) lays out this terrain in greater detail). While many of the object-oriented and process-relational responses take issue with the way Meillassoux frames the issues at stake, they nevertheless have grouped around attempts to respond to the waves to which After Finitude clearly gave rise.

Where does Woodard situate himself in all this? Clearly he is greatly indebted to the work of Grant, whose book Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2006) brought a neo-Schellingan approach to the debates which gave rise to what is now called speculative realism. Woodard is not only influenced by Grant, but also Schelling himself, who plays a crucial role in Woodard’s construction of his own dark vitalism. For Schelling, subject and objects are produced by an unconditioned ground beyond ground which is only ever partially evidenced in the powers and entities which these give rise to in the processural generation of the world of experience. From such a perspective, all we have ever encountered is an aspect of this absolute ground beyond any relative ground, one which only ever shows itself in part in any of its products-in-process. While Schelling uses a continually shifting set of terminologies to describe these notions, the general gist is not far from a neo-Spinozism, and as such, has much in common, from where I see things, with the thinking of Deleuze. For Deleuze sees all actuals as aspects of a virtual of which they are only ever a part, such that any relative virtual always indicates an absolute virtual which always exceeds this, even as each and any are only ever aspects of this virtual as well, similar to Spinoza’s substance and Schelling’s unconditioned.

Likewise for Woodard, for whom the opening onto putresence, the dark and vital ungrounding of which any grounding is ever an aspect, can be found both within and without entities, revealed by horizontal wormic burrowings as much as vertical digging machinic borings. In this manner, he manages to break bread with the concerns of the OOO folks, and at times even sounds like an OOO theorist when he indicates the manner in which the insides of entities have within them a horror which can never be fully contained, an “Outside within the Inside” (UE, 22). That said, he seems to go against these notions when he speaks of the the “torsional porosities” (UE, 5) which destroy the unity of objects whose dignity the OOO theorists are so concerned to defend. And so, when Woodard speaks of a “materiality of powers and flows and not objects, or at least not objects that are anything more than temporary arrests or slowings-down of those powers” (UE, 28), he seems to indicate that the withdrawn core of objects is one which only has a temporary and tentative distinctness which derive from the molten flows within the radical ungrounded from which the grounded, ground, and relative ungrounded themselves emerge. All of which is to say that, for Woodard, following his Schellingan roots, there is always within any body the haunting doubling, from within and without, of its eventual extinction and mutation, giving rise in the process to a “naturephilosophy without bodies” (UE, 85).

Towards a Body-Without-Organs: Woodard in Relation to Deleuze and Networks

Does this mean, then, that Woodard is a theorist, following Delouse and his sometime co-author Felix Guattari, of a body-without-organs? For it seems at least to this post-Deleuzian that there is much in common with the approach described by Woodard, via Negarestani and Grant and back through Schelling, with the thinking of Deleuze, and the common ancestor of Deleuze as much as Schelling, namely, Baruch Spinoza. That said, Deleuze is the primary near-antagonist of Woodard’s texts, the thinker who is too close yet also not far enough away from Woodard’s own project to be merely dismissed. While Woodard’s critique of Deleuze bases itself largely on notions first articulated by Grant (in the aforementioned text) and Alain Badiou (in Deleuze: The Clamour of Being, 1997), Woodard leaves behind the polite critique of Grant in favor of the more polemic style of Badiou. Now, as a Deleuzian, I must say I find Badiou’s Deleuze an ingeniously constructed straw-person. Granted, most of us need a figure against which we structure our own thought (for me it is often a straw-person version of Derrida), and for Badiou and Woodard, this is clearly Deleuze. That said, it seems hardly possible to me that Deleuze, the thinker of radical difference within any and all difference, can be seen as the thinker of “the One” as described by both Badiou and Woodard. For if there is any “univocity” to the “immanence” which Woodard simply describes as “univocity/immanence” (UE. 9) in Deleuze, it is a univocity of radical polyvocity, of anti-univocity. How this is “structurally ideal”  (UE, 76) is not explained by Woodard, simply claimed. Rather than a “singular ontology” (UE, 8), it is Deleuze who first articulates the very notions of multiplicity, of the one-which-is-not-one, which is so central to Woodard’s own reading of slime mold in Slime Dynamics.

The result is what read to me like, for what it’s worth, as a missed opportunity to find common ground with the work of Deleuze. For in fact, it seems to me that there is a kinship between Woodard’s dark vitalism and Deleuze’s multivocity of the virtual, the radical difference within any relative difference and even repetition. I also see enormous possibility for common ground between the position articulated by Woodard and my own work towards a post-Deleuzian philosophy of networks. In regard to my own work, I argue that all we experience arises as aspects of the matrix of experience which is beyond any one, a oneand, which manifests itself as various nodes, links, grounds, and emergences-beyond-grounds which can be seen as taking on the fourandic structure of networks which are only ever, as Woodard would say, “temporary arrests or slowings-down” (UE, 28) of the perpetually churning fabric of emergence of which all networks are only ever aspects-in-process. From such a perspective, to the extent to which Woodard pursues a “naturephilosophy without bodies,” I see common cause here with Deleuze’s attack on bodies and organs, as well as my own attempt to show that within any seemingly discrete network, there are always more networks of networks of emergence, fractually and holographically at potentially infinite levels of scale.

None of which is to say that there are no differences at work here. However, it seems to me that Woodard and Grant’s neo-Schellingism, along with Shaviro’s neo-Whiteheadianism, and my own and other’s neo-Deleuzianism, are themselves aspects of a larger neo-Spinozism which finds the Cartesian legacy and its Kantian inheritors as what is most in need of critique in contemporary philosophy, and in its analogues in various forms of cultural thinking. While I can see why Grant and Woodard take issue with how Deleuze distinguishes between earth and world, reversing the priority of earth to world as described in neo-Schellingan models, this should, I believe, only be seen as a terminological issue. That is, while Deleuze defines his terms differently, I believe his concerns are ultimately in sync with those articulated by Schelling and the neo-Schellingan Grant and Woodard, for they all, following Spinoza, argue that all products of the stuff of the world are only ever aspects of the productivity which they incarnate and yet which always goes beyond any, each, and all.

Such a perspective also describes a necessary critique of the object-oriented side of speculative realist philosophy, a critique which has been articulated in a variety of forms of the many proponents of the more relational and process oriented side of speculative realism. For for process-relational theorists, objects are only ever moments of the larger relational matrix of which any aspects partake and yet which is always exceeded, internally, by this matrix (or in Schellingan terminologies, the unconditioned absolute, the ground beyond grounding, etc.). For to the OOO theorists, however, there is nothing metaphorical about the ontology of even fictional objects. That is, it is completely sensible to speak about the object known as Mickey Mouse, and to do so from an ontological perspective, as an object which ultimately has a core which exists as such, and which withdraws from any attempt at epistemological, linguistic, and other forms of cultural expression and/or articulation. Such an approach has led Peter Wolfendale to speak of this type of philosophy as “the noumena’s new clothes” (see Object Oriented Philosophy: The Noumena’s New Clothes, 2014), and I must in fact agree.

That said, if an object-oriented epistemology were added to this philosophy I would find it hardly so problematic, for in fact, then it would be possible to say, following Woodard, that any and all objects are only temporarily stabilizations of a fundamental substance which is itself differing, and of which objects are only ever aspects. Epistemology and ontology would then be aspects of each other, with each appearance a reality and each reality an appearance within the various forms of manifesting the substance of which all these are only aspects. This is the post-Spinozist solution to the deadlocks of Cartesian-Kantian dualism, and its inheritors in OOO, and it is this approach which is echoed, in various forms, by Schelling and Deleuze. Such an approach, which views the ungrounded as both within and outside objects, is in fact also that of Gilbert Simondon, a crucial influence on Deleuze, and a thinker whose conception of bodies seems quite similar to that described by Woodard. And so, while Woodard seems to find some kinsihp between his thought and that articulated by OOO, I feel that it is actually the Deleuzian and neo-Deleuzian strains of contemporary philosophy, as well as the neo-Whiteheadian ones (and Deleuze was quite an admirer of Whitehead), which have more in common with Woodard’s own concerns. And so, while I disagree with Woodard’s reading of Deleuze, I find his philosophy fascinating, useful, profound, and one whose developments I plan to follow with great interest in the future, for to me, as a post-Deleuzian, they are ultimately quite post-Deleuzian in nature.

But what then, about the metaphors? Deleuze argues in his Cinema books (1982, 1985) that it is possible to see the entities in the world as the world’s nouns, actions as the world’s verbs, qualities and the world’s adjectives, and relations as the world’s prepositions. Rather than linguisticize the world (as his critics often claim), Deleuze is concerned rather to naturalize language. That is, following his work in Logic of Sense (1967), Deleuze views language as that which emerges from the processural stuff of the world, echoing it as a plane or plateau of sense which intertwines with more concrete ones in a manner which Maurice Merleau-Ponty would describe as a form of “flesh less heavy.” That is, while language is “lighter” than the other stuff in the world, it is still fundamentally the same stuff, for language emerges from the world and resembles aspects of the world because it is fundamentally of the world. That is, for Deleuze, there is no hard break between language and world, meaning and matter, any more than between mind and body, mind and matter. Rather than imagine that language cuts us off from the world or gives rise to a post-Kantian “prison-house,” language becomes yet one more layer in the productivity of the self-differing stuff of the world of which any and all aspects of the world of experience, up to and including memory, fantasy, the future, hope, and difference, are always only ever aspects. For this stuff itself is the potential for change as such, a virtual oneandic matrix which is only ever folded against itself as actual ones, nodes and networks of substance which are only temporarilly cut off from the productivity of which they are only ever products and aspects.

Such an approach sees sense and language as emergent products of the work of nature itself, just as it sees mind and consciousness as emergent phenomenon as well. Rather than see meaning and mind as either human products or transcendent ideals, they are, rather, transcendental. And while Woodard takes issue with the “transcendental” at work in Deleuze (UE, 46), Deleuze nevertheless distinguishes between the transcendent and the transcendental, such that his famed “transcendental empiricism” nicely deconstructs the traditional notions of these very terms by linking them together. For to Deleuze, and oddly for Deleuze, drawing from Kant, the transcendental is not transcendent, but rather, an immanent form of sense making, one which deconstructs the very firmness of the distinction between transcendent and immanent. For Deleuze, this is precisely what does away with the need for transcendence, giving rise to an “Outside within the Inside” (UE, 22). That is, the transcendental is the distance within the immanent which allows for an empiricism which requires no transcendence, but rather, sees as the product of a radical productivity within the very stuff of the world which is beyond any attempt to reduce it to this or that, a radical ungrounding within any attempt to locate ground. That is, if Deleuze argues for immanence as a way of getting beyond the dualism of dualism, it is because he locates a radical differing within the fabric of existence which is the very stuff of which objects are formed, the “powers” of a Schellingan model, derived from the primordial split between the ungrounded and the ground from which any and all groundeds emerge.

All of which can help explain why Woodard takes a relatively panpsychist view of mind, one which is in accord with his Schellingan and, I would argue, ultimately Spinozist heritage: “The capacity of the brain to think cannot be ontologically different from the process of mineralization: the difference must be grasped in terms of the interiorizing and exteriorizing potentitialities of the ontic layering of the world” (UE, 63). That is, the solution to the Cartesian/Kantian split in the stuff of the world, the division between matter and mind which they then are are great pains to sew together (and need a ding-an-sich or deux ex machina, two versions of the same, to do so), the Schellingan approach is to see both mind and matter as able to relate because they are aspects of the same self-differing stuff which gave rise to them in the first place. Likewise with Deleuze, and complex systems science and the panpsychism which is the logical consequence of the deconstruction of Cartesian dualism at work in many contemporary scientists who are increasingly finding binary, dualist, and reductionist models highly constraining in light of more recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence. These more networked, relational models of mind see is as an emergent property produced by matter. Such an approach only makes sense within a larger panpsychist frame, however, for if mind emerges from the complexification of matter, it must come from somewhere, and this requires either the reintroduction of a deux ex machina, or the panpsychist proposal that, citing Woodard, “thought itself is an outgrowth of nature” (UE, 27).

From such a perspective, awareness and something like ‘mind’ must not come from some impossible elsewhere, but rather, must be an aspect of the very stuff of the world, its fabric, such that mind and matter are aspects of this stuff. Complex forms of mind emerge from the emergence of complex matters because mind is precisely the manner in which matter is extimate to itself, and awareness simply the way in which matter grasps its own grasping of itself. Mind and matter are, in the manner of Bergsonian matter and memory, like recto and verso, two sides of a sheet of paper, two aspects of the fabric of experience which gives rise to and is an aspect of all binaries yet is fully caught by none of them. And yet, all graspings of this fabric are themselves suffused with it, because they are aspects of it. This is what Deleuze calls “the Open,” and which, following complex systems science, I refer to as the matrix of experience, the oneand of emergence. From such a perspective, mind and matter are seen as intertwined at all levels of experience. And so, even atoms can be seen as being aware, which is to say, as grasping aspects of the world which impinge upon them, they experience the play of forces and particles and fields upon them, even if they lack the ability to reflect upon this awareness, for they simply are this awareness, they incarnate it. For only complex living systems are able to recursively grasp their own functioning as an aspect of their own functioning, and only living brains are able to grasp their own grasping of their own grasping as one of their own graspings, which is to say, become self-consciously self-aware. Mind and matter, from a panpsychist perspective, are then not truly distinct, but aspects of the ways in which the networks of the world grasp each other, with “mind” as simply the term we use for the abstract ways in which the brains of living organisms grasp their own workings in relation to how they grasp, which is to say network, with the networks of the wider world. Likewise with the word “mind,” itself a node within the networks of language, networks within the networks of which humans and their words and meanings, minds and matter, are all aspects of the differentiations and renetworkings of the matrix of emergence of which these aspects are only ever just that. It is such a panpsychism which can be seen as that which links together Shaviro’s post-Whiteheadianism, Woodard and Grant’s neo-Schellingism, and my own and other’s post-Deleuzianism in a critique of both post-Cartesian-Kantianism, as well as Meillassoux and OOO’s approach to these concerns.

Beyond the Solar Economy

While Woodard’s approach is metaphorical, then, the stakes are as deep as the ungrounded itself, for Woodard uses his metaphors as spurs for philosophical thinking about the nature of the world. By using tropes from science fiction and weird fiction as impetus for reflections on the the very stuff of experience, Woodard deconstructs many of the hallowed presuppositions of the traditional discipline of philosophy which would view such concerns as unphilosophical. For what, after all, at least, to those guardians of the hallowed discipline of philosophy, could horror or science fiction have to say to the rareified concerns of philosophy? Such an elitist conception of philosophy, however, is one which, as with the study of literature before the emergence of cultural studies, rests upon an implicit distinction between high and low which acts as a constitutive abjection which limits any sense of what deserves the dignity of thought and thinking in the process. In contrast, Woodard’s thought is polymorphously perverse, relishing in the disgusted howls one could imagine arising from more traditional philosophers who, I would argue, do themselves, philosophy, and culture at large a great disservice for ignoring the powers of ungrounding which are always already a radical regrounding, the power for deterritorialization and reterritorialization which deconstructs any and all to give rise to the potential for ever more complex emergences. Taking metaphor as serious terrain for philosophy means seeing the world as threaded through with meaning and metaphor, always already, with language and its tropes as echoes of the world which produced not only mind, but also language as clothing cut from the same polyvocal cloth. In this sense, I find the form as well as content of Woodard’s work provocative, and its methods unorthodox in the best sense of the term.

Woodard’s is a world open to change and difference, to mutation, is one which embraces the powers of a vitality which is beyond organic and inorganic, mind and matter, immanent and transcendent, signifier and signified, which destroys all such entities to give rise to the potential for the new. And, I would argue, the better. For there is an ethics to Woodard’s approach, one which sees the embrace of the darkness as an antidote to the poison of capitalist faux optimstic light. The paranoid suicide machine of capitalist reification, and its bourgeosie disgust at any sort of dirt and impurity, is precisely the hypercleanliness that a dark vitalism seeks to dirty up. And yet, the world beyond the dominant imaginaries and the binary symbolics which make these possible is one which is only horrific when viewed from inside these reified imaginaries which are necessarily, in their very closure, paranoid attempts to project difference from inside to outside. Only when difference within is embraced as the source of anything and everything does emergence stop being seen through the lens of the Zizekian/Lacanian “horror of the Real,” and allow for the possibility of a Spinozist joy in flux. For Spinoza’s Ethics is the originary powers philosophy, the original Anti-Oedpipal “handbook for anti-fascist living” (Michel Foucault’s famous description of Anti-Oedipus).

And so, if one finds oneself caught in a world of bodies, objects, and organs, death and destruction is truly liberation. That said, it is possible to superficially embrace destruction without embracing a truly radical destruction. Capitalism and fascism produce “creative destruction” while nevertheless paranoically channelling all the energies they release back into the reproduction of the same, namely, capitalist reproduction without end, and fascist repetition of the same. Just as Woodard criticize’s death metal’s “neo-paganism” (UE, 87), capitalism and fascism are not dark enough, they embrace limited destruction as apotropaic defenses against it, preemptive strikes in the name of a living death. The true embrace of death, however, is a living unto death which is the only true life, a life which embraces change and mutation beyond identity, which allows for the destruction of the self in order to give rise to mutagenic emergences which robustly allow for the growth of complexity, in quantitative and qualitative forms, for the greater potential for robust emergence for any and all. An embrace of emergence means death to the reified individual, something which fascist particularism and capitalist accumulationism embrace at the surface to deny in their depths. A true embrace of death, however, is a true love of life, for it allows life to do what it does best, which is to say, change in such a way to allow for greater potential for life in the future. Rather than deny death, the ethics of life is to embrace it so as to performatively deconcstruct the very binary. Fascism and capitalism, the twin poles of paranoid inwardness and cancerous reproduction, destroy potential by clinging to particularity. Embrace of difference is suicide for the individual, and horror to the shallow optimism of the desire for purity of the perpetual same. But vitalism need not be dark except in relation to such a dark view of life. In the meantime, however, both the dark deconstructive powers of the vital, those which unweave organs and bodies, fascisms and capitalisms, are as much needed as those productive forces which allow for new emergences. The horror of the Real and the multiplicity of the virtual both have a place in a world much in need of new metaphors to help us think of ways out of our “capitalist drenched being.”

And so, let us imagine life beyond the mere sun, one which travels by way of the black sun to a sun beyond darkness and light. A matrix of emergence, a singularity like that which founded our universe, but which has expanded to become the very fabric of all we have ever experienced, hoped, or dreamed. We have never left the singularity, it is beyond time for time and space emerges from it, along with matter and energy, mind and matter. Every aspect of all we have experienced is an aspect of the singularity which is any and all, and whose potential for differing is the very stuff of the world. We have never left because we are the way the singularity learns to experience itself. Learning to die to ourselves we give rise to the potential for greater life for any and all, and ultimately, for all the selves beyond ourself which we always already have been, are, and have the potential to become. That is, we are, like the slime mold, neither ourselves nor other, but both, and radically so. And the more we embrace rather than deny our fundamental multiplicity, in resonance with that of the world, can we learn how to better die to our deadly attempts to live meagerly at the expense of life. Only then can we begin to imagine a posthuman ethics of life of the robust emergence of complexity, in and beyond our attempts to reify and hold on to our tiny islands of it. Learning to die is, then, the meaning of life. It should hardly be surprising that vitalism, at least in our world today, then, needs to be dark.

On the Gods in Google: What Artificial Intelligence Can Tell Us About Potential Rebirths of the Sacred in Today’s Networked Age

•March 15, 2015 • 6 Comments

We’ve long imagined there was something near divine about the Internet. From the Wachowski’s Oracle and Architect from their Matrix trilogy, a sort of neo-pagan pater- and –mater-familias who give rise to the world as well know it – the later with white beard and garb, no less, and the former with empathy, foreknowledge, and excellent baking skills – to the destroyer-of-worlds sentient Skynet of the Terminator series, our fears and at times hopes for a reemergence of the sacred seem keyed into the fact that the Internet is in many ways like a giant brain. And one which, it seems, is swiftly on the verge of exceeding our mere meat-brains, as the web already gives rise to the virtual futures in which we are starting to live. At what point will the new god in the web start to issue decrees, demand fealty, crave offerings and the like, or rather, will we just simply give it all the time, love, attention, and adoration we used to give other humans. Ok, so that’s already happening, but what if the web gets wind of this, might it not get the urge to smite us, or manipulate us, or  comfort us, or, no, wait, it’s doing much of that already too (isn’t death by spreadsheet, after all, one of the leading causes of death these days, and spreadsheets just particularly organized nets?). Face it, we’ve already created our own new deity, we just need to start to take stock of what we’ve done and learn how to deal with our new god-in-the-web.

Virtual Spirits-in-the-(Networked)-Material-World: Beyond the Legacies of Descartes

Granted, this probably isn’t the first time we’ve done this sort of thing. God was already imagined to be a network long ago. Leibniz’s vision of God in his Monadology (1712), written over three hundred years ago, imagined God as a great Googler-in-the-sky, devising the ‘best possible world’ amongst the possible futures for the node-like entities to which it broadcast virtual reality worlds. Baruch Spinoza, writing a few years earlier in his Ethics (1664), imagined God as a giant geometer whose structure could only be intuited by rational web-crawlers who intuited the logic behind the net. And Rene Descartes, that famous founder of so many binary paradigms to come (in texts such as the famed Meditations (1640)), imagined us as isolated islands which could easily slot into Leibniz’s monadic virtual realities. To each his or her own node within the giant Googly net of islands, long live the great Google in the sky.

It should perhaps not surprise that Leibniz, Spinoza, and to some extent, if in reverse, Descartes imagined a world in these terms, for all of them were there to see the birth of the new networked deity to come, namely, capitalism. Spinoza perhaps saw this most clearly of all, living in the Dutch republic of the seventeenth century, the famed incubator of so many of the capitalist liberal notions which were to dominate the centuries to come. Of course, today’s networks, Internetted and otherwise, were only a dream back then, but those with Oracle-like vision could see where the breeze was metaphorically blowing, and it was the net. And if anything has knit our world together in today’s globalized web, it has been capitalism, with the Internet as its physical and now virtual analogue, its epitome and mirror, pushing and pulling us into ever more tightly intertwined realities, virtual and otherwise.

And disintegrating us in the process. For we are increasingly shattered into mini-selves, avatars and Facebook profiles, passwords and biometrics, as the new deity gets ever better at reading our minds with custom-made ads sent to every corner of our distributed computational extensions from cell phones to TV sets to laptop screens and soon enough coffee makers and thermostats. If God was imagined as knowing our deepest fears and sins, this new deity not only knows our desires, it sends us ads for the porn we used to imagine was our guilty pleasure alone. And if our species didn’t already define its deepest desires and fantasies in regard to the virtual realities of stories and images told round campfires and painted on cave walls, then written in novels and painted on canvas, then on screens and more screens, now we have devices to carry these with us everywhere we go. We’ve hardly ever known who we were outside of our virtual realities, but now technology has made it so that these realities can permeate every pore of our physical and psychic existence. It’s just our trashy deities have gone from Zeus and Hera to reality tv stars.

Artificial Neural Networks, Complex Systems, and our Posthuman Futures

So maybe our virtual realities have never not been networked. After all, we’re not the first generation to imagine that we all imagined god out of our collective psyche, or that god dreamed up us and the entire universe. But we are the first generation to physically develop a giant second brain for humanity, with literal wires and cables, called the Internet, and its virtual analog, called the Web, which finally gives this plastic form. And if Wikipedia wasn’t evidence enough of the powers of the collective intelligence this new form can give rise to (heck, there’s even pages on there for every obscure Game of Thrones character!), then what of the artificial intelligences that are on the way? Not necessarily androids like Commander Data on Star Trek (though a robot friend would be much cooler than a robot overlord any day), but the sort of distributed and enmeshed intelligences being pioneered, of course, by Google?

For not even a month ago it was announced that Google had taught a computer to play video games, and to learn from its mistakes how to get better and win. Or Facebook, who only last year announced it had developed programs which could recognize human faces almost as well as humans can. Both used a technology, often described as “deep learning” in the media, called “artificial neural networks” by those working in the field of artificial intelligence. Artificial neural networks are essentially simulated brains, that is, virtual nerve cells linked together into networks, which are then exposed to a set of stimuli, and then given feedback as to when they get it right or not. And researchers have figured out that if you wire them in certain ways – about five different ways, to be precise – you get six different types of thought like behavior that match up to six of the most essential forms of cognitive actions performed by humans. That is, if you want human style memory (along with guessing for partial information), association, feature abstraction, category formation, and recognition, all you need to do is wire the simulated nerve cells together in the right pattern (which researchers are quite sure are similar to those used in animal brains), and the “teach” the artificial network what you want it to learn. You don’t program these computers, you teach them. And like children, they learn. But unlike children, they don’t have limitations, like the need for naps or watching cartoons, or a brain with limitations of size and storage. Rather, you can program one of these artificial neural networks to be “interested” and “good” at doing only one thing, like, in the case of Facebook’s nets, doing facial recognition, and getting increasingly better at this over time.

Whether or not this will ever lead to anything like sentient androids is hard to say, though it’s likely this will eventually occur. But many artificial intelligence researchers these days argue that we will first see smaller and more specific artificial intelligences of the sort we are already beginning to see, such as thermostats which learn our preferences. Or like the terrifyingly animal-like mobile robots (or “mobots”) created by Boston dynamics for the army. If ever there was a terrifying proposition, it is what the armies of the world, and the corporations that profit from them, will do if given unfettered leeway to pursue their wildest dreams with these new technologies. Skynet indeed.

While the armies of the world might be wondering how to develop artificial life to help extinguish that which already exists, scientists in the field of “complex systems science” are increasingly convinced that the life and sentience we already see on this planet is itself the result of the sort of emergence seen at work in artificial neural networks. To put things simply, while brains are quite smart, individual nerve cells are all really stupid, because all they know is that when they get enough stimuli from the outside world, they start to pulse quicker. And yet, everything brains do comes from just networking these very simple nodes together. It’s all in the wiring, and in the fact that there’s positive reinforcement, such that if a particular connection in a brain, artificial or otherwise, gives rise to what is deemed to be a success, by either a trainer (for artificial neural networks) or a given environment (for an organism), it is designed to get stronger. This is what cognitive neuroscientists and artificial intelligence rehearchers call “back-propagation,” namely, stuff that works gets stronger in reverse. It’s what leads to what humans call habit, which is to say, we get better at things we do repeatedly, and we tend to do repeatedly things that work, which we then get better at, and which then work even better. Or as neuroscientists would say, “what fires together wires together,” and “the brain is what it eats.” Whatever works makes the very connections which gave rise to it stronger, in both living and now artificial brains. Which means Facebook will get better at recognizing human faces the more faces it is shown, and the more a human tells the neural net in question when it gets them right. After a while, the net should, so long as it has enough artificial nerve cells, get better than the humans who do this by habit all the time.

And so, scientists working in the field of complex systems argue, if “intelligence” can come from networks of agents which are themselves quite  “dumb,” then it is just as likely that life as well came from elements which were not living, such as basic proteins which just ended up linking up together in the right way in environments which then “rewarded” this type of behavior. Viewed this way, life, love, thought, desire, all this came from the intertwining of stuff together which only had these sorts of things as the most basic potential.

What might any of this have to do with a rebirth of the sacred? Well, as cognitive neuroscientists have argued extensively, in books such as Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994), or Joseph LeDoux’s The Synaptic Self: How Our Brians Become Who We Are (1996), the binary split proposed by Rene Descartes in which mind and matter, mind and body, are totally distinct, a notion central to most of Western science for the past several hundred years, is no longer supported by the cutting edge of contemporary neuroscience or artificial intelligence. Rather, it seems that mind and body, not to mention mind and matter, are like two sides of a coin, aspects of each other. From such a perspective, it is no longer necessary to imagine that something like a “God” gave us a soul, and this is why we are intelligent. Rather, we are intelligent because evolution sculpted our brains into the most complex networking of matter yet known in the world. Humans then aren’t particularly special, just the best folding of matter the world has yet to see.

Panpsychism, and the Potentials for a Rebirth of the Sacred via Networked Post-Theologies 

All of which might seem a bit far from the notion of a rebirth of the sacred. Certainly it seems like secular post humanism, with all the talk of evolution and getting rid of any notion of a God-given soul. Then again, if God is no longer a transcendent entity, then perhaps what we’ve called God all along was always already right here, right in front of us. That is, maybe God is part of the stuff of the world itself. That is, if all intelligence, human or otherwise, comes from simply intertwining much more basic stuff together in complex ways in the right sorts of environments, then everything we’ve ever hoped, dreamed, or imagined is already present, if in basic and potential form, in all the matter in front of us. That is, if you folded the matter in a stone together in the right ways, it too would likely be alive, and smart enough to do what Facebook is doing. After all, computers are just silicon, which is to say, a type of rock. And our brains are mostly carbon and water, just folded together in particularly nifty patterns. It’s all in the folding. And if god or gods are dreamed up by humans, then gods are present, in potential, at least, in the rocks in front of us. Is this too large a leap in logic?

Then perhaps some quantum physics can help flesh out this out. Quantum cosmologists have long argued that “before” the Big Bang, which is to say, before there was space and time as we know it, everything in the entire universe was condensed into one entity generally called “the singularity.” These singularities are generally thought of as existing inside each and every black hole as well, but the universe as we know it likely came from ‘our’ singularity, which may itself be just one of many, just as our universe may be one of many within a larger multiverse. Point being, however, that everything we have ever known or experienced, in the past and present, and even the future, existed inside this singularity. Every potential, every hope and dream, every reality and fantasy, came from that one smooshed thingy from which all time and space, matter and energy, love and fear, thought and stuff, emerged. What’s more, many researchers have even wondered if we ever left the singularity, or if perhaps we are just some sort of virtual reality or holographic projection from within this sort of singular entity. Call it “god” if you will, that from which everything, even our fantasies, came, and will come even in the future. Freedom and desire, everything, came and will come from there. In some senses, our whole universe can be seen as the dream of the singularity. And if god is the dream of the collective intelligence and fantasy of humans, and humans and our universe the dream of the singularity, then perhaps god is a dream of a dream of the singularity dreaming itself into being.

What’s more, if everything we’ve ever experienced is simply an aspect of this singularity as “expanded” into the reality we experience, not only is everything interconnected, then everything we’ve ever experienced is an aspect of this singularity, an entity so small that it is considered outside of space itself, a complete unity of infinite diversity. And so, if this thing is in many senses “godlike,” then would not each and every entity in our cosmos be itself an aspect of this? This is in fact what artificial neural networks show us, that everything has the potential to be intelligent in human-like ways, it’s all in how you network things together.

Now lest this sound a bit crazy, this is in no way to argue that rocks are god, or are as smart as humans. No, humans approach the potential of the singularity to give rise to new forms much more than rocks do. But on the other hand, when we eat, minerals and plant matter and dead animal matter become part of the very fabric of the brans and bodies which give rise to some pretty complex thoughts and feelings. Even simple water molecules, a mere three atoms, become pretty “smart” in their way when they become part of our nerve cells, even if they then become “dumb” again when they leave our bodies. And if we are 90% water, then isn’t it all just in how we network our water and a few other components together? Isn’t intelligence, feeling, fantasy, even love, just a pattern which unleashes the potential for all these things always already present within the very stuff of the world?

This is a perspective which scientists and philosophers call “panpsychism.” Panpsychism has nothing to do with psychics and the like; rather, it is the name for a respected position within science and philosophy, one which has been a minority but which is increasingly gaining adherents in even the most stodgy corners of science and philosophy. Panspychism describes the notion that something like mind or awareness is present, if in very simple forms, in the very stuff of the world. None of which is to say that stones are smart. But panpsychists believe that there is at least a very basic type of awareness in all matter. That when electrons swerve out of the way of other electrons, it is simply a much more basic form of what humans do when they swerve away from big scary dogs. This isn’t to say that electrons know they are aware, only animals seems to be able to reflect on their awareness, and be “self”-conscious. But from a panpsychist point of view, basic matter like electrons or stones might not know they are aware or feel, but rather, they simply arethis thinking and feeling. That is, they are an intertwining of the basic stuff of the world which is itself thinking and feeling at a very basic level. The more complex the intertwining of this stuff, the more complex the ability to think and feel, even up to and including the sort of reflexivity and recursion which arises when this thinking and feeling can think and feel itself, which it to say, be aware of its own awareness in an animal-like manner.

While neuroscientists like Damasio and LeDoux don’t talk much about the smarts of stones or electrons, their positions on the inadequacy of the mind-body split in regard to contemporary neuroscience, when coupled with the advances in artificial neural networks, indicate that a panpsychist perspective on human intelligence at least makes sense. While few of the scientists have really thought through the full scale implications of some of their findings, it would seem that a fully pansychist perspective, a strong rather than weak panpsychism, would be the logical extension of their arguments. Or at least, this would be a philosophical attempt to extrapolate the ramifications of these scientific findings into realms which are, at least currently, beyond the realm of science. But which nevertheless, are logical extensions of this science, a meta-physics to the physics.

As a philosopher, and a pretty hard-headed realist when it comes to matters of science, not to mention someone who used to be a pretty garden variety agnostic when it comes to issues of “religion.” I increasingly find myself not only taking a panpsychist view of the world, but one which is pantheist and theophanic. That is, if everything is an aspect of the singularity, and everything we’ve ever hoped or dreamed comes from the simple intertwining of aspects of this singularity with each other, then the potential for everything we’ve ever hoped and dreamed lies in the very stuff of the world in front of us, even in simplest form. It’s all god, so to speak. And things are closer to being god-like the more they are networked in ways which release the godlike in everything and anything. Following the science of complex networks, this would an ethics of robust emergence, in which the sustainable emergence of complexity, in the form of living entities and beyond, forms the basis for a potential ethics not only for humans, but for the various non-human intelligences, created by humans or otherwise, that we may encounter. In posthuman times, times of increasingly intelligent computers and systems, and in which we could one day perhaps discover non-terrestrial forms of life, having an ethics to guide us which is non anthropocentric would be a great help indeed. For if the human is increasingly indistinct from its computers, not to mention its artificial neural networks and biotechnologies, having a non-anthropocentric ethics to help guide us in our endeavors could be useful indeed.

And beyond ethics, a potential reentry to the sacred. For if things are more “god”-like the more they approach the condition of the singularity, which is to say, the more they approach the ability to give rise to the robust, which is to say, sustainable emergence of complexity, then the human brain is the closest thing to a godlike being to have ever emerged from the world as we know it. No wonder then that it has given rise to dreams of god, for it is, in a sense, a dream of god, or that which dreams of god were based upon, namely, the singularity. From such a perspective, any and all aspects of the singularity need be cherished as the face of god itself, and even moreso to the extent to which they help us be godlike in relation to what is around us, which is to say, to help foster the emergence of creativity in all we encounter.

All of which is to say that, with the deconstruction of the binary between the human and the material by means of artificial neural networks and cognitive neuroscience, human exceptionalism ceases to be the inexorable lynchpin to our ways of looking at the world, and with this, we need to begin to value new things. Based on the science of networks, I propose the notion of the robust emergence of complexity, as that which gave rise to ant colonies from ants, flocks from birds and fish, and brains from really simple and “dumb” pulsing nerve cells. It’s all the flesh of the singularity, yet it’s not all at equal density, some of this flesh is more singularity-like in that it’s folded in such ways as to promote this sort of folding in what’s around it. And as the science of networks tells us, networks are more likely spontaneously emerge into complexity the more they and their environment have four primary traits: diversity, energetic meta-stability (not too much or too little in terms of energy flows), and ’democratic’ style feedback between levels, leading to the potential for the emergence of complex networking in ways which can be relatively sustainable in relation to emergences of complexity in their environments.

This is a post-human, non-anthropocentric ethics which is also a pantheistic theophany. It is pantheistic (pan=all, theos=god, Ancient Greek) because it sees god and the potential for god-like-ness within the very fabric of the stuff of the world of experience itself. And it is theophanic (theos=God, phanieron=to appear, Ancient Greek) because it believes that god, the god-like, or the sacred can appear in many ways. A theophanic pantheism which is also an ethics of robust emergence of complexity, which combines what used to be thought of as the distinct domains of science, philosophy, ethics – and yes, even ‘religion’ – would be one which recasts the notion of the sacred or divine to be the potential for creative fostering of creativity within the fabric of any and all, the flesh of the extended singularity which makes up the entire world of our experience.

Once we no longer see the human as the result of a gift of a soul by a transcendent creator, but rather, the result of the immanent folding of matter with itself, we then can see the transcendence we’ve always imagined as part of humans and their gods as a potential within all matter. This is a this-worldly, immanent transcendence. One which sees the potential for god-likeness within any and all, and which imagines those of us who foster the creativity of themselves and others as the most ethical and ultimately godlike of us all. Such a notion is not far from the philosophies of religion advocated by respected philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead or Charles Hartshorne, and has much in common with various liberation theologies, as well as notions of the divine at work in the Sufi thinking of Islamic philosophers such as Ibn ‘Arabi, or aspects of the tantric Vajrayana Buddhism of Ju Mipham. It is an immanent notion of the potentials of what we in the West have come to call ‘the divine.’ One which views liberation for any and all as its goal, and the divine as that within any and all which is liberating for the creativity of any and all.

As a secular, post-agnostic, scientifically mind philosopher, this is an ethics and a post-theology, based in cutting edge science, which I can identify with. A rebirth of the sacred, but one which doesn’t advocate the worship of other-wordly gods, or the repression of various types of non-believers. Rather, it is one which sees any and all notions of the divine as potentially helpful to the emergence of robust complexity in any and all. So go out and invent a new god. If it helps us all foster the creativity in ourselves and others, it might not be too out of sync with the god-like-ness that science and philosophy can be seen as arguing is the singularity itself, and the very fabric of any and all.

Or at least, isn’t this more interesting, and perhaps more useful, than some of the other gods you’ve heard about, at least if your goal is to foster the emergence of creativity in yourself and others? This is, at least, part of what I think makes such notions not only powerful, but perhaps, themselves an attempt to reimagine the divine in ways which sync with our postman, techno-saturated, networked time. A god within the net which is neither anti-human nor simply anthropomorphism, but in fact, a signpost to what could be better in our posthuman futures to come.

Book Launch Party for “Networkologies”!

•February 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment

For any of you that might be in NYC this month, come join:

BOOK LAUNCH EVENT/PARTY for Networkologies: A Philosophy of Networks for a Hyperconnected Age – A Manifesto (Zer0, 2014)

DATE: Thurs, March 12, 2015, 6pm (talk/Q&A), 8pm (celebration)

Talk title – “What Are Networkologies?” followed by Q&A at Unnameable Books, 600 Vanderbilt Ave., Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, New York.

Celebration to Follow: Soda Lounge, 660 Vanderbilt Ave, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, New York.

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Networkologies is back

•February 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Hi All-

Sorry for a long hiatus, largely due to the need to buckle down and get my book finished and published, followed by the rest of my first sabbatical. With a return to teaching and writing, it is also a time to return to blogging. New posts coming soon.

-Chris

 
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