An Analogy (with a little help from the BBC)

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I was watching one of my favorite shows yesterday, BBC’s Misfits, and a logical analogue with the debate surrounding SOPA and intellectual property rights came to mind. In the episode, one of the characters spontaneously acquires the ability to bring the dead to life, and immediately struggles with how to best apply his ability to his surroundings. Now, the episode in question decided against exploring this option in detail in favor of some good old-fashioned zombie mayhem (which is all well and good, mind you), but I wanted to tangentially delve into the question myself in relation to the idea of intellectual property rights and artificial scarcity.

You see, Curtis (and any society in general were it to discover this ability to raise the dead) would find itself in the inevitable dilemma of artificially creating scarcity. You can’t just raise all the dead people in the ground, or even unilaterally decided to never allow death to conquer another currently living human subject, because this would bring about a multiplicity of undesirable consequences: overpopulation, extreme rationing of food products, disease, famine, and a level of global suffering and poverty that would ironically have people clamoring for the release of death to make its prodigal return (apocalyptic dystopian novel, anyone?). This would be an ethico-political dilemma for which the categorical imperative has no answer. If you acquired this ability, would you immediately revive those to whom you feel deserve most the breath of life? Of course you would, and so would I. But can we universalize that into a maxim for all to follow? Of course not, for all the reasons listed above and many more besides.

This antinomy doesn’t destroy the foundations of ethical reasoning, nor does it necessarily lead us into the dungeons of a nihilistic anarcho-primitivism where all must be against all; rather, it simply tells us that this is an inherently political decision. Death is no longer a necessity, the power has been found to completely eradicate the scarcity of life, but unfortunately this is not a feasible option given exterior factors. What to do in this situation, in essence: how to artificially create scarcity, is a messy, complicated, thankless endeavor, but one that must still be made. And the key to understand is this: there is no natural right involved. Debate must be had, compromise must be made, and agreement must ensue, but in no way can anyone in the political process simply point to the natural right of a certain contingent outcome. That’s why we call this process political, because it must involve the grimy machinations of people coming to agreement.

This is where SOPA and intellectual property rights come into the equation. The MPAA and the RIAA and its cohorts are attempting to create artificial scarcity where it need not exist: we have the power to universally replicate anything in the digital medium in as many iterations as we please. Unfortunately, much like the above scenario, this is not an entirely desirable outcome. We want people to have some right over their creative work (I will leave aside for now the many spurious arguments used by IP advocates in this regard), so some kind of artificially instantiated scarcity is most definitely in the cards, but exactly how this is to be implemented is an unequivocally political issue.

SOPA ignores the politics of it all, it ignores due process, it fortuitously ignores the fact that there is no natural right over intellectual property, but only a battle between content producers like the music business and Hollywood who want harsh intellectual property laws on the books, and the social network industry (Google, Facebook, etc.) which depends upon the slow death of digital scarcity. The thing to keep in mind is that neither of these sides fight for us. They are the two jock douchebags who are battling over the same girl at the bar. They’re only talking to you because you’re her best friend and have power over her decision making process (“Come on baby, think about the work-a-day laborers on all those film sets!”). We need to realize that this is an issue of political economy of the highest importance, and see to it that we never allow ourselves to become the secretly despised concubines of opposing streams of capital.

The Originary Force of the Imagination

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Here you go, Troy:

[We] must not take imagination as the middle term that gets inserted between an existing absolute subject and an absolute existing world; it must rather be recognized as what is primary and original and as that out of which the subjective I and the objective world first sunder themselves.

~ Hegel, Faith and Knowledge

Back to the Cave

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In Plato’s allegory of the cave, Socrates presents a view of the soul as one that is in need of liberation: liberation from the false world of images into the world of light, the world as it actually is. This movement takes place from imagination, to belief/opinion, to thought, and finally to knowledge/intellect. Initially bonded to a world of images, the soul is released and dragged into a world of Truth, a world of the original. And as John Sallis notes, it is “precisely in the failure to see [the images] as images” that determines whether one is in bondage or illuminated.

In a sense then, what I am proposing is a complete inversion of Socrates’ formulaic path toward freedom. Rather than progressing from the imagination toward intellect (nous), what I am proposing is that bondage and thus anxiety are products of believing that there is something other than the image. It is the hope that there is an outside to the cave that produces human anguish. So, instead of proceeding to move logically from imagination, through opinion, to thought, and finally to ‘nous’, what needs to emerge is a revolution of cognition that would see ‘nous’, thought, and opinion as products of the imagination. And as such, if imagination is thus the condition out of which the other modes of cognition emerge, they must be seen as substantial modifications of an anterior activity (i.e. the transcendental imagination). In this way, imagination is not some ‘power of the soul’, it is not merely some faculty of a subject. Rather it is a constituting anterior that itself appeals to no originary anterior, but rather to itself in a sort of self-modifying accumulation of images, which produces subjectivity in its enactment.

In other words, the clarion call of philosophy must be: “back to the cave!”

Excess, Affect, and Imagination

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A thought just arose that I think needs addressing. If all is imaginary, how can we account for the excess? How can we account for change? Difference? Plenitude? The experience of the beyond?

For Sartre, Husserl, and the phenomenological legacy, there is a problem. If it is the case that the image (and the imagination) is impoverished (it gives nothing, teaches nothing) then imagination is necessarily limited. It is finite. The only way there can be depth to the world is through perception’s encounter with an infinite given. This is what Husserl, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and more recently Edward Casey all suggest: there is a depth to the world, to objects of consciousness, but only in perception. This depth is due to the vastness of the perceived objects. Imagination, by contrast, is simply a self-entertaining operation. And as such, a limited operation in that imagining is purely self-referential.

In contradistinction to this view, John Sallis wants to truly take us ‘to the things themselves’. He criticizes Husserl et al for their subordination of the imagination (even though thinkers like Sartre might escape this criticism from within a certain reading… something for another discussion). Ultimately, according to Sallis, phenomenology, like the classical schemas, subordinates the imagination, and thus the ‘sensible’, under the intelligible/rational (and he uses ‘sensible’ in the Romantic sense). So, in response to this, what Sallis proposes is that we return to ‘nature’. More specifically, we must return to the ‘elemental’ – namely the earth and the sky. In a sort of Nietzschean inversion of the classical schema, Sallis claims that only by affirming the earth and the sensible can we truly understand the ‘force of imagination’, as the elemental draws us into it, declaring its beauty, its truth, and its infinite mystery and depth (there’s also a large Heideggarian influence here: veiling/unveiling of truth). So, with a sort of pre-Socratic Romanticism, Sallis hopes that a turn to the untouched and unspoiled elemental will allow for the force of imagination to be unleashed.

While I appreciate Sallis’ tendency to give primacy to the imagination, my primary disagreement is with the idea of nature altogether. If, as I’ve suggested before, all is imaginary, then the idea of the unspoiled, untouched elemental is itself a fiction. All is imaginary. And as such all is artificial. There is no such thing as ‘nature’ (at least not in the technical, philosophical sense). However, there seems to be a problem: if Sallis derives excess from the depth of the elemental, how can I account for it according to the imaginary? Simply stated, excess derives from the indefinite and indeterminate possibilities of a relational ontology. That is, excess is the very product of the contingency of the relation of forces within any given system. This affective interplay of forces is therefore the motor that drives the imaginary. Affect is thus the first point of contact between any set of structural entities. ‘In itself’ it is not ‘known’. It is only ever known after it has been incorporated into the imagination. But it is experienced. It has effect (by nature). It serves as the ‘material’ out of which the imagination is able to create, as the latter is jolted by its continual encounter with it. Then projecting forward the imagination continually rearranges the affective landscape, which thus introduces an entire new set of indefinite and indeterminate possibilities. One implication of this is that any given state of affairs, or any given structural relation, is contingent – it could be otherwise, or could have been otherwise, and is continually becoming otherwise… and even paradoxically is simultaneously both what it is and what it is not, depending on the vantage from which it is assessed. It also implies that novelty (in the Deleuzian sense) is ubiquitous. However, this universal novelty is never experienced as such. It is only ever ‘known’ post facto – and thus only ever speculative.

This formulation seems to skirt the problem of the transcendent (and its product: anxiety) that I mentioned in the previous post, while also giving an account of the excess of Life from within a thoroughly immanent transcendental theory of imagination.

Some problems remain however: if there is no distinction between real and imaginary, how can I explain the apparent split between affect and the imagination? is this not just another dualism? can affect be thought of as imaginary? if so, in what way(s)? and if this is the case, how can I defend myself against the charge of anthropocentrism? is affective experience ‘felt’? if so, is this feeling then merely a moment of the ‘transcendental unity of [imagination]’? if not, what does it mean to experience affect? is experience an appropriate designation?

These are just some of the problems that I see arising, and that at the moment I can’t fully address. I think I have some germinating ideas, but I’ll have to work some of them out before trying to put them into a coherent piece just yet…

One of the ways to possibly resolve the apparent separation between affect and imagination is to show how they are really just two different modes of the same process. That is, affect and imagination are different only in degree, with imagination being a sort of folded back complex operation of affectivity. I think this would require me to develop both a variegating inflationary account of affectivity and a deflationary account of cognition; a sort of panpsychist enfolding in which structural entities (i.e. any given relational thing, system, or set of systems) continually make connections with others, thereby creating augmented moments (or ‘forms’) of relative stability and complexity (with the hope being that human consciousness, reflective/meta/linguistic consciousness, would come to be seen as that continually arising moment of becoming that is defined by the transcendental imagination).

Anxiety and the Imagination

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For Sartre, in The Psychology of the Imagination, there is a radical distinction to be drawn between the real and the imaginary. The real is the world of perception. It is material existence (later this would be identified as the en soi in Being and Nothingness). The imaginary by contrast is the activity of consciousness (or pour soi). In fact, for Sartre, consciousness is imaginative consciousness. It is an act of surpassing the real toward images which it itself creates for itself. As such, it is a negating act, one that creates a separation between consciousness and the real – and this separation is what he would call ‘freedom’. The result of this separation is of course well documented as ‘anguish’.

This phenomenological distinction is given ontological consideration in BN. Here, however, Sartre is less concerned with delineating the distinction between the real and the imaginary in psychological terms than he is with examining the ontological implications this distinction signals (of course the former study in many ways serves as the foundation for the later work). Nevertheless, in BN, the point remains: human consciousness is a negation of the outside world of objects as it tends toward imaginary possibilities wherein it will create meaning for itself. The problem with this project is that it necessarily fails. It is an insurmountable contradiction. The project of creating meaning by seeking to bring together the imaginary world of possible meaning (which is nothingness) and the world of brute static existence (the en soi) is thwarted by the very nature of each of these modes of being. The one necessarily implies the opposition of and/or by the other. Thus, the pour-soi-en-soi is a project seeking to be its own ens causa sui. In other words, it is a project to be God. (at this point it might be important to note why Sartre was an adamant atheist – the idea of God is itself contradictory). But this project is futile, and as such leads to an impossible destiny of recurrent anguish.

Striking and poignant as this thesis may be, I have been wondering of late whether Sartre missed out on something crucial. It’s not that his analysis itself is faulty. In fact, in many ways I buy it wholesale… but with qualification (so I guess not wholesale :)). His phenomenological approach does seem to fit well with psychological experience. His account of anguish as being rooted in separation is quite convincing. But where I think he may have been a bit off is with making that separation one between the real and the imaginary. Even within his own schema it seems to be a bit sketchy.

For Sartre, much as for Kant in the first edition of CPR, the imagination is the transcendental condition for consciousness. Therefore, one’s consciousness of objects (both material and psychical) is necessarily conditioned by the transcendental imagination. Objects are therefore imbued with value and meaning by imaginative consciousness as it both incorporates them into its schema and then surpasses them towards future possibles. But this binary activity is not one of mimesis (or correspondence), but one of reproduction and production – or if you will, representation and projection). Thus, it seems that it is not the case that imaginary objects are restricted to a world of unreality (as Sartre claims in PI). Rather, imaginary objects of consciousness are the entirety of objects that our transcendental consciousness appropriates. That is, the real is imaginary. It is artificial. It is fabricated. It is the real of images.

This is not merely some pessimistic postmodern missive seeking to bemoan the impact of the world of the image in late-capitalist Western culture. Rather, what I’m trying to work out is the very nature of conscious experience from within a post-phenomenological paradigm, one that both respects the insights of phenomenological inquiry but that also seeks to move beyond the dualisms that it placed forth. The result, I hope, will be to develop a theory of the imagination that eschews both rationalist notions of it as a secondary mediator between the sensible and the rational and Kantian and phenomenological interpretations, which give primacy to the imagination but maintain dualisms between the phenomenal and noumenal and the imaginary and the real, respectively.

What I also hope to maintain, but to flesh out a bit, is the idea that anguish is caused by separation. However, contra Sartre, this anguish does not arise because of a separation between real and imaginary; for all is imaginary. Instead, what I hope to develop is the ways in which anguish is a product of the false idea that there is a distinction between the real and the imaginary. In other words, anguish is the very product of the residue of transcendence. What I mean is that any epistemology that grounds itself within a schema where transcendence (no matter how residual) remains is necessarily destined to anxiety; an anxiety constituted by the illusory hope that some beyond might make itself known or might be known in itself, as it ‘really is’.

Oddly enough, I don’t have any hope in the possible overcoming of such anxiety, particularly for those of us so close in historical proximity to the projects of Modernity. What I do hope is that I can work out some ideas about how to manage this anxiety in fruitful, beneficial directions that can actually serve to aid my community and those within my sphere of influence.

(Side note: is this not a description of the fall?)

The Relevance of the Human in Politics: CFP

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The Relevance of the Human in Politics, April 27-28, 2012. University of Dundee

Keynote Speakers: Todd May, Christina Howells, James Williams, and Gerald Moore

The Post Graduate philosophy conferences at the University of Dundee have, over the last four years, explored the resurgence of interest in continental metaphysics. This year’s conference will continue to build on this theme, but in an explicitly political direction and explore the role of the human in the contemporary philosophy of politics. With the renewed interest in humanisms of all sorts, we are seeking to address the problematic of the human in politics: are humanistic political philosophies part of a bygone era? What is the potential place for the human, or a robust humanism, in both the academy and the popular sphere? Are the criticisms of post-phenomenological thinkers still relevant in light of recent philosophical interests and world events? To what extent can ‘post-humanist’ philosophies contribute to political desires?

This year, we will take an explicitly political turn by seeking to explore the importance, or unimportance, of the human in politics. Through an examination of the human, the conference will examine one of the overlooked aspects of the subject and subjectivity, a key concern of previous conferences at Dundee, as well as occurring under the unique historical conditions that have seen political uprisings emerge around the globe across various cultural, political, and religious spectrums.

We invite abstracts of up to 500 words for 20 minute presentations on topics generally related to the contemporary importance (or unimportance) of the human in politics.

Suggested topics include (but are by no means constrained to):

  • Humanism and/or anti-humanism in Continental thought: particularly in relation to Badiou, Agamben, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Henry, Hardt/Negri, Zizek, Heidegger, de Beauvoir, Malabou, etc.
  • 21st Century Humanism
  • Humanism and its critics in German Idealism
  • Post-human political theory
  • Resurgence of interest in Sartre and existentialism
  • The role of advanced media in political theory
  • Politics and/or economics after ‘The Arab Spring’
  • Political theory and the ‘Occupy’ Movements
  • Speculative Realism, Object-Oriented-Ontology, and the critique of anthropocentrism
  • The conditions of group action
  • Neuroscience and political philosophy
  • Ontology and Politics
  • Feminism and human identity

Abstracts due by 15 February, 2012. Email to Austin Smidt at ahsmidt@gmail.com or a.h.smidt@dundee.ac.uk

2011, In Retrospect

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Quite a lot happened in 2011, but SSA is a culture blog, so I’ve prostrated myself before the gods of the blogosphere and fulfilled their wishes by deciding to do a list-post: the best of the past year in film, books, music, and a few other related phenomena. So, here we go!

Films

Drive: I loved this film in every way imaginable. It was like a beautifully constructed homage to a world that never was. Forget the performances and the tension and the slow-burn, this movie is all about a Los Angeles of Refn’s own making.

 

Moneyball: I love baseball, and I love statistics, and this movie married the phenomenon of sabermetrics with an old-school feel-good narrative with pure delight. It could’ve used a little more math, but still…

13 Assassins: The first half of this film is pure Kurosawa samurai-lore: gather up a bunch of misbegotten ex-warriors and take down a fascist pig. The latter half? Oh my god, just mayhem. You have to see it to believe it.

 

Attack the Block: The absolute polar opposite of Cowboys and Aliens, Attack the Block focuses on a group of London teenagers protecting their neighborhood from an alien invasion. The narrative presents itself in the form of the Exodus, and represents everything that I love about B-films.

 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Yeah, it’s a big budget flick, but the fact that I sat in a theater with a bunch of regular Joes rooting in unison for a Marxist uprising against humanity makes this movie awesome.

Books

After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: This anthology edited by Anthony Paul Smith and Daniel Whistler, if there is any justice, will be considered the quilting point of future academic success for those interested in continental philosophy of religion. The aforementioned author’s editorial introduction is a fine work all on its own.

Debt: the First 5,000 Years: Graeber’s genealogy of debt is a really fascinating work. The overturning of the perceived origin of money in the thought of early capitalism is more important than can be stated. A truly seminal work.

Hegel and the Infinite: From the awesome Insurrections series, this anthology on contemporary Hegel studies features some duds, but the essays by Adrian Johnston and Bruno Bosteels are very illuminating.

The Kingdom and the Glory: I just got this for Christmas, so I haven’t finished it yet, but I think I’m finally coming around to Agamben. I can’t wait to relate the stuff on the economic/immanent divide to Barth.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind: Okay, so this is cheating a little since this book came out 30-something years ago, but I read it for the first time this year and it has absolutely changed my view of consciousness studies. Jaynes theory of the breakdown of the bicameral mind affects every layer of philosophy and psychology, and I hope to spend much of the next year figuring out exactly how this plays into my thinking.

Music

Tom Waits – Bad as Me: Another Tom Waits album, another killer set of tunes. Think early 90s Bone Machine-era Waits, but with a lot more guitar (and funky guitar, at that) upfront in the mix. Highlight: “Hell Broke Luce”

 

Mastodon – The Hunter: Not their best album, but they are the best metal band in the world, so they deserve a place. Seeing them live for the first time this year was a bewildering experience. Highlight: “Dry Bone Valley” (where drummer Brann Dailor takes the mic well)

 

Battles – Gloss Drop: The future, the shape of rock to come.

 

Wild Flag – Self-titled: I was a huge Sleater-Kinney fan, so the idea of this band had me excited. Luckily, they broke the curse of all-star groups and produced a really well-conceived album. Highlight: “Future Crimes”

 

Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts: Sonic Youth is my favorite band of all-time, so its natural that Moore’s solo work would appeal to me. His meandering atonalism is what made me want to play guitar in the first place, and his acoustic transition has only improved his songwriting. Highlight: “Blood Never Lies”

 

J Mascis – Several Shades of Why: My other favorite guitarist in the whole world also made a transition to the acoustic guitar, and while his blistering solos with Dinosaur Jr are what make my blood boil (seeing them live for the first time this year was the highlight of my year), his songwriting is an underrated part of his arsenal. Highlight: “Several Shades of Why”

 

(Note: I have yet to dig into the new-ish albums by The Roots, Bjork, or TV on the Radio, otherwise they may have made the list).

Television

Breaking Bad: This season of BB was amazing. From beginning to end, the ultimate tragedy of Walt’s downfall was obvious, but watching it happen, piece by piece, along with arguably the greatest villain in television history in Gus, was an absolute treat. This might be the most chilling scene I’ve ever seen:

 

Misfits: The British show about ASBO superheroes deals with the dynamics of adolescence in a way that no other show can. See the episode where Curtis becomes a woman to see what I mean. Also, it’s hilarious.

Sons of Anarchy: the first half of the fourth season seemed a bit directionless, moving from biker-gang-spat to unexplained-internal-racial-tension without apparent motive, but the latter half got back to the Shakespearean familial dynamics and biblical violence that it does best.

Game of Thrones: It took me about six episodes to figure out each character’s name and place in the story, but once I did everything started rolling. Plus, the cliffhanger included dragons: ’nuff said.

Blog Posts

Jeremy Ridenour on The Incarnation as God’s Leap of Faith

Gary Williams on The Myth of the Jaynesians

Dan on Occupy Corinth

Corey Robin on Fear, American Style

Necessary Agitation on Why Communists Need Moon Bases

Adam Kotsko on being Traumatized by Religion

Technically this isn’t a blog post, but it might be the best comic I’ve ever seen, so it deserves its own place of honor.

Nietzsche On Consciousness

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Nietzsche, from the section The Four Great Errors in Twilight of the Idols:

The “inner world” is full of phantoms and illusions: the will being one of them. The will no longer moves anything, hence it does not explain anything — it merely accompanies events; it can also be completely absent. The so-called motives: another error. Merely a surface phenomenon of consciousness, something shadowing the deed that is more likely to hide the causes of our actions than to reveal them. And as for the ego … that has become a fable, a fiction, a play on words! It has altogether ceased to think, feel, or will!

I was struck upon rereading Twilight of the Idols as to the prescience of Nietzsche’s remarks on consciousness. It has always been said that, in addition to his cultural-critical acumen, Nietzsche was a psychologist ahead of his time, pointing out the pernicious activity of the submerged unconscious lurking beneath the surface of the ego, but I can’t help but think that Nietzsche’s attack on the notions of ego, will, and spirit in this section partially anticipates another theoretical movement: namely, the deflationary consciousness of late 20th century theorists like Julian Jaynes.

the framework for Jaynes’ theory of Bicameralism is obviously lacking in Nietzsche, but this doesn’t necessitate opposition. The first several chapters of Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness don’t even deal with Bicameral theory, but with methodically dismantling our common-sense notions of how consciousness works. Learning, memory, thinking: these are all things that we immediately associate with conscious activity, but Jaynes does a fantastic job of showing how all of these things, and more besides, function just fine, and sometimes more efficiently, without consciousness. Nietzsche’s point about consciousness being an “accompanying event” or a “surface phenomenon” works in this same direction.

A Three Horse Town…

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Since he’s as fond of formal introductions as GOP presidential candidates are of monogamy (topical humor!), I’m going to go ahead and introduce Sub Specie Aeterni’s newest blog-recruit: Austin Guffy, a.k.a. Gus. He studied Visual Culture at the University of Aberdeen, and is currently in the hunt for a doctoral studies program for next fall. Gus is going to fill the cultural studies void here at SSA by spewing knowledge about film, music, art, and if we’re lucky, a few politically charged rants from time to time (if you know him, then you know how much of a treat this can be). I am confident that you, the reader, will be enlightened.

His inaugural post on Kurosawa’s Rashomon is here.