08 July 2006

Philosophy and Energy

It is interesting to note that there is scarcely a well developed concept of energy throughout the entire history of philosophy. To be sure, the concept of will and force as developed by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche points in the direction of a philosophical conception of energy. Similarly, we find the rudiments of a concept of energy in Deleuze's account of intensity, but the idea of energy has generally remained in the background of philosophical thought. This is tremendously curious given how important energy and energy-related concepts are throughout life and the world. For instance, could it be that philosophy has little to say about work (beyond Levinas and Marx), due to an absence of any well developed discourse on energy in philosophy? Moreover, what poorly posed problems emerge as a result of a failure to conceptualize energy? For instance, in criticizing the traditional opposition between pure form and brute matter, Simondon instead argues that "putting into form" or morphogenesis is the result of an operation common to form and matter in a system where the energetic condition is essential in animating the potentialities of a system to actualize itself in a particular way. Thus, for example, in the movement from clay to a brick, the molecules of the brick are made to relate to one another in a particular way as a result of the energetic conditions of heat and force. So long as we do not take these energetic factors immanent in matter into account, we see the actualization of the formed brick as the imposition of a pure form from the outside and not an immanent potentiality of the brick.

These issues might sound remote from the concerns of social theory, but do we not find individuated social forms being thought in a similar abstract way in the opposition between structure and the inhabitants of the structure? Here stucture is thought as a form the actualized inhabitants of the structure in the same way Plato thought form as preceding individuals; yet what if structure, as Bourdieu argues, is instead a product of a set of material properties?

Despite the fact that philosophy has made tremendous strides in overcoming the primacy of the representational subject in the last hundred years, it seems to me that a good deal of theory continues to think under this paradigm. In the opening lines of the Metaphysics, Aristotle writes that, "All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things." There's a sense in which a theorist is a disembodied eye. While I certainly agree with Aristotle's thesis that vision brings to light many differences among things, the relevant question is whether it brings to light the right or relevant differences.

Aristotle was very clear about the importance of leisure for thought, but following Bourdieu, we might wonder whether leisure doesn't bring its own set of distortions. In seeing I take everything in "at a glance", encountering the thing in its actualized form. In vision I am disengaged and separate from the object that I view, passively contemplating it rather than working on it. As a result, I do not have the phenomenological experiences of exertion and fatigue that occur in engaging with the world (energetic concepts). Is there a fatigue (again an energetics) of vision? Vision tends to encounter entities in static and frozen poses (and prefers them this way), rather than as undergoing change, variation, and movement. How many conceptual distortions emerge as a result of the theorists stance of passivity and passive onlooker, rather than as engaged subject in the world? Is there a way in which the concept of energy is so absent in the history of philosophy precisely because philosophers have, by and large, tended to be disengaged from active participation in the world, and because energy is not the sort of thing that can be readily brought before a phenomenological gaze or made present to consciousness? I do not, for instance, see a change in temperature, but only the morphological results or products of that change (boiling water, steam, ice, etc). If I place my emphasis on that which can be brought before intuition, I am then left with a huge mystery as to why or how qualities emerge and new structural relations are engendered. At the level of social structures, I am left with the impression that it is impossible to change structures as all of the elements depend on one another in a system of reciprocal relations and imply one another, all the while ignoring the way social structures undergo radical systematic change when energetic conditions are transformed in times of war, famine, sudden prosperity and invention, etc. Such problems emerge as a result of discerning structures atemporally and abstractly from the outside, rather than as immanent processes continuously producing themselves and requiring certain energetic conditions to maintain themselves.


Anonymous rosey atonement said...

Speaking of too much leisure time...

I have been rather preoccupied recently with the work, life and blog of Jane McGonigal, a PhD student and "avant gamer" at UC Berkeley. Her fascinating blog can be seen here:


It requires a bit of looking around the site to get a better sense of what she's working on (check out her viral web game, "i love bees") but I am most struck by the idea of creating politically radical art through gaming events that continuously collapse, reorganize, and reform their own codes and boundaries as they unfold in play, thus blurring the lines between playing subjects, game and world. Her artsy neologism "avant game" refers to perpetuating the state just before the game rules have been fully demarcated. As she puts it:

...what I am studying and producing is 'before the game,' that is, the level of order and structure and boundedness that is situated on the play --> game spectrum just before game. Avant game is free play developed and formalized to some degree, but halted before official and complete codification.

Many of the games she creates/researches seem to carry on indefinitely and often spill out from computer-based, isolated experiences into public "swarmings" in real-world locations. (This is truly funtastic research if you can get it.) But aside from being insanely jealous, I can't help but see some fascinating parallels between this sort of performance art/political protest/live-action gaming/lifestyle-choice and what you are saying here about "animating the potentialities of a system" and the chicken-and-egg relationship between structures and "inhabitants" of structure.

Also think this is gaming-as-social-theory, resonant with both Badiou's concept of the "event" and perpetual Deleuzian schizophrenic becoming.

This emergent and iterative state of "avant-gaming" also reminds me of the tension between analyst and analysand: the analyst attempts to help the analysand renegotiate her relationship to the social world without closing down or imposing limiting structures on her idiosyncratic process. Or in other words, the analyst and analysand are constantly "playing" and yet continuously changing the rules of engagement.

Perhaps Jane has unwittingly discovered a user-friendly manifestation of schizoanalysis?

July 09, 2006 1:42 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Hi Rosey,

This sounds fascinating. It sounds like Jane has found a way to create a version of Deleuze's "ideal game" or Borges' lottery. I wonder if this is so far off the mark of Lacan. In Lacan's late works such as Seminar 23, Sinthome, he emphasizes the play of language without any determinant law or overriding structure, finding it necessary to distinguish the psychoanalytic relationship to language as "linguistricks" where the signified is produced as an *effect*, and the linguists conception of language as a law. In Seminar 22, RSI, Lacan argues that equivocation and the homonym are the tools of the psychoanalyst, in that they break up the unconscious fixations of the analysand through an ellision of meaning that allows desire to mobilize itself once again, rather than revolving endlessly around a fixated "signified". This is the Lacan who has come to reject the Oedipus (Seminar 17) and who's discourse is increasingly populated by puns and play, producing sense as an incalculable effect.

July 09, 2006 3:45 PM  
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August 12, 2006 10:22 PM  
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August 18, 2006 1:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what are the ethical implications however behind "ubiquitous" computing and digital technologies, given the fact that not everyone has access to them in striated societies?

October 28, 2007 5:07 AM  

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