23 October 2006

An Ode to the Creation of Concepts

The universe is the flower of rhetoric.
~Jacques Lacan

The philosopher is expert in concepts and in the lack of them. He knows which of them are not viable, which are arbitrary or inconsistent, which ones do not hold up for an instant. On the other hand, he also knows which are well formed and attest to a creation, however disturbing or dangerous it may be.
~Deleuze and Guattari

...[T]he following definition of philosophy can be taken as being decisive: knowledge through pure concepts. But there is no reason to oppose knowledge through concepts and the construction of concepts within possible experience on the one hand and through intuition on the other. For, according to the Nietzschean verdict, you will know nothing through concepts unless you first created them-- that is, constructed them in an intuition specific to them: a field, a plane, and a ground that must not be confused with them but that shelters their seeds and the personae who cultivates them. Constructivism requires every creation to be a construction on a plane that gives it an autonomous existence.
~Deleuze and Guattari

Citing the old cliche, for me revolutions are first revolutions in thought, for it is in thought that what is and what is not is transformed. I am not sure what it is that brings one to philosophy or makes one a philosopher, or whether I am even a philosopher. I suspect that at some point in one's life the world has to fall apart and cease to signify "naturally" as it should in a state of habit. Maybe it makes me a mystic to say something like this, but I can't help but feeling that we have to have an encounter with chaos, a sort of pure experience of formlessness where everything that is obvious falls away and is lost, and we are no longer sure how things signify and where nothing quite makes sense. Perhaps this is why I admire Descartes and Husserl, while nonetheless disliking their conclusions. I had something like this experience growing up. I moved around a great deal throughout the country, and found myself thrown into one system of customs after another, having to rebuild myself again and again. My father enjoyed perpetually changing rules from moment to moment, such that there was very little that was stable or reliable. Our home sometimes seemed like Lewis Carroll's ideal game. And later on I would produce this experience phenomenologically in a concerted and intentional fashion, by following the line of thought traced by Sartre in the opening pages of The Transcendence of Ego, the first chapter of Bergson's Matter and Memory where everything is just fleeting images or impressions in movement, and late Husserl's concept of "hyletic flux", always "de-constructing" my body and impressions of the world to reach a sort of buzzing confusion behind the structured interpretations of the world about myself or a field of pure sensations that popped in and out of existence. You could say I would "de-relate" each impression I experienced, trying to experience my body not as a continous, organized surface, but as a series of disparate sensations unconnected to one another, and striving to do the same with my experience of objects in the world. It was a frightening time, leading to inane questions like "why do I believe the walls are white when they're covered by shimmering shadows that are constantly changing?", or "are objects really substantial, or are there just differentials of speed defining relations of hardness and and softness, substantiality and insubstantiality." I would stay awake for nights, challenging my sensory-perception and cognitive-processing systems, just so that I might see how the world looked in a state of complete fatigue. It would occur to me that my assumptions about causality, three-dimensionality, the interiority of the Other, significance, and so on and so on were not given, and that other orderings of the world are possible, like Foucault's mad taxonomy at the beginning of The Order of Things.

I'm developmentalist in my temperament through and through. That is, I believe that our sense of the world, body, and others is a product of aleatory developmental processes, and not something that is hard-wired or within us by nature. This is why I am fascinated by questions of individuation and why I begin with the premise that the "multiverse" or being is multiplicity without one. That's why I like Pollack, even though I really dislike him. Oh sure, most of us develop in such a way that we live in a world populated by objects or things. But what is an object? What is a thing? We tend to think of a thing as something that is there, in itself. But don't bodies and objects emerge in a reciprocal relation within one another, don't they co-develop? Husserl argues that all objects have a horizon, an internal horizon and an external horizon. No one reads Husserl, he's a terrible stylist, but he's really worth reading. The internal horizon of an object is the relation what is present in the object to me, shares to what is absent in that object. For instance, the other side of my computer monitor that I do not now see. The external horizon is the relation that an object shares to the rest of the world, to its background, to other objects related to it.

In Principle Doctrines, Epicurus writes:
If our dread of the phenomena above us, our fear lest death concern us, and our inability to discern the limits of pains and desires were not vexations to us, we would have no need of the natural sciences. It is not possible for one to rid himself of his fears about the most important things if he does not understand the nature of the universe but dreads some of the things he has learned in the myths. Therefore, it is not possible to gain unmixed happiness without natural science. It is of no avail to prepare security against other men while things above us and beneath the earth and in the whole infinite universe in general are still dreaded. (XI-XIII)
Epicurus is here calling for a conceptual revolution, or a transformation in how we experience objects and events. That is, there is one person that sees natural events and is immediately led to the conclusion that they are dark omens from the gods. A solar eclipse occurs, an earthquake, a tsunami, a comet flies across the sky, and we are filled with dread as we contemplate these things as they are indicators that the apocalypse is about to occur, that there will be a plague, or that a city will be smitten. Sometimes I receive student papers that try to dismiss Epicurus by saying that he lived in ancient times and these things are no longer true of us today; yet when a solar eclipse occured just a few years ago, significant portions of the global population refused to leave their homes in belief that this was a dark omen. No doubt some of this has to do with the fact that Revelations prophecies that the sun will darken when the apocalypse is about to occur.

Now, there is nothing in the experience of a solar eclipse itself to suggest this conclusion, save perhaps that they are relatively infrequent. No, in order for this judgment to be made it is necessary that there already be an entire external horizon to events such as this that links these events to a field of meaning, leading us to conclude that they are dark omens from the gods. I must already "live" in a universe populated by gods, where certain unusual events are understood to be signs addressed to humans, signifying favor or disfavor. Nor is there anything in what is given itself to suggest that we should approach natural events such as eclipses in terms of cause and effect relationships. No, in order to encounter the world in this way, I must undergo a conceptual revolution. Or rather, I must, following Deleuze, transform my experience of how the given is given as given (DR, 222). That is, concepts propose relations between background and foreground, events and their horizons. Or again, as Deleuze and Guattari so sexily put it,
The plane of immanence is like a section of chaos and acts like a sieve. In fact, chaos is characterized less by the absence of determination than by the infinite speed with which they take shape and vanish... Chaos is not an inert or stationary state, nor is it a chance mixture. Chaos makes chaotic and undoes every consistency in the infinite. The problem of philosophy is to acquire a consistency without losing the infinite into which thought plunges (in this respect chaos has as much a mental as a physical existence). To give consistency without losing anything of the infinite is very different from the problem of science, which seeks to provide chaos with reference points, on condition of renouncing infinite movements and speeds and of carrying out a limitation of speed first of all... The concepts can then mark out the intensive ordinates of these infinite movements, as movements which are themselves finite which form, at infinite speed, variable contours inscribed on the plane. By making a section of chaos, the plane of immanence requires a creation of concepts. (WiP, 42)
Aristotle selects a section of chaos when he names four arche, the material, formal, efficient, and final cause. Would we have thought to examine the buzzing confusion of the world, the chaos of the world, without this section of chaos being brought into relief? And on the basis of this selection, Aristotle was able to discover something new: the monster, or that being that violates the relationship between formal and final causes for natural beings. Later Darwin would turn the monster into a way of overturning formal and final causes. Freud takes a selection from chaos when he affirms, following Leibniz, that everything has a reason, at applies this to the parapraxes or the slip of the tongue. By virtue of the concept of parapraxes, I am now able to discern a horizon of meaning and desire in the bungled action and symptom. And this concept itself will generate its own conditions of falsification and growth, later generating the concept of death drive to account for those symptoms that do not resolve themselves through interpretation. With thinkers like Ranciere, Mouffe, Laclau, Balibar, Badiou, and Zizek, we now have a concept of the political, of the political as that which cannot simply be equated with dynamics of power. Yet another cut in chaos, allowing us to discern what was not discerned before. And so it goes. With each slice of chaos a new object is produced, and with each new object produced a new receptivity or intuition occurs. Would I have been able to read Raymond Roussel, were it not for the invention of the concept of the signifier? Is it possible to discern the existence of a new people if we do not first invent the concept of that people? Were there any nomads before Deleuze and Guattari first said "nomad"? Were there any militants prior to Badiou naming militants? Perhaps they have not arrived yet, but the very naming of them makes them yet to come.

A concept always posits a world, bodies, subjects, and new objects, attaching each of these to a unique horizon that autopoietically generates its own knowledge on the basis of the distinctions drawn. And if I find myself so hostile to those who declare the end of theory today, then this is because I see those who make this declaration calling for concepts to be replaced by commonplaces, by a form of thought that doesn't allow itself to undergo the torsions and destitutions that occur through the production of concepts, but instead affirm the bits of "common sense" that float around in discourse like so many truisms. The objects that we discern in their specific sense, the experiences that we have, the actions of which we are capable, the depth of our love... All of these things shall be a function of the concepts that possess and animate us. And here we must speak of possession in the full Catholic sense of the term, in the sense of The Exorcist, for it is not we who forge concepts, but rather we who are forged by our concepts.


Anonymous Mark Crosby said...

Thanks for your comments on Santayana, Sinthome. What intrigues me is how utterly forgotten he seems to be, despite having written some of the 20th century's greatest works of philosophy. Can anyone else's ontology compare to Santayana's REALMS OF BEING / ESSENCE / MATTER / SPIRIT? More importantly, his final work, DOMINATIONS AND POWERS (1950) is even more relevant today than it was then! Also, SCEPTICISM & ANIMAL FAITH (1923?) should be required reading for any philosophy or humanities track..

Aside from that, my main point in yesterday's post was to contrast IDEAS and CONCEPTS via the quote from Santayana's Locke essay that "Ideas had originally meant objective terms distinguished in thought images, qualities, concepts, propositions. But now ideas began to mean living thoughts, moments or states of consciousness". Yes, I know that "states of consciousness" are something Deleuze 'eschews', but I still do not understand how Deleuze can endorse the scholastic idea of concepts. Actually, I don't think he really does; BUT, I've still never been able to fully grasp (clearly & distinctly ;) what is meant by CONCEPTS in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?

ALSO, stumbled across a recent new article (Oct 22) in the latest issue MULTITUDES (online), by Christian Kerslake, that you and your readers might find interesting: "Insects and Incest: From Bergson and Jung to Deleuze" on the "somnambulist model" of instinct and subconscious (a term I much prefer to 'unconscious' ;)

October 25, 2006 5:59 PM  

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