Blogs I Follow
- Bansetsu-an 萬拙庵
- Landscape Surgery
- Adventures in Jutland
- synthetic zero
- machinic matter
- monas oikos nomos
- Politics and Matter
- Experimental Geography in Practice
- Sam Kinsley
- Aberrant Monism
- Larval Subjects .
- The Pinocchio Theory
Dr. Michael Halewood on feeling, emotion and the aesthetic in Whitehead’s process philosophy.
Over the past week I have been somewhat haunted by Shane Carruth’s latest offering, “Upstream Colour”, to such an extent that I feel compelled to reflect upon its visceral beauty. The task of finding a way in, of getting a purchase on Carruth’s film, is, however, by no means straightforward. Whilst the film certainly has a plot, Carruth makes little use or no use of the traditional signposts that we might expect to find in the cinematic experience. In a style that both reflects and refines that of his debut, the time-travel thriller “Primer”, Carruth uses the cinematic experience to challenge temporal conventions of linear causality, such that the whole idea of a plot as such has to be re-thought. The sheer complexity of the film’s encounters and happenings suggest an understanding of plot based instead upon the mutual entanglement of beings, whether human or otherwise. Whilst the film is pervaded by a sense of cause-and-effect, Carruth’s genius is to resist linearity at all costs, emphasising instead the way in which both things and people get caught-up in (or in A.N. Whitehead’s words, are ‘prehended’ by) processes with their own strange trajectories. To this end, the film certainly runs the risk of becoming immortalised, like its predecessor “Primer”, on the online fora and blog-pages of meticulous plot-detectives. And when all else fails, we might then be tempted to ask what Carruth could possibly have ‘meant’ by the film – surely these characters stand in for a much grander narrative, whether the death of God, a critique of Capitalism, or a Lovelock-esque cry to return to the natural rhythms of our ailing planet?
The answer can only be perhaps. But I can’t help but think that these tendencies towards interpretation are precisely what the cinematic experience of “Upstream Colour” brings to light, if only in order to make-felt the myriad ways in which our nervous, bodily existence is inclined to exceed these semantic frames. Perhaps, therefore, this is a film about the experience of bodies, and of what happens to our understandings of causality when we become brutally aware of the various bodies – again, human or otherwise – through which we come to know our own. After being poisoned by a maggot laced with a blue-powder, Kris (played by Amy Seimetz) is reduced to a state in which the affections of her body begin to overwhelm any sense of subjective identity or personal narrative. She is stripped back, forming what Carruth himself has described elsewhere as a ‘raw nerve’. This is made brutally apparent to the audience through the re-appearance of the maggot as it tunnels below the surface of her skin. On a more subtle register, Carruth’s use of wide-aperture close-ups to portray both objects and Kris’s body-parts adds to the sense in which the film is dealing with the immediacy of the affective body. The experience is, in places, quite overwhelming, as Carruth forces the viewer into a synaesthetic world – which is of course Kris’s world – of visual contrasts, sonic textures and surface frictions.
With Kris, we feel the presence of a world through its impact upon – and in this case, its movement through – the body. During the first third of the film, the audience is viscerally reminded of the fact that human reasoning takes place in a body whose existence requires that it composes with others. Moreover, this is a body that, in order to persist, must necessarily remain open to fortuitous encounters, and thus to the inevitable risk of decomposition and death that such encounters entail. I am reminded here of Gilles Deleuze’s impassioned re-reading of Spinoza, in particular his understanding of affections (affectio) as ideas of the body. For Spinoza, or so Deleuze argues, the conditions of our embodied existence mean that human reason stems from “ideas neither of ourselves, nor of external bodies, but only ideas of affections, indicating the effect of some external body on us” (Deleuze 1992, page 279). Expressing the state of the body, these affections-ideas are ‘inadequate’ ideas for Spinoza because they tell us nothing about causes beyond our own bodies. This is a mode of existence entirely determined by the capacity of a body to be affected by its environment. The crucial question for Deleuze is then, “how could we leave behind the world of inadequate ideas once we’re told that our condition seems to condemn us strictly to this world” (1978)? Which is also to ask, how is reasoning possible given that everything sets-forth from this world of affections-ideas? How do we make sense of a world beyond the affections of our own bodies?
In a way, I think that this is one of the central problems or ideas encountered in “Upstream Colour”, namely, a vertiginous realisation that we must always start from the affections-ideas of a body that is buffeted by forces outside of its control. What Carruth shows so well throughout the course of his film is the ontological heterogeneity of these forces: the rhythmic shuffling of a photocopier, the selfish intentions of a thief, the cycles of decomposition and decay. More precisely, this passive world of affections-ideas is not something that is ever fully escaped, as Deleuze explains:
“One is completely smothered, enclosed in a world of absolute impotence, even when my power of acting increases it’s on a segment of variation, nothing guarantees me that, at the street corner, I’m not going to receive a great blow to the head and that my power of acting is going to fall again.” (1978)
This serves as something of an antidote to the search for some kind of meta-narrative or allegorical meaning, because despite the intentions of characters such as the orchid collectors, the thief and the pig farmer, something takes place which could not have been foreseen. It is as if the ‘reasonable’ worlds and seemingly linear trajectories of each of these characters are, to burrow from Deleuze, ‘smothered’ or enfolded by a logic of fortuitous encounter that finds its expression at the level of the body.
Following Spinoza, Deleuze points to the formation of ‘common-notions’ from initial ‘affections-ideas’ as key to the possibility of grasping or knowing a world beyond the scars and traces left on our own bodies. For Deleuze, this emergence of understanding takes place through a determination to organise one’s bodily encounters in such a way as to maximise those which are ‘joyful’ – that is, those encounters which further increase our powers of acting. The shift from affections-ideas to common-notions occurs when a joyful encounter induces “the idea of a something in common between two bodies and two souls” (Deleuze 1978). It requires, in this respect, the creation of a territory. For Kris, this territory comes to be defined by her relationship to Jeff; a character who has likewise been reduced to an affective body, supposedly through a similar ordeal. As the relationship progresses and Kris’s existential territory is progressively established, Carruth subjects the viewer to various aesthetic associations between disparate beings and environments (most notably, cutting between the lives of the two main characters and a pair of farm pigs). Like Kris, the viewer is made to feel the sense in which very different bodies might form compositions, and that these compositions might induce in us a tendency towards reason and understanding. Through the layering of musical refrains and the association of images, Carruth exploits this liminal zone between a narrative that we yearn to understand and a territory which we cannot help but feel.
There is certainly a lot more to say about “Upstream Colour”, and perhaps I will make an attempt at some point in the future. But for now, I’d like to end with a quote that was ringing in my ears when I entered the cinema to the see Carruth’s film for the second time this week. The quote is taken from A.N. Whitehead’s “Process and Reality”, and, in a somewhat different approach to Deleuze, emphasises the sense in which bodily life is made possible by a reliance upon forces which are not of our choosing:
“An inhibition of familiar sensa is very apt to leave us a prey to vague terrors respecting a circumambient world of causal operations. In the dark there are vague presences, doubtfully feared; in the silence, the irresistible causal efficacy of nature presses itself upon us; in the vagueness of the low hum of insects in an August woodland, the inflow into ourselves of feelings from enveloping nature overwhelms us; in the dim consciousness of half-sleep, the presentations of sense fade away, and we are left with the vague feeling of influences from vague things around us” (1978, page 176)
It is precisely this vague feeling, this idea of the body’s affections, that I think Carruth captures so brilliantly.
To see a trailer of the movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5U9KmAlrEXU
G. Deleuze (1992) ‘Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza’, Zone Books.
G. Deleuze (1988) ‘Spinoza: Practical Philosophy’, City Lights Books.
G. Deleuze (1978) Lecture on Spinoza (WebDeleuze)
A.N. Whitehead (1978) ‘Process and Reality’
Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to attend ALIVE 2013, a one-day international symposium on adaptive architecture at the Chair for Computer Aided Architectural Design (CAAD), ETH Zürich. Organised by Manuel Kretzer, the day featured keynote presentations from Professor Ludger Hovestadt (ETH Zürich), Professor Philip Beesely (University of Waterloo) and Professor Kas Oosterhuis (TU Delft).
Throughout all three of the sessions, I was struck by the power of architecture (and particularly of contemporary architectural experimentation) to disturb any sense of a clear-cut boundary between the natural and the artificial, and to establish novel – and perhaps sometimes unnerving – material encounters. As Kretzer pointed out in his introduction, developments in both ‘smart’ materials and digital connectivity are facilitating approaches to architecture in which the built environment is no longer defined as that which resists change. The goal of the architect, therefore, is no longer to achieve rigidity in the face of an unwieldy ‘Nature’. Experiments in adaptive architecture challenge the assumption of a necessary antagonism between the human and its nonhuman milieus through productive encounters with concepts such as feedback, non-linearity and evolution.
This is not, however, to limit architectural design to an emulation of nature’s grand designs. Ludger Hovestadt, Professor at ETH’s CAAD, was perhaps the most forceful in making this point, purposefully troubling what it might mean for architecture to be inspired by nature. As far as I could make out, Professor Hovestadt takes issue with the notion that there is a model or ‘code’ to the way that Nature creates forms, and that, if we could only learn (or re-learn) to use these codes, architecture would necessarily be transformed into a more ecologically sustainable practice. The romantic tendency that associates sustainability with some kind of return to a forgotten Nature is highly problematic, not least because it places restrictions on what it means for architects to think, to have ideas and to innovate. For Hovestadt, the advent of what he terms ‘printed physics’ is fast enabling us to imagine a primary abundance of energy, in particular through the development of photovoltaic technologies. Such a scenario of primary abundance, Hovestadt argues, challenges the assumption of energetic scarcity at the heart of sustainability discourse.
I find Hovestadt’s project fascinating because it resonates in many ways with my own interest in using philosophy to explore ‘new’ modes of thought, particularly around the topic of materiality. To what extent, I wonder, does a particular idea of energy reverberate throughout contemporary thought – an idea that revolves around entropic decay? What if, thanks to its entangled trajectories with digital computation, energy itself is changing? And how might we design, create and think differently in a world in which information technologies shift the human relationship with energy from that of scarcity to primary abundance? I must admit I find this “Abundance Initiative” currently being explored by Hovestadt and his colleague Vera Buhlmann somewhat baffling – but baffling in a very exciting way. Whilst I can’t quite put my finger on it, there seems to be an intriguing resonance with what Felix Guattari calls “Semiotic Energetics” (see Schizoanalytic Cartographies, 2013), or a ‘machinism’ in which signs and codes are no longer mere representations of the physical world but instead generate energetic effects themselves. As Guattari writes:
“That machinic functions imply the putting into play of Assemblages of signs shouldn’t astonish anyone in the era of informatics and artificial intelligence! That Flows of energy are intimately mixed with signaletic Flows is an everyday experience (one need only think of the use of bank cards, which trigger the physical effect of distributing money, or the connection with P and T). But what is more difficult to admit is that it is the formalism as such that is the bearer of a certain type of energetic potentiality, independently of the fact that the signs and the figures that it animates are or are not magnetized, electronized, ‘cerebralized’ …” (2013, page 89).
For more on the Abundance Initiative …
http://www.caad.arch.ethz.ch/main/IAV.html (Laboratory for Applied Virtuality)
http://monasandnomos.org/documented-teaching/genius-planet-the-abundance-initiative (Vera Bühlmann, founder of Laboratory for Applied Virtuality)
Luciana Parisi’s Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space (2013) forms the latest installment of the ‘Technologies of Lived Abstraction’ series – a growing body of book-length publications, co-edited by Brian Massumi and Erin Manning for the MIT Press. There is an awful lot going on in the book, which sees Parisi jump between various empirical encounters and highly abstract conceptual arguments at an exhilarating speed. Contagious Architecture is a highly theoretical adventure addressing a somewhat intimidating range of conceptual debates, from William James’ notion of radical empiricism to the recent turn towards Object-Oriented Ontology à la Graham Harman. It is clear from the outset, however, that Parisi’s main theoretical drive comes from a meticulous and original engagement with Alfred North Whitehead.
Whilst a full review of Parisi’s thesis is beyond me at present, it strikes me that there is an important theme rumbling close to the surface throughout the book’s three-hundred-odd pages. From beginning to end, Parisi’s primary concern is to affirm a non-anthropocentric concept of thought. The book approaches this task through challenging “the ontological equation between being and thought, according to which thought is already an expression of being” (2013, page 211). Motivating the thesis is a concern for conceptualizing not only novel thoughts, but also our capacity to envisage entirely new ‘modes of thought’, to borrow Whitehead’s phrase. The key question for Parisi is thus: can we conceptualize thinking “without having to prove that thought is an expression of the functional neurophysiological evolutions of the brain-mind?” (2013, page 235).
Admittedly, Parisi’s quest to affirm thought on its own terms initially set some alarm bells ringing. How, for instance, could this project be possible without slipping back into some kind of idealism, in which thought somehow exists independently of matter? But after persevering with Parisi’s argument, the idea of simply reducing thought to the emergent properties of matter became more and more problematic. Indeed, Parisi reserves the label ‘ideal materialism’ for the idea that “thought is induced from the material background, which in turn unifies the mind and the world and ultimately conflates thought with matter” (2013, page 173). For Parisi, ideal materialism is simply not realist enough, for the simple reason that it refuses to acknowledge the reality of abstraction – or, at least, it reduces the abstract to an expression of a concrete substrate.
I think this is an important point that sometimes risks being overlooked in debates around ‘new materialism’. When it comes down to it – and this is precisely Parisi’s point – all attempts to equate thought with matter ultimately make it impossible to imagine a genuinely conceptual novelty, regardless of attempts “to embody thought or to embed it within the environment” (2013, page 198). As an example of this reductionist tendency, Parisi cites the work of celebrated neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, drawing particular attention to his reading of Spinoza (see Looking for Spinoza, 2004). In a note on page 335, Parisi writes:
“In this book, Damasio draws on Baruch Spinoza’s axiom that thinking is an idea of the body. Although there is not enough space here to engage with Damasio’s reading of Spinoza, I do want to stress that Damasio’s neurophysiological reading completely ignores Spinoza’s metaphysical enterprise, and ends up identifying the body with thought. In Spinoza, extension and thought are attributes of substance, which defines the existence of parallel yet distinguishable modes of being” (note 177).
The point that Parisi wants to make here is that, in Spinoza, thought is not reducible to matter. Instead, Spinoza’s metaphysics posits a parallelism whereby both thought and matter express attributes of a single substance. In her brilliant book Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, Hasana Sharp defines this substance as “the universal power of nature” (2011, page 3). As such, Spinoza’s monism refuses to frame the relation between matter and thought as causal. In a similar move to Parisi, Sharp reminds us that for Spinoza, “thought is irreducible to matter, and yet it does not have a unique spiritual logic that distinguishes it from (other attributes of) nature” (2011, page 3). Thought and matter are thus parallel expressions of substance, and do not relate to each other through causal mechanisms.
Parisi sees a similar relation at work in Whitehead’s metaphysics. For Whitehead, existence is fundamentally dipolar, in the sense that every occasion is made up of both physical and conceptual relations or ‘prehensions’. Of course, what we recognise as human thought tends to coincide with the matter of the human brain. But for Whitehead as well as Spinoza, it simply does not follow that thought fundamentally finds its ground in the neurophysiology of the human brain. In Parisi’s words, conceptual prehensions “are neither sensory nor cognitive reflections, but expose the activities of thought at all levels of nature” (2013, page 335, note 176). Now, this is not at all to posit a kind of cosmic consciousness. Rather than affirming a crude panpsychism, Parisi is using Whitehead’s notion of conceptual prehension to think the reality of thought beyond the model of the human brain, and indeed, beyond any kind of biological ‘ground’ or evolutionary telos: “For Whitehead, conceptual prehensions are not locked into the physical structure of the brain, but are capacities of evaluation alternatives … that break from the sequential chain of things” (2013, page 241). And crucially, these breaks, these evaluations of alternatives, these modes of thought are immanent to all scales of existence.
Parisi’s book is a challenging read, and there are many more exciting threads to be unpacked. However, I think her use of Whitehead poses some important questions for those interested in new materialist debates, namely: how to affirm a reality of thought that, whilst being material, is not ‘explained away’ by material processes? As Parisi puts it, Whitehead’s non-anthropocentric understanding of mentality “is not intended to liberate thought from matter, but rather to suggest that there are material modes of thought that cannot be subsumed under the totality of neuroarchitecture” (2013, page 219).
Parisi L. (2013) Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space, MIT Press.
Sharp H. (2011) Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, The University of Chicago Press.
Last weekend I stumbled upon Stefan Zweig’s Nietzsche, translated by Will Stone for Hesperus Press (2013). Coming in at under one hundred pages, the book provides a journey of quite profound intensity through Nietzsche’s life, and the tumultuous life of his thought. In a performative relaying of Nietzsche’s own style of thought, Zweig presents his account “not as biography, but as a dramatic act, a work of art and a tragedy of the spirit” (2013, page 58).
One of the most striking aspects of the book was its poetic insistence upon the physicality of Nietzsche’s thought, perhaps as way of reclaiming his writings from those who would wish to denounce them as the subjective ramblings of a madman. Through Zweig’s stunning prose, we are instead painted a picture of a thought-process that is visceral, gastric, fibrous, electric and atmospheric. Nietzsche’s vital thought quivers in its perpetual exposure to what William James was to call ‘a buzzing world’ – “for each time a thought quivers in him, it shoots like a lightening bolt across the strained knots of his nerves” (2013, page 18). And whereas Zweig’s Nietzsche is seized by nervous thought, his philosophical predecessors dampen these synaptic shudderings in the comforting recesses of their armchairs. Gesturing towards Kant, Schelling, Fichte and Hegel, Zweig declares: “barely do they even register a raising of the blood pressure in their body, a fever in their destiny” (2013, page 30).
Through Nietzsche, Zweig reminds us of thought’s exposure to the elements – for better and for worse….
“This uncanny, almost demonic, hypersensitivity of Nietzsche’s nerves, fugitive nuances that would never even cross the threshold of another’s consciousness, and which undermined him so cruelly, is the sole root of his sufferings, but equally forms the primordial cell of his genial capacity for the appreciation of values. If his blood chances to register some physiological reaction, there does not have to be any tangible or affective cause: the atmosphere alone, with its meteorological adjustments hour by hour, is for him already the cause of infinite torments. Perhaps there has never existed a man of intellect so acutely sensitive to atmospheric conditions, so terrifyingly exposed to all the tensions and oscillations of meteorological phenomena, like a manometer, or mercury in the barometer: between his pulse and the atmospheric pressure, between his nerves and the degree of humidity, secret electrical contacts seem to exist; his nerves immediately register every metre of altitude, every change in pressure, in temperature, through a sense of discomfort in his organs, which react in accordance with each corresponding fluctuation in nature …
“Body and mind in the most vital of all thinkers are so intimately linked to the atmosphere that for Nietzsche interior and exterior reactions are identical. ‘I am neither body nor spirit, but rather a third element. I suffer everywhere and for everything.’”
Extract taken from pages 18-19 of Nietzsche (2013) by Stefan Zweig – Hesperus Press Limited.
How does art compose, in the words of Italo Calvino, the promise of a time extending before us, a potentiality of the beginning whose expectation is not focused on an object? In the second volume of In Search of Lost Time (‘Within A Budding Grove’), Proust’s narrator, Marcel, meditates on art’s relationship with potentiality, and the necessity for any work of art to bring its own audience into existence:
“The reason why a work of genius is not easily admired from the first is that the man who has created it is extraordinary, that few other men resemble him. It is his work itself that, by fertilising the rare minds capable of understanding it, will make them increase and multiply. It was Beethoven’s quartet’s themselves (the Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth) that devoted half a century to forming, fashioning and enlarging the audience for Beethoven’s quartets, thus marking, like every great work of art, an advance if not in the quality of artists at least in the community of minds, largely composed today of what was not to be found when the work first appeared, that is to say of persons capable of appreciating it. What is called posterity is the posterity of the work of art” (2005, pages 120-121).