February 3, 2011
There is the question of how we understand a person in the abstract. To do so makes a thing of the person. Persons are undoubtedly things in a certain sense, but when we look at a person in this sense we tend to lose sight of what we find interesting about persons from the outset. Are we perhaps looking at it from the wrong direction? Might we not benefit from looking at the issue from the point of singularity, the point of affectivity and affection, where a range of forces converge and conflict in a process of growth? This would allow us to speak from the abstract rather than in the abstract, and perhaps this way we could avoid some of the inherent difficulties in the recent literature.
February 1, 2011
Here is a link to a nice piece on Adam Curtis’ blog on Rupert Murdoch.
January 31, 2011
There is a sense in which we cannot think of agency as pre-structured in our biological make up. Our bodies are conditioned by the political economy within which we move.
Spinoza’s understanding of the human body and the human mind can help us here. For Spinoza, the mind is the idea of the body. It is not that either the mind or the body are in some sense primary, subordinating the other, but that the modifications of the body, the movements of different elements, their contact with other bodies, etc, are the same as the movements of the ideas of the mind. The relationship between the finger and the nose, when one scratches an itch, is the same as the relationship between the idea of the finger and the idea of the nose which are but two elements of the mind, which is the idea of the body. The mind, then, is made up of as many ideas as the body is objects (bones, blood cells, molecules, etc), each idea relating to each other in the same order as the bodies relate to each other within the body. The mind is, in some sense, a representation of the body, that is, the mind represents the body to itself.
Within this conceptualisation of the body and the mind, we can see the body as political, not simply biological. Political economy constitutes the modifications of the body precisely because political economy is the system which constitutes the material conditions of the concrete existence of the body. The human biological organism is itself constituted politically to the extent that political economy creates the conditions under which agents live.
We can also see personal agency as constituted by these factors, since the mind quite literally represents the body. We are our bodies, but our bodies are not simply reducible to their biological constitution.
January 30, 2011
I am currently reading some materials for my MA on the concept of personhood. This material seems to me to be flawed because of its abstraction from the concrete material existence within which agents are actually formed. It is as if there is an essentially passive environment inhabited by pre-structured individuals.
The paper by Harry Frankfurt, for example, argues that free will is the identification of a first-order desire with a second-order volition, where a second-order volition is a desire to desire. In other words, the agent desires to be a certain way, to act a certain way, to choose which desires are important to him (‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person’, Journal of Philosophy, !xvii, 5 – 20). I don’t want to get into the details of his argument because it is irrelevant to my point, but I am inclined to agree that this seems tenable as far as it goes. The question for me is that of sufficiency. Does Frankfurt’s account of free will make sense of what it means to be a person, or to choose one course of action over another? Why, as a person who cares about which desires I act on, and therefore choose to act on certain desires over other desires, might I choose one action over another? Even more importantly, why do I have certain desires in the first place?
The fact that personhood cannot be separated from the human organism should be our first consideration. The person is an animal. Animality is clearly an insufficient criterion of personhood, but it must not be overlooked, since the question we are really asking is what kind of an animal is a person? But it might be better to ask first: what kind of a thing is an animal? An animal is a member of the class of living things. But again, we are drawn to ask another question: what kind of thing is a living thing?
We must, from the standpoint of this question, consider in general, the whole of life on the globe. We must do this because without this consideration there can be no ontological grounding of personhood. Life, in other words, must be the basis of the emergence of persons. My critique of the positions of Frankfurt and others is that they fail to view agency as an emergent property of the economy of life, the general economy of the circulation and accumulation of solar energy across the surface of the globe.
All biological growth depends on an accumulation of excess solar energy. If we can understand this, that life is a system of energy accumulation and expulsion, then we can see that living things, animals, plants, human beings, are centers of economic transaction of solar energy (for a more adequate discussion of this see: Bataille, G., The Accursed Share: Volume 1, Urzone, 1989). The human body, and all living bodies, are part of a system of biological growth, which is itself powered by the sun.
Within this context we must understand the emergence of both political economy and human agency. The political economy, that is, is a sub-system of the economy of life, facilitates the extraction of resources and accumulation of wealth (energy) for the use of human beings. The structure of political economies have varied throughout history, but each variation is grounded within nature. As Marx writes:
When man engages in production, he can only proceed as nature does herself, i.e. he can only change the form of the materials. Furthermore, even in the work of modification he is constantly helped by natural forces. Labour is therefore not the only source of material wealth, i.e. of the use-values it produces. (Marx, K., Capital: Volume 1, 1976, pp. 133-134)
This goes for production in every form of human society. Although Marx refrained from attending to this point in any great detail, the idea was already present in his work that the political economy is a sub-system of a larger natural economy.
The problem, then, is how do we account for human agency in all of this. We realize that from the outset, a person is a body, a living body, an animal body. The body is part of a larger system of energy accumulation of which all of life is a function. But human bodies are also subject to the sub-system of political economy. I believe this to be the space within which we can speak of agency, and we might possibly be able to defend Frankfurt’s thesis about the concept of the person.
Let us imagine that underneath the desires of which Frankfurt speaks is a more fundamental desire, the desire to expel a surplus accumulation of energy. This desire would motivate all our other desires, as a multiplicity of ways in which we might expel that surplus. A second order volition could be understood as a value. We desire to expel our energy in a multiplicity of ways, but we select which is the most effective way of expelling the surplus. In other words, we care about our own desires and act on them according to a set of criteria which tell us the best way to discharge our surplus energy.
This, if argued rigorously, would provide a materialist grounding for the questions of agency which seem so irrelevant because of their groundlessness, although it definitely requires more thought.
January 25, 2011
There are two propositions which have been hammering on the inside of my skull for some time now.
- That every investigation into a given set of beings presupposes an ontology. This is nothing new. Indeed, it is well known that Heidegger reminds us of the importance of this fundamental difference, and not only does it inform his entire philosophical project, but it re-aligns the pursuit of philosophy in the twentieth century. Moreover, when we engage in philosophy in the twenty first century we remain committed to this alignment.
- That the criterion for the adequacy of such an ontology is that it at least contain sufficient apparatus to make ontological sense of the actual world, by which I mean the world as it appears to us phenomenologically, and as it is represented to us scientifically. It must then be able to include mathematics, music, art, love, rocks, grass, quarks, politics etc. In other words, all varieties of both organic and inorganic activity.
These two assumptions will be the starting point of my current research trajectory.
Being as monstrosity… A brutal existence both underlying and exceeding all organsed forms… A desire to grow enveloped by individual growths working at the limit of their power… Organisation as the taming of being.
In music there is always a tension between the extrinsic relations of the rhythmic and tonal elements, and the living interior impulse from which these external relations break fourth. The presence of this tension marks the existence of this internal impulse even if it cannot be represented. Listening to Coltrane’s A love Supreme, we hear music growing out of itself, never a slave to a structure of tonal and rhythmic relations. This phenomenological observation leads us to that which is intrinsic to music itself, that is, the musical performance as the singular becoming of an abstract line.
The human has always been a flawed invention, something temporary, something that could never last. And only now, in the bleak, final days of our existence, do we realise that we were unreal from the outset. In which case the inevitablity of our extinction as a species becomes nothing more than of the decomposition of a certain form, the failure of a particular evolutionary trajectory.
We now know that the “human” is the invention of a failed species, a species which is remarkable only in that it has actively produced the conditions of its own extinction. And yet we continue with indifference. We continue to go to work, to walk through shopping malls and supermarkets, satisfying our vaccuous individualities in whichever ways we can, to go to war over diminishing resources and ideology, all in support of a fiction which is falling apart every day. The most interesting thing, though, is not that we continue to live our day to day lives from within such a pretence, but that we plan for the future as if the future will be the same as the present, as if things will continue to tick along indefinitely, as if it will all blow over.
One does not need to be pessimistic about this. Our liberation from the chains of humanity carries with it multiple implications for our attitudes towards extinction, the conduct of life, and for political practice. We understand that the specific and relatively insignificant evolutionary trajectory we call the human race was always heading towards extinction. The invention of man created the illusion that we were important, that our thoughts, our actions, our institutions and organisations, were important in some lasting sense, that we are the centre of it all. This we know to be a fallacy. But the realization of our impending extinction implies that these organisations, these institutions, these political practices are built on a fictional ground. Why, then, continue to tick along in the way that we do? The brute fact of our fate demands a new kind of political practice, unencumbered by the ideology of progress that still, to this day, dominates mainstream political discourse.
I thought for a while about looking for you. But you had already gone. Having received a hand written letter informing me of this, I went outside and felt your absence in the street. It occurred to me that the library was probably the most convenient place to pursue the inertia of my thoughts, since it no longer housed any books to distract me, as did other places.
The rose bushes along the way failed to produce any scent, and the thorns scratched at my skin. But I allowed it to happen, in spite of the pain. The concrete was cracking under my feet with every step. I had no idea that I had become so heavy. A policeman found me offensive and was no longer able to control his disgust, shouting around the same themes over and over again, none of them his own, although he took them to be so. As do I, with themes that are not my own. And this too has been said before.
Having spent some time grappling with the policeman, he ended up as a corpse, and I felt myself pleased with the outcome. I found that some people were following me, and I knew it was not about the police officer. It was too late for him. Nor was it about my weight. But until they caught up with me I could not have discovered that they were offering to cure me of the scratches inflicted upon me by the thorns from the rose bushes, the crumpled flowers of which now lay scattered on the ground like the death of something irreplaceable, showing with certainty that a performance so singular can never be repeated. They took me by the arms as their gentle prisoner and guided me onward in every direction, and I felt as though you would at some point return, and that they were in some sense responsible for the manifestation of this event.
The leader said things to me, not about you, not about the police, not even about the scratches. And as he whispered in my ear, careful not to extend to his comrades the revelation of his secret, I understood the tension in his voice. His fear placed a great weight upon him and he was unable to relate this to the others, who had never seen below the surface. He said that the moment he had caught hold of me he felt that I was different from them, that I showed him something he already knew. He asked me how I coped with such knowledge; how it was that it did not frighten me. I told him that I live without hope.
We arrived at the library and you were removing the last of the books from the otherwise empty shelves. It occurred to me that you had forgotten. Neither of us had enjoyed such a glance before, like the very first time but without such scars. Your hand felt warm as you grasped hold of my arm, replacing the troubled leader who shrank down and evaporated. You walked with me across the room to the fountain where I lay dying on the stone steps. And with my last breath, as you wiped the sweat from my temple, I told you that I loved you.