Sunday, October 30, 2011

Caputo on Meillassoux Reading Group - Post 4

Continuing on with AF after a week's break, this time picking up with Chapter 3: The Principle of Factiality. Audio lecture is HERE.

In addition to the shorter excerpt of a translated interview below, I am posting another Meillassoux interview in its entirety, in full (in English) HERE.  This one is from Urbanomic.

translation of Meillassoux’s ‘Contingence et Absolutisation de l’Un’ (posted for reading group)

Again, another document for our reading group - to correspond with AF's Chapter 3: The Principle of Factiality. Please be sure to have read this for our next discussion, this coming week.

Translation of Meillassoux’s

(in excerpt)

(Credit to Fabio Gironi for the translation. It is also available at hyper tiling blog.)

Two Ones

Let us return now to the question of the one. The problem has thus far consisted, I want to remind you, in determining the existence of a possible procedure for justifying the realist—therefore non-correlationist—character of a mathematical description of the world. This problem for me takes now the following form: can we derive from the principle of factiality the absolute validity of mathematical descriptions of the real? I certainly cannot resolve here this massive problem in which I still am involved. I would simply like to present the first move for this investigation, which leads precisely to the nature of the one, and in particular to the difference within the unity of a thing, and the unity of a sign: what I shall call the difference between the ontic one and a semiotic one [l'un ontique et l'un sémiotique]

What relationship is there, between this question regarding two types of unities and the question of the realist capacity of mathematics?

In order to resolve the problem of the absolute scope of mathematics, I began by trying to identify a minimum requirement of any formal writing—logical or mathematical—that distinguishes it from natural languages [langues naturelles]. I tried to reach a precise and determinative point of difference, capable of distinguishing a symbolic, or formal, language from a natural language. It was necessary to find a characteristic which is minimal enough to be present in all formal languages and precise enough never to be present in a natural language. Indeed, I had an idea about this characteristic, and I had the intuition that it had precisely to do with the ability of thought to access the eternity of contingency. This minimum requirement actually seems to me to consist in a remarkable usage— a systematic and precise usage—of the sign devoid of significance [dépourvu de sense].

The hypothesis that I adopted, roughly, is the following: if the question of the reference [referent?] of mathematics—what does mathematics talk about?—is a piercing question, it is because mathematics consists of a sequence of operations applied to signs which, ultimately, mean nothing. Therefore, in all mathematical writing—at least in its most fundamental forms, such as Set Theory or Category Theory—there would be two kind of signs: the signs signifying operations—which I call operational-signs [signes-opérateurs]—and those signs on which ultimately these operations bear—which I call base-signs [signes-bases] and that have the express function of not signifying anything, and thereby of avoiding any parasitism of operational meaning from another regime of meaning. What we find in formal writings of signs without meaning is, therefore, not a failure of these writings, but what allows for their own singularity and richness.

A simple example is given by the so-called standard axiomatics of Set Theory. To put it very crudely, in this axiomatic one begins from signs—a, b, c— which are usually called ‘sets’. But actually, Set Theory never defines what a set is. These signs, in themselves, don’t mean anything, because they specifically have to—in my terms—provide operational-signs with a base devoid of meaning on which to operate. These signs begin to ‘resemble’ sets, in that they are subject to an operator—the operator of belonging [l’opérateur d’appartenance]. It is this operator, and not the signs of the sets, that carries upon itself the charge of signification: thus, the signs a, b, c will be called sets in that they may be subject to the operator of belonging and allow statements such as ‘a belongs to b’ or ‘b belongs to a’. A set is that which can belong to another set, or what may contain another set: a circular definition which shows that one never really defines a set, i.e., the base-sign, but only the operations that it supports.

My strategy is then as follows: I posit that the minimum requirement for the possibility of mathematical writing (I cannot show here that it is the only condition, but I posit that it is at least one condition) is the possibility to conceive and thematise signs devoid of meaning. Far from being identifiable as a nothing or a nonsense (meant as an absurdity) the sign devoid of meaning is posited as the eminent condition for mathematico-rational thought (and I think we could say the same about logic). The question that I ask is therefore the following: how can we think of the sign devoid of meaning? And the answer that I give to this question consists in showing that the condition for the thinkability of the sign devoid of meaning is the access (whether thematized or not) to the eternal contingency of everything. In short, I attempt to derive from the principle of factiality our ability to produce signs empty of meaning, therefore showing that mathematical discourse moves within a sphere of thought ‘closely associated’ with the absoluteness of contingency. I have so far demonstrated the absolute capability of mathematical descriptions; now I shall, at least, work out the first and necessary step of such an absolutization.

There is perhaps some strangeness in the question: how do we produce signs devoid of meaning? Because the signs devoid of meaning are mainly perceived as the manifestation of failure, an inability to produce meaning, rather than as the manifestation of a capacity. What sense is there to ask how we manage to produce the insignificant? And again, what does it all have to do with the question of the one?

A story will allow me to answer these two questions at once.

Imagine, without any concern about verisimilitude, that an archaeologist—working among the ruins of a largely unknown civilization without knowing if it possessed writing— partially unearths, during his research, a tablet on which there is a series of symbols [motifs], like for example:

# # # # # # # #

Suppose that his first reaction is to assume that this line is a frieze, an engraved design on the edges of the tablet. However, a moment later, he modifies his hypothesis and says, with excitement, that it could be a line of writing, like a schoolboy would write the same letter in his notebook in order to learn how to write. Then, going on digging up the tablet, he realizes that it does not contain other lines made of other characters—which would confirm his hypothesis—but a design that convinces him that the first hypothesis was correct: he was indeed dealing with a frieze rather than a line of writing.

The question that can be posed is therefore the following: what shift in vision occurred in our archaeologist, seeing in the very same pattern, respectively, similar symbols as parts of the same frieze, and as occurrences of the same sign? In both cases, the engraved marks were seen in their singular unity and in their collective arrangement: but in what consists the difference for which the symbols have become occurrences of the same sign, a token of the same type?

To explain this difference will lead us to the heart of the question of the one.

When the archaeologist saw the series as a frieze, he saw it as an entity susceptible to aesthetic appreciation in a broad sense: a singular decorative pattern, composed by a determined number of symbols—for example, eight—and whose configuration (shape of the symbols + number of these symbols) could be judged as more or less accomplished, as more or less pleasurable to the eye. In this judgment, the number of these symbols is not indifferent: seven or five symbols could have been less pleasurable than a series of eight—or, on the contrary, more so. In other words, the frieze holds what could be called an effect of monotony, or again what I more generally call an effect of repetition: an effect for which the symbols cease to be the same even though they are supposed to perfectly resemble each other (I say, be similar). To understand this point clearly, we must make a comparison with a melody: it is well known since Bergson that two similar notes (two phonetically indiscernible ‘Dohs’) are understood in different ways if they conclude distinct melodic sequences. Thus a melody—say eight DOHs played in sequence—will produce a final DOH distinct from the initial DOH, because the final one is charged with a melodic past that the initial one does not possess. There is, here, a differential effect of repetition, a melodic effect, which is an effect of monotony regarding time, homologous to that which is presented, regarding space, in the frieze. For I believe, unlike Bergson, that space is as responsible for melodic differences as time is, and that our frieze affects its symbols with a differential effect that makes each of them differ from others even if they are, empirically, rigorously similar.

Why mention this? Because I believe that the monotony effect affects every vision of empirical reality: everything that is seen as one—as an empirical, ontic unit—unfolds itself in a space and in a time that produce differences amongst these things/ones [choses-unes] themselves that, empirically, are not distinguished. Now the enigma, the mystery of the sign is, I believe, that this differential effect inherent in space-time, disappears when we see similar marks not as symbols of the same frieze but as occurrences of the same type. For then we have the right to say that these occurrences are absolutely identical, with no differential effect (neither empirical nor spatio-temporal), i.e., repetitive. It is absolutely the same sign, as a type, that is found in each of its instances: and this type will never vary, regardless of the number of occurrences, so that this time our series (########) could be extended with an ‘etc.’, which denotes the radical indifference of the identity of the type regarding the multiplicity of its occurrences. An ‘etc.’ which would be meaningless for the frieze, since the frieze is a concrete aesthetic reality, and therefore inseparable from the specific and finite number of its symbols.

There is something absolutely non-differential and therefore non-spatio-temporal, something eternal, in the sign as such, and I say in the sign as in the sign devoid of meaning. Here the meaning of our story will emerge: it generally addresses the immaterial character of language through the question of the eventual ideality of meaning [l’idéalité éventuelle du sens]—of its resistance, for example, to historicity and context—and of its possible identity in the minds of two readers of a same text in two different epochs. But here, this is the point that I wanted to highlight, our archaeologist had, I think, the experience of an eternity, of a pure identicality—an eternity in kind and not in meaning [du type et non du sens], that resists the differential effect of the empirical marks—and this experience of eternality is an experience of the sign and not of meaning: it is these signs devoid of meaning that prompted this experience, rather than meaningful signs. And these signs have indeed proved to be devoid of meaning, as they were not really signs [signes], but symbols [motifs]: our archaeologist has therefore experienced a vision capable of seizing, within an empirical mark, something eternal—a mode of unification of the marks not subject to the effect of spatio-temporal repetition—starting from a single semiotic unity, a unity for which each mark has become a one-occurrence of an identical type and, as such, indefinitely reproducible.

It is the eternal unity of the sign-type [signe-type] that allows access to the thinkability of its unlimited iteration of the same: to the ‘etc.’ that follows the series of occurrences, and that did not exist for the aesthetic vision of the frieze. In other words, the eternal is directly present as that which differentiates the sign from the mark [différencie le signe de la marque], and therefore as the meaning, (since?) neither the reference nor the essence are—a fortiori—present. [Autrement dit, l’éternel est présent à même ce qui différencie le signe de la marque, et alors que le sens, ni a fortiori la référence ou l’essence ne sont présents].

So, to have access to the sign devoid of meaning as such requires access to something eternal within the occurrence, that is its kind. Hence the question: what is the nature of this eternity?

My thesis is as follows: the eternity engaged in the grasping of the semiotic unit has its source in the grasping of the contingency of the occurrence of the sign.

Let me explain this point, to conclude. When I perceive some thing, or an empirical mark, I perceive this mark with its empirical determinations, and I perceive it as a fact. But the perception of the mark, and of its ontic unity, makes its empirical determinations come into focus first, and then, in second place, its facticity: I perceive a mark, and moreover a factual one. On the other hand, if I see the facticity of this mark as such—if I bring it to the forefront—then I know that this mark is identical in the whole of reality, and it does not vary in space nor in time. Then I will operate a unification of the mark that is of another kind than the ontico-empirical one for which I shall precisely see the eternal contingency present in that mark. I unify the mark around its contingency, and not around its empirical determinations. I can then see, in a multitude of similar marks, a kind of eternal unity, and as such not subject to the differential effect of repetition.

Now, going back to the vision of the mark-one [marque-une] as the occurrence-one [occurrence-une] of a sign-type [signe-type]. What do I do precisely, when I see a sign as a sign: when I stop considering a mark as a thing, in order to consider it as a sign? Well, I am making of this mark an essentially arbitrary entity, i.e., contingent in its being a sign. That is, I can not thematize the idea of a sign—cannot think the sign as a sign—without letting the contingency of its determinations come to the fore. What does this mean? As a thing, the mark can be thought as the necessary effect of a certain number of causes: possibly related to erosion, to a shock, to a constrained human action, etc. Even if this necessitarianism is illusory, it shows that the mark-thing [marque-chose] doesn’t require that its contingency be thematised to be grasped. Therefore even if I am a Spinozist, the same mark, now become sign, must be necessarily posited as arbitrary, since a sign has the characteristic of not having in itself any necessary determinations. Certainly there are structural constraints in a language (the signs for distinct things must be separate), but the characteristic of a sign, or of a system of signs must be capable of being encoded—transcribed—into another, structurally identical, system of signs. A sign therefore exhibits its contingency ‘on its front line’, so to speak—at least when I grasp it as a sign, one that I thematize as such.

Now, when I deal with a sign devoid of meaning, I am dealing with a sign which does not refer to a sense, a reference, but only to itself as a sign: to think a sign devoid of meaning is necessarily to thematize the sign as a sign, hence to think its own arbitrariness—by letting its eternal contingency come to the fore—to unify it around its contingency, and finally to let it proliferate in accordance with a succession of occurrences released from the differential effect of repetition.

Therefore, it seems to me that there is a possibility to derive the possibility of mathematical discourse—i.e., a discourse structured around the sign devoid of meaning—starting from the principle of factiality, by ontologically basing the difference between the ontic one and the semiotic one. Here there is the first step, I believe, towards a possible absolutization of the mathematical descriptions of the real.

interview with Meillassoux (posted for reading group)

Interview with Meillassoux

There's an interesting new movement in French philosophy termed “speculative realism” which attempts to recover a chastened confidence in reason. There's an interview with one of its leading proponents, Quentin Meillassoux, over at Idée@Jour. Since, however, it's in French, here's a translation:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

cfp Schelling Society of North America

The SSNA is open to anyone who conducts research on Schelling and Schellingian philosophy in the English language. The SSNA mission is to (1) further research in English, both historical and systematic, on Schelling and related figures (eg., Boehme, Oetinger, Baader, Fichte, Novalis, Hölderlin, Schubert, early Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Oken, Fechner, Coleridge, Bradley, Peirce); (2) organize a stand-alone Schelling conference every other year at a North American University, with proceedings published online, and the best papers published every four years with an academic press; (3) gather data concerning current graduate research in English on Schelling; (4) coordinate translation projects of Schelling into English.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

do animals grieve?

"Do animals grieve?" is the title of THIS NPR article.  In critical animal studies, the concept of "deanthropocentrism" seems only to be guilty of elevating nonhuman animals' importance to an equal level with that of the human.  Here the "nonhuman" includes nonhuman animals who communicate their own perspectives in ways semiotically and prehensively grasped by the human, thus establishing communication of their own inner experiences of value (presumably this is communicated by other agents as well).  The experience communicated by nonhumans includes grief, according to the NPR article.

The standard charge against deanthropocentrism is to simply call it a nihilism in that it seeks to depreciate humans and will humanity's eradication in favor of what is nonhuman
.  In other words, those who question the idea of deanthropocentrism (as that concept is found in critical animal studies for example) say that deanthropocentrists really think that humans, and what they value, are nothing special.  Following a slippery slope, then, humans are just "objects" and thus human goals, purposes, and the meanings that human beings have in the end are disposable, like most objects or "random" things of the universe are.

The best response to this is to state that deanthropocentrism means to embrace the full reality (that is, both the what and the way) of *all* things in and of the world, the human included.  That is, there is an ontological parity in the value of items if the universe as such (a univocal realism of value, as I understand it).  No one thing can be discounted and disposed of prima facie, and everything in the world, ecologically speaking, has at least some value.

By stating that humans are "things" among other "things" in the universe one commits a reality check - one is identifying humans as inhabiting the same plane as other nonhuman agents and the human being ontologically is decentered from the center of the cosmos - from its former reigning place of anthropocentric dominance.  This has the potential to produce a more enriched relational network of agents each getting their value due.  Each agent, each actor as it were, has its own center and its own place of unique importance within a relational network of agents and values.

I don't see deanthropocentrizing the human as a "leveling" out or as a "bringing down" of the human being to the level of  let's say mere things, but rather as the opposite: bringing all things up to the level of ontological agents with at least some level of minimal value and importance.  Again, this is what I take to be a realism about univocal value concerning all of the world.  Rocks or pens may *matter less* in context, but fundamentally, the fact that anything is, rather than is not, means that "is" has a value in and of itself when it comes to what has been posited in the world. 

Following Whitehead, Buchler, and Hartshorne on this point, all agents of the world equally inhabit the ecology of reality. And inhabiting an ecology of reality means to possess an inner experience and possible communication of that experience. But agent and relation - being and communicating - will always be on equal footing: for as much as agency withdraws and flees inward agency is nevertheless related to the process of its own undetermined or as of yet to be determined possible-future nature. That is, agents are able to express "outward" natures that are not yet determined. With this possible communicative expression comes the autonomy of creativity, and, balancing the withdrawal of an agent, one gets outward. abundant expression.

Ethically, the comprehensibility, the knowing or totalizing of each agent's own distinct value forever eludes us - it can never be fully represented to anything other (although, as I argue elsewhere, I think aesthetic feeling and empathy are crucial here).  Stating that agents can be fully known, that their inner essence can be grasped indubitably, or that the interior life of a thing can be totalized - that on the other hand is nihilism, for it is the value reduction of what something supposedly is-as-finished rather than the letting-it-remain-open given what it can be.

If this is true, the care and ontological concern that we would formerly have taken to apply only to the human must now in some sense apply to all of nature, to all things with respect to their value.  Hence a truly ecological ethic which honors all perspectives or centers of things, each center dropping infinitely into an abyss of value-experience, importance, and perspective. 

How, then, does this view relate to ethics, to nonhuman animals? 

Enter the article linked above ("Do Animals Grieve?")   I think that being decentered means that realizing that animals, too, are objects of importance, similar agents, beings who have an important interior life. It seems to me that an animal's own nonhuman form of aesthetic communication (and for me this is both semiotic and phenomenological, to be prehended fundamentally as *feeling*) should count just as much as any other persistent semiotic communicative agent in the universe.  In other words, in matters of context, animals, then, should count equally to humans for ontological reasons above all else.  Their manners of communication should be taken into consideration when caring for the environment understood as ecological reality, for objects-felt-as-subjects, each being a unique and distinctive center point of feeling possessing worth and value of its own.  

Here empathy is crucial in regarding the manners of communication in question, a "Jamesian speculative exploration of a nonhuman consciousness" in regarding what manners of interior being are possible (James' 'On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings' speaks copiously to this)When it comes to thinking about whether animals are capable of grieving, given all of the above, I could only conclude that yes, it is possible - and ontologically so.  It certainly seems to be the case, not because human beings anthropomorphilcally project that emotion, but rather after an ontological anthrodecentering one finds that all agents of the universe have some value and are capable of - each in their own unique way - communicating that value as well any challenges to it, including empathy and loss, and grief over loss.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Caputo on Meillassoux Reading Group: Post 3

We are finishing Chapt 2: Metaphysics, Speculation, Fideism with the final bit of lecture posted as an audio file HERE.  Caputo teases the question of God and then discusses Meillassoux on Leibniz, Kant, and Descartes.

"The authentic tradition of immanence resides in the Platonic divine, and in the gods of Spinoza and Hegel, not in the 'philosophical atheism' of Heidegger."

Quentin Meillassoux - The Divine Inexistence

"The God neither speaks nor conceals..."

Such a beautiful post, I have to copy it in its entirety here.  I am in agreement with the author's sentiments.  

I am re-posting this because a childhood  friend of mine - that is, a friend for well over 15 years I should add - died of pancreatic cancer two years ago.  I am still dealing with that, and I still visit his grave.  Frequently.  

With my own health issues I often think about the fragility of life, being reminded often by the bouts of pain that I deal with every day, the pain which has gotten worse and hasn't allowed me to sleep for about three months now.

In any case, here is the post in full below.

(credit: Speculum Criticus Traditionis) . . .

A friend writes me concerning the funeral of a friend:

The day after she died somebody close to her dreamed that she flew off with iridescent dragonfly wings (I got the email about this dream the day after her death). Yesterday at the funeral (under a big tent outdoors), one enormous, singular dragonfly flew around, and perched above the podium for the entire event.
It is hard to know "what to do" with stories like this, and this very incapacity is why they are invaluable. Not because they demonstrate irrefutably the bankruptcy of "the materialist world view;" and not because they show how desperately we narrativize and pattern-seek to gain a shadow of 'meaning' at any cost. Rather, because their experiential force is such that we cannot dismiss them, and yet they just won't slip easily into any preordained category. If we seize on them as "evidence" of something, we slip into superstition. But if we blow them off, we do violence to ourselves. (Many are indeed prepared to bite the bullet and do this, but the cost of this is the chemical gelding of their souls. What they see as tough-mindedness I see as the intellect on steroids--and courting analogous side-effects). The only rational and human (I will even say "faithful") stance is one that sees in them as what Heraclitus said: "The God whose oracle is at Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but gives a sign." This sign is not glossable (if it were, it would be "speaking"). It points us beyond this world, but not at the world's expense.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

life after people

(PHOTO: image of Venus' surface)
To the left is an image of the surface of Venus taken by a Soviet spacecraft.  The blog side effects has an interesting post about Mars.  No human has ever stepped foot on Mars or Venus, yet we "know" something of the unknown.  Through images, through instruments - we capture places remote in space and time.  The Life After People series is also fantastic with respect to this idea - that of bearing witness to the unrepresented, the unknown, the unthought.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Caputo on Meillassoux Reading Group: Post 2

We have moved on to reading After Finitude, Chapter 2: Metaphysics, Speculation, Fideism.  Note as well the correlation between that chapter title and Meillassoux's article in the most recent issue of PLI.  Reading pack is still available for download (see previous post below).  Listen to the second half of Caputo's lecture in this audio file, HERE.

Monday, October 10, 2011

back to Pennsylvania

(Cherry Valley, autumn 2004 - PHOTO: After Nature)
Autumn is my favorite season, followed by winter.  October is my favorite month, followed by November.  I enjoy especially Halloween and Thanksgiving, as well as the colors of the leaves as they change.  Following autumn I enjoy the winter months of December and January.  Believe it or not, I do enjoy the snow!  Of course the holidays are nice as well.

These reflections begin because I am fortunate to have a few days off for fall break, where I'll be able to go back to Pennsylvania.  I'll be visiting Cherry Valley (where I grew up); visit my parents; and finally, the ultimate fall Poconos adventure: the Sciota Corn Maze.  This is now a yearly ritual for me: getting lost for hours in that darn maze.  It is a challenge, but alot of fun.  I also plan to enjoy the mountains as well as take alot of photos of the changing leaves (my favorite part of the Poconos during this season). 

Journeying back to the Poconos is always very romantic - and to add to my visit, I have the iPhone loaded up with '80s synthwave & early '90s college radio alternative: the Cure, Neds Atomic Dustbin, the Candy Skins, Posies, Pixies, Blur, James, Springhouse, Morrissey, and so on.  I can also recommend some newer music (note "newer" means probably at least a decade old): Third Eye Blind, Sun Kil Moon, Red House Painters, Chapterhouse, and Ride.  As well, I'd probably throw in some WXPN2 (Philly local indy, modern, and alternative - with lots of '80s alternative thrown in).  I think my favorite autumn band from these lists has to be, the Cure. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

hiking today

article on Whitehead and music

"A Whiteheadian Aesthetic and a Musical Paradigm" 

by Richard Elfyn Jones 

A Whiteheadian Aesthetic and a Musical Paradigm" attempts to explore the influence of Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy in the context of a fragment of music by J.S.Bach. The paper then proceeds, at a more abstract metaphysical level, to relate the aesthetic and artistic implications of the musical analysis to ultimate considerations, involving God.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Wisconsin mountain lion sightings

The Northwoods is more remote than I thought.  Traveling to Wassau and surrounding area, and then further north, I was quickly immersed in vast - and I mean *vast* expanses of wilderness.  What immediately struck me was how heavily forested the area happens to be after a good bit of it (mostly near Lake Superior, but also where I was) had been logged out during the late 1800s.  

During the turn of the century after the loggers had left, Woodrow Wilson granted that much of the land be turned into state forests and parks and restored (Wilson was also instrumental in conservation efforts with Maine state parks as well).  Now, 100 some years later, the forests have grown back in full force.  Save for hunting camps, a wilderness bar & grill, I was astonished to drive through hours of small mountains, wooded areas, and swamps.  I was pleased to see white spruce, red cedar, balsam fir, black ash, maple, oak, and birch.  It was a strange combination of Maine and Pennsylvania - but with smaller hills and lower "mountains" (more like very, very steep hills that stretch upwards for miles before descending again).  Hopefully my photo in the post below communicates the nature of these huge hills that seem to stretch endlessly.

Another surprising thing I encountered was the warnings about wolves.  Supposedly some of the access roads go pretty far back into the forest, and if one isn't armed, or if one is alone, you would question your intelligence to venture into the wilderness of the Northwoods.  As well, recently there have been more and more mountain lion sightings.  These are not escaped pets.  They are wild animals looking for food.  Again I was quickly reminded that we often "sugar coat" the great face of nature, when in fact, it is quite indifferent to the human.