Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fragment of a theory of consciousness

...by elaborating the reciprocity of socialization and technical advancement. In order to establish the social, early man could not continue as before - he had to begin to deny himself, to regulate his behaviour. Nietzsche discusses this in On the Genealogy of Morals, and we will focus here on the idea that man had to become an animal capable of making promises. How could this be brought about? Memory had to be burned onto man. And this memory needed to be a certain sort of memory, a memory turned towards the future. To keep a promise, one must remember that one has made a promise, and use this memory to guide one's behaviour with a view to keeping that promise. To create this memory, man had to be given an originary 'punishment he would never forget'. With such training, the desire to do whatever one wants is overridden by the visceral fear of suffering. Nietzsche calls this a mnemotechnics. Crucially, this mnemotechnics also produces a memory for the technical. To explain: the function of memory in keeping a promise is also the function of memory with advanced tool use. In order to construct something in a process involving more than one or two simple operations, it is necessary to remember the aims of the intermediate steps. For example, I am preparing a stone in order to sharpen the blade of the knife with which I will cut the bamboo needed for the roof of my house. Without memory here, I would forget the point of my activity at each stage. So we have a projective memory, which allows man to undertake projects.

We ought to focus on this projective element for a moment. We see that the memory we have been talking about also has a constructive, imaginative aspect. We imagine a future in which we do not keep a promise and are punished, or in which we have built a house where there was none before. We begin to take our experiences apart to create new, possible experiences using this imaginative memory. What began as the taming of man's animal nature has developed into something much more significant: the birth of the mind. From its origin in early morality, this facility has become the motor of man's project-building, his artistic capacity, and interestingly, his status as the animal whose desire is structured as lack. Lack, because our projective power creates a cleavage between what exists and what could exist - the scenario or outcome which our projectively imaginative memory fabricates (once man began to sketch futures in his mind, the present reality started to appear as lacking something; I think Sartre's Pierre-who-was-not-there provides a good example of this). But I have neglected the most important change that took place at the dawn of humanity - man got the impression that he is free. Our ability to retrospectively imagine different alternatives to a choice we made leads us to think that we actually could have acted differently. Our ability to imagine various futures amongst which to choose (I could be a doctor, a lawyer, a fireman etc when I grow up) tricks us into thinking we have some kind of freedom to choose.

A brief comparison with Bergson could be instructive here. In Matter and Memory, he claims that those images which appear to consciousness are the images in relation to which we are free. The rest "pass through". What I have outlined above is not unrelated. Every perception we embellish with memories, which enrich the perceived, and furnish us with various possible courses of action in relation to that object. In contrast with Bergson however, I would argue that it is not our freedom which makes the image conscious, but our ability to produce alternatives to what is given to us. These are only my first, tentative thoughts, the thrust of which is this: conscious experience is produced by simultaneous, conflicting mental/neural events, the paradigmatic case being where one is provided by experience and the other by our imaginative memory. For example, we are aware of pain because it conflicts with our memories of the 'feeling' of our painless body (which is also why we get used to pain); in the moral case, it is our impulse to transgress which finds itself opposed by the conscience burned into our memory. On the other hand, one can walk to school or work without noticing anything on the way because there are no conflictual memories, because the same trudge has been done every day for years. Or, to be a little more ambitious, we might contend that our own brain function cannot become conscious because there could be nothing opposed to the experience of our own brain - the source of any conflictual mental/neural event is always already part of that with which it is supposed to conflict...

Saturday, November 14, 2009


I discovered today that, in 1914, Lenin gave a lecture in the building where I work. Surely the opportunity for a damning indictment of something. Exactly what shall hopefully become clearer as we go.

I work in a bar which, though it still has some connections with its past, provides strong evidence that times have changed. The customers are young-ish and cool-ish, but take neither to extremes. There are quite a few English speakers, probably because they find other cafés in the area too dirty. And we get lots of EU workers, mostly the ambitious work-experience people who think they can change the world and achieve wealth and success at the same time. You know, those folks who believe in saving the children but who must hang on to their faith in western capitalist democracy because life's little luxuries aren't going to buy themselves.

My bar is on the right-hand row of buildings, second from the right

There's no better way to start a monday morning than to clear away herbal tea detritus from a table covered in graphs and notes about 'climate change' and 'policy', while watching the otherwise attractive men and women sitting there 'networking'. Lenin, I apologize on behalf of humanity. Scattered around the rest of the room will be various Mac users directing the revolution from afar. Why would you take your computer to a café? If you are tired of fantasizing about the other customers, we have a rather good selection of newspapers (selected for our bobo client-base, obviously: The Guardian, Libération, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung, La Repubblica, El Pais and, er, L'Équipe).

At the moment we have on the walls a number of photographs of little black children in Africa gambolling about and looking cute. They are for sale, for 150 Euros each. The interesting question is, if our customers want to buy these photos, what are they going to do with them? Certainly not hang them in the dining room to marvel at whilst eating their cornflakes every morning. How do I know this? Our bar is one of the few not to allow buskers or street salesmen anywhere near the customers: "Move along my Gypsy friend. Yes they love the poor but they don't want to have to look at them..."

Another reason for my dislike of the budding eurocrats is that, while they figure out how to make a unified Europe more like the United States, I have a black job with zero security. My fate rests solely on whether les patrons are good to me or not. And although I have been lucky, some of my colleagues have been let go without notice. What is unsurprising is that all three of them had somewhat recalcitrant personalities (amongst other things, Catherine Malabou's analysis of plasticity and passivity seems relevant on this issue).

So, What Is to Be Done? In my case, nothing. I will continue to cling to my job by displaying ever greater levels of unquestioning submissiveness, all the while thanking my benefactors heartily for the opportunity.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Having read the post against blogger anonymity at larval subjects, I feel I should put forward some of my views, given that I have just started an anonymous blog.
As far as I can see larval is not really arguing against blogger anonymity so much as arguing that, since he and many others cannot be anonymous, neither should anyone else. I hope I'm not being too assholish but this smells of ressentiment. There is something rather frightening about the idea that an antisocial blogger should have "to suffer [...] real world consequences for how they’ve participated or engaged with others." Why should they? Surely being an asshole every day of their lives is punishment enough. Larval then goes on to outline how the philosophy job market works, and the risks involved with having a presence on the internet. The vision he describes is positively nightmarish, and I feel sorry for anyone who has to have any relationship with that world. Nevertheless, we must not allow this description of a (pathetic) state of affairs to become a moral framework.
The blogosphere offers the unique opportunity to be able to share ideas with philosophically and politically like-minded people in a context less formal than conferences etc, yet more sustained than drinks at the bar. In other words, the perfect place for a student of philosophy to come to explore ideas, to learn about new approaches and different views without being expected to hold a coherent and clearly thought through philosophical position. I don't want to be taking an "existential risk" with every post; I have enough of that every day I spend at work.
Larval clearly has a problem with the "paper trail" of life, as I do, but the blogosphere is a place to escape from that, not a place to be told that you cannot escape: "The person being criticized should be able to say x (not the screen name, but the person’s true proper name) argued y and y should be tied to that person." Let's not make the internet as much of a Kafkaesque hell as the real world. Anonymous blogging opens up an exciting space for the experimental production of personal identities, so I don't like being told I mustn't forget my passport.
The real evil here is not the online peanut gallery, but the world of professional philosophy, and particularly the link between thought and earning a living. Apparently employers will ask "whether this person is a colleague they would like to have for the rest of their lives." For a philosopher, the answer will often be no (and the employers are idiots for asking such a question). Would you like to have weekly departmental meetings with Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Rousseau, Althusser, Heidegger, Diogenes, Kant or Lacan? Probably not - they were all sociopaths in one way or another. But that is irrelevant here. They had interesting things to say. And that should be the guiding criterion, because I want to listen to the interesting people, whether they are polite or not.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A note on politics and philosophy

(Something vaguely related to infinite thought's post on politics and ontology...)

The fundamental indifference of the real is terrifying. But I believe we cannot truly grasp this indifference without obviating its immense terror, without rationalizing it. This is a temptation because we are not indifferent to the indifference of the real.

Philosophy suffered a setback with the death (or flight or suicide) of God. God came to the aid of thinkers stuck in the quicksand of doubt. He guaranteed our clear and distinct ideas. The Enlightenment also seems a distant memory, and the notion of 'Reason' is almost obsolete: yes, humans do work things out sometimes, but the preponderance of idiocy on earth is such that man seems more and more to be the irrational animal. And we have become cynical, no longer believing in ourselves: a quarter of Britons think the moon landings were faked (and the rest probably realize it was nothing more than a multi-billion dollar ideological gambit against the soviets). And so we turn to science. In a time when no one can be sure of anything, with relativism rife, and even our fellow philosophers telling us things like 'the Gulf war didn't happen' (but I saw it on TV!), there is nowhere else to turn. Scientists have been working away, for a few centuries now, perfecting their instruments and corroborating their discoveries. Corroborating, which is to say, repeating experiments and verifying conclusions. Which is also to say: verifying that, all things being equal, the same effects are observed. Science can be understood here as a large-scale, organised and sustained manipulation of the real. And it is the unquestionable success of this global effort which makes it so attractive.
The daily routine of most humans today closely resembles that of pre-humans: ie, living in order to consume. Thus when man appears to have returned to his animal habits, it is only right that our conception of truth also return to its origins. As Peter Sloterdijk says, "the look which follows a tossed stone is the first introductory form of theory, and the feeling of agreement engendered by the success of the throw is the first level of a post-animal truth function." (La Domestication de l'Etre p50. )
But what has politics got to do with this? I think politics needs to be understood in a much broader sense than has generally been proposed in the online debate: that is, as a thinking of the collective existence of humans in terms of their collectivity. The bourgeois distinction between public and private needs to be obliterated, as does the idea that 'the we' is an ethical matter.

I want to begin with an anthropogenetic story. Before man, the universe was indifferent and inhospitable to life, and, in contrast with today, that menace was a daily practical problem for creatures on earth. Early man took two crucial steps to solving, or at least deferring that problem - the development of a social "huddle" and the increased use of tools (again, La Domestication de l'Etre). The result of these changes was a distancing of nature, or rather a socio-technical sheltering from the threatening world. Crucial to man's origin was the introduction of a mediator between man and external reality, which was both defensive and technical in essence. As history has shown, this was effective at reducing the pressures of (environmental) natural selection. Man established the conditions for flourishing. It ought to be noted that the originary shelter has become what is today know as 'the world'. Nature is so thoroughly enframed by humanity that it no longer really exists except as outdoor leisure centre or something we're trying to exploit or save. Yet our growing mastery of the real conceals from us the primordial mediation (I can't think of a better word) at the root of this apparent mastery. Like the Hollywood film which effaces the technologically productive medium between it and the spectator, the real today is thought as if it were grasped directly, rather than via the vast socio-technical apparatuses of contemporary civilization. The social, which emerged as a means of limiting reality's access to us, has become the systematic management of our access to reality. To think a non-human world would require becoming pre-human.
To be clear, sociality is not structured by autonomous individuals, but itself structures those individuals who constitute it. The social is inscribed on us, and in the twentieth century this has progressed far from the discipline of docile bodies, into a regime of neuronal/behavioural programming which will only increase in scale ( and here I think neuroplasticity studies will provide a lot of interesting new knowledge both to those doing the programming, and those trying to think it). Comparative neuroanthropology is also yielding some important results, concerning the brain activity of different language speakers (an article somewhere on this blog) which I believe will lead us to recognize that two people from different societies will have brains which process input (reality) very differently. We cannot escape the socio-cultural 'correlation' because we are not in it: it is in us.
Surely we must still have a certain connection with reality in order to 'function'? Yet here we encounter difficulties because the real, and 21st century capitalist reality are now almost co-extensive. You are equally considered mad - in the sense of lacking a grip on reality - whether thinking that you can walk through walls, or believing that you can repeatedly tell your boss to fuck off. Because of this, we can begin to appreciate the austere genius of positivism. Forget interpretation, forget analysis. Focus on the facts. Don't speculate. We cannot erase the socio-subjective markings in our perceptual apparatus, but by adopting a pared down, positivist attitude, we can restrict the contamination of our knowledge. This is why science has been so successful in relation to the other fields of human knowledge. Attention to detail, patience and a theoretico-conceptual asceticism. And we can gauge the success of science in its observable results, in the manner and extent to which objects can be altered, moved, de-composed etc. The speculative side of scientific work is not to be rejected, but understood properly: the exciting and experimental hypothesis is only that, a hypothesis, until it is verified in repeated, controlled encounters with the world.
On the other hand, what is arguably the least successful science, philosophy, does still have something to do. While science proper was busily experimenting, collecting data and distilling its contents to their purest, most reduced form, philosophy was always too ambitious, too daring with its concepts, building moral and metaphysical edifices which couldn't withstand the winds of history. However this irreverance is needed now, because while the human sciences are waiting for the real sciences to provide all the answers, society itself is quietly drifting up shit creek. Philosophy is the only domain that is truly comfortable with the counter-intuitive; the study of philosophy is primarily learning to habituate one's mind to ideas, and particularly relations between ideas, which are anathema to common sense. As it gradually becomes clear that everything which exists is material, and that our basic understanding of the world and our place in it is false, thought will need all of its conceptual contortionism to engage with the facts of science and begin to think this new world.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Some remarks on the Tarnac 9

I've just finished reading The Coming Insurrection - a staggering document! And what unashamed philosophical plundering. The complexities of trying to think our socio-political situation today demands such bricolage. This work is a concrete example of what I was trying to elucidate in my previous post, that attitude of finding connections everywhere, of ingenuity, of cunning, both theoretical and practical. The author(s) put together things which don't belong together, they hypothesize, until every type of knowledge becomes a savoir-faire, becomes a tool, a weapon. They have mobilized their intelligences to "gather scattered knowledge."

Turning to the case of the Tarnac 9, I feel an opportunity, a precarious one to be sure, has been missed. I came to the story via the train sabotage accusation, and the newspaper article I read left me with the vague impression of some kind of neo-luddite sect living in the woods. I also assumed that they were guilty of whatever crime it was. Only afterwards did I come across the text and the political leanings of the group. Thus I identified the saboteurs (whom I still assumed to be guilty) with the authors of the The Coming Insurrection. Something astonishing dawned on me in that moment: a group of philosophers had decided to take direct action. This was how I understood it. This is how I still choose to understand it. Yet all the discussions I've looked at (and specifically the letter written by intellectuals - including Badiou, among others - to Le Monde) focus on the police, the judicial system, political interference, in essence the response of the authorities, while defending the idea that the group are innocent. That nothing has happened.

Of course all the criticisms of the ridiculous response by the police and the political establishment are more or less correct. And it can also be said that the errancy of state power has been fixed or measured, in Badiou's terms. But why the hesitation to go further? What is the risk of affirming at least a partial identity between the saboteurs, the Tarnac 9 and the Invisible Committee (allowing that the saboteurs got help from the germans, for example)? The only danger here would be that a group of left-wing thinkers declaring the guilt of the Tarnac 9 might lead to those nine actually being found guilty. But there are far greater things at stake - there is an undecidable, I think, which can be decided: political violence can have meaning today. And this relies on the identity claim, since it is the linking of the three groups which constitutes the meaningfulness of the sabotage. To say that the Tarnac 9 are just a group of people trying to develop an alternative lifestyle, by reading, protesting, etc, is to reduce or deny what, in this case, is truly remarkable (and remarkable in a way that the 2005 upheaval in France wasn't).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

First notes

What is the feeling of discomfort, the feeling that something is wrong, that one gets when reading about science and the real meaning of the copernican revolution? After Finitude produces this feeling towards the end, despite, or because of, its marvellous breadth and audacity. But how can we describe it? Man, fragile, alone, amidst icy cosmic winds, in the "frightening silence of infinite spaces." Man only a split-second murmur in the galactic becoming without, only an illusory placeholder for the meaningless cellular becoming within. And yet only man has mathematics. Only man can step into the great outdoors. Zizek captures this incongruity when he says:
"Humiliation, 'narcissistic illness,' seems to generate a sense of superiority,
paradoxically grounded in the very awareness of the miserable character of our
existence. As Pascal put it in his inimitable way, man is a mere insignificant
speck of dust in the infinite universe, but he knows about his
nullity,and that makes all the difference." (Parallax View p163)
We can discern at least two strands of thought emerging from this 'knowing': knowledge of the infinite universe, which can be nurtured and eventually developed into the ontology that today promises to lead us toward a specifically extra-terrestrial truth; and knowledge of the speck of dust. It is this second knowledge which I would like to turn to here. Meillassoux talks about how, after Kant, philosophy tried to undermine science by revealing its real, underlying truth. But it is as much of a distortion of science to read into it the destruction of our commonsense world-view, as if this destruction were essential to scientific progress. In fact, two pseudo-sciences, psychology and sociology often reinforce the common-sense understanding of things, not because they abandon scientific rigour but because they apply it thoughtlessly. The point of the neutrality of science is confirmed with the inevitable specialisation that followed the rapid growth in scientific knowledge. He studies enzymes, she is grappling with a knotty mathematical problem. These people, for the most part, are not philosophers. Scientists just do science - they carry out the research, solving problems that are primarily local problems.

And yet how astonishing is the volume of relentless experimentation! Millions of people in research centres and laboratories all over the world, with only one question: 'how does it work?' And only one answer: 'let's open it up and look inside.' But this looking inside is a certain kind of looking. A robust looking. A looking that gets to grips with what it is looking at. And it doesn't matter what they are looking at; a piece of pre-frontal cortex or a mathematical equation.

Given that philosophy always wants to step in and posit, or find, a significance in science beyond that of the discipline itself, what is to be done? I think it is time to return to an old friend, to find (posit) an instrumentalism at the heart of science. Rather than, in a way, focusing on the highest of human capacities, with the idea that mathematics (and mathematics alone: this was the only way I could make sense of After Finitude) can lead us off the correlationalist treadmill - we ought to focus on the lowest, which is to say that all our knowledge, culture etc has issued from us in our speck-of-dustness. This not in order reject science however (though ontology is a trickier question) but as another route to Marx's idea of changing the world instead of interpreting it. Science can teach us how to get stuck in again, and remind us that we are only apes who've gotten ideas above our station.

Does our materialism leave us waiting for science to tell us how the world works? The philosopher is not a scientist, he proceeds differently. The philosopher must mobilize science in order to return to the basic questions. As François Châtelet says, in relation to the Greek questions of exercise and eating well: "Philosophy - it is necessary to insist on this point - begins with simple questions: what we have the habit of calling, in the philosophical jargon, 'empirical' questions." (Une histoire de la raison p29)

There is the risk that reflection becomes paralysed by that fact that 'truth' only comes to light in a laboratory. Just because we have forgotten how to see does not mean we should abandon all attempts to observe, to hypothesize, to experiment. (This is related to two things I would like to discuss in later posts a) a tactical or epistemological, rather than ontological use of Hume on causality, and b) the issue of the extent to which our perceptual and affective apparatus has been mutilated. Hint: the last Hollywood film I saw at the cinema was 'Inglorious Basterds,' the experience of which can only be described as a sensory and emotional assault.)
To conclude these first remarks, I would like make a plea for a kind of applied intelligence - as Rancière defines it in Le maître ignorant - where what counts is our attention, and the unstructured nature of learning and theorizing (every thinker who recognizes a 'master' didn't find him using reason; there was an encounter at the right moment, something aleatory took place) and at the core of this process of understanding is the injunction: 'relate everything to everything else.' Folk psychology, astrophysics, ethnography - mobilize this intelligence, hypothesize and experiment. Answer the question, how does it work?

(This is really far too sketchy and too hurried, but lots of material for me to try to clarify later)


I am going to try to elaborate here all the ephemeral but seemingly promising ideas that arise in the brain from time to time. There will be no systematicity, because these ideas often contradict one another. There will be precious little rigour. All I will attempt is some unfolding, with the aim of discerning the useful from the less so. Time restraints mean that many of the posts will be fragmentary or incomplete.