Tag Archives: Deleuze

Some thoughts on Graham Harman, "Lavalampy materialism", and Deleuzian "undermining"

Recently, Graham Harman and friends have been unfairly criticizing Deleuze for holding positions that he never held. In his recent article in The Speculative Turn, Harman cites Deleuze is as the arch-example of an “underminer” i.e. someone who eradicates or “undermines” objects in favor of some kind of primordial process or undifferentiated goo. The metaphor Harman is working with is that Deleuze goes “underneath” objects and says that they are “nothing more than the derivative actualization of a deeper reality—one that is more diverse than a lump, but also more continuous than specific horses, rocks, armies, and trees.” Accordingly, Harman says that

Undermining occurs if we say that ‘at bottom, all is one’ and that individual objects are derivative of this deeper primal whole. It happens if we say that the process of individuation matters more than the autonomy of fully formed individuals. It also happens when we say that the nature of reality is ‘becoming’ rather than being, with individuals just a transient consolidation of wilder energies that have already moved elsewhere as soon as we focus on specific entities. There is undermining if we appeal to a pre-objective topology deeper than actuality, or if we insist that the object is reducible to a long history that must be reconstructed from masses of archival documents.

This whole idea of undermining is thus leveled at Deleuze with the intention of making fun of his metaphysics of objects, of pointing out his apparently childish emphasis on flows and processes at the expense of stability. Harman and friends seem gratuitously adept at constructing strawmen of their philosophical opponents. Having just taken a grad seminar with John Protevi on A Thousand Plateaus, I can say confidently that Harman and friends are painting a ludicrously simplistic picture of an incredibly nuanced and sophisticated metaphysical position. To completely dismiss Deleuze for being “lavalampy materialism” is completely childish. Lavalamps? Seriously? That’s a pathetically immature way of characterizing a serious philosophical giant such as Deleuze. Harman and friends want you to think that Deleuze is all about flow flow flow. But If there is one thing I took away from Protevi’s class, it’s that this is  a completely wrong reading of Deleuze. Deleuze never reduced all of reality to pure process or flow. Not at all. His ontology is one of flows and breaks.

To think that for Deleuze an object is somehow “unreal” or “derivative” is to completely misunderstand his concept of stratification and destratification. As Deleuze says in “The Geology of Morals”, “Strata are Layers, Belts. They consist of giving form to matters, of imprisoning intensities or locking singularities into systems of resonance and redundancy, or producing upon the body of the earth molecules large and small and organizing them into molar aggregates” (40). And being a concrete thinker, Deleuze immediately gives an empirical example of stratification:

In a geological stratum, for example, the first articulation is the process of “sedimentation,” which deposits units of cyclic sediment according to a statistical order: flysch, with its succession of sandstone and schist. The second articulation is the “folding” that sets up a stable functional structure and effects the passage from sediment to sedimentary rock. (41)

Does that sound like lavalamps and wishy-washy goo? No! While, yes, Deleuze did emphasize flows and intensive processes, he never did this at the expense of stable resonances, stratifications, and actual organizations. Protevi emphasized over and over again that many Continental thinkers make the mistake of thinking Deleuze was all about flow flow flow. This is a shallow and quick reading. Deleuze always emphasized both flows and breaks, never one at the expense of the other. And it would also be a mistake to read Deleuze as saying that stratifications are somehow less real than the underlying intensive processes. Strata are fully real insofar as they have affects on other bodies. And strata have all the autonomy as Harman’s withdrawn objects. And, yes, in some sense Deleuze saw fully autonomous objects as being limit cases rather than full fledged realities. But this is obviously true and not at all incompatible with Harman’s position since even Harman agrees that objects aren’t eternal: they are routinely destroyed and come into and out of being, only being semiautonomous from the rest of reality. A rock, e.g., while seemingly stable to us humans, would look like a fluid flow to the eyes of a creature with a metabolism on the geological timescale.

But, in my opinion, Deleuzian metaphysics is superior to OOO in that it has more explanatory power. What does OOO explain? What phenomena does it make more clear? What data does it synthesize? What predictions does it make? What errors does it correct in previous systems? What grounds does it give for explaining the reality around us? In my opinion, the rich structure of Deleuzian metaphysics has far more explanatory power than OOO.

Take the example of crystallization. First, you have a supersaturated solution. Then you have the process of nucleation and the subsequent crystal growth which actualizes out of the potentiality of the supersaturated solution. We can explain this in terms of Deleuze’s metaphysics.* The supersaturated solution is undifferentiated yet its Virtual field contains the possibility of crystal actualization. When a singularity crosses a threshold, the Virtual possibility of crystallization actualizes and a process of stratification/actualization occurs wherein a line of flight is selected out of the virtual phasespace and novel strata/organizations are formed through immanent processes of organization.

This is a clearcut example of Deleuzian metaphyiscs at work. How would OOO make sense of the process of cystallization? Well, as I see it, it would be forced to say that, on some level, the supersaturated solution is itself a withdrawn object, or composed of withdrawn objects. And somehow the process of nucleation is a matter of a withdrawn solution-object transforming into the withdrawn object that is the newly formed crystal. Do you see the problem here? Because OOO is forced to say that “it is objects all the way down”, it is unable to account for the undifferentiated solution qua undifferentiated solution. This is why you need a process philosophy that includes the ontological register of intensive flow. The most parsimonious and scientifically respectable explanation of the process of crystallization must include the intensive level in addition to the Virtual realm, which accounts for the ready-possibility of the supersaturated field to nucleate. I am unclear on how OOO would explain this example. Saying it’s “objects all the way down” seems decidedly unexplanatory, especially in the context of “things” like solutions.

Harman and friends will likely respond by saying that the supersaturated solution is itself composed on many tiny withdrawn objects, since they put forward an infinite regress. But at some point, you lose the explanatory power of the term object when you apply it to everything. This is why OOO is only partially complete as an ontology. I agree that on some level objects must be considered stable and semiautonomous. But this stability needs to be understood at the proper scale, spatially and temporally. Which is why process philosophies are so helpful, since they can capture both change and stability, flows and breaks, intensive processes and stable object-resonances.

I hope this post has cleared up some misconceptions about Deleuzian metaphysics. Harman and friends would be well-off if they stopped their ridiculous discussion of lavalumps and wishy-washy goo. A careful reading of Deleuze obviates any such misguided reading of flow at the expense of stability. As Deleuze says, “Saying stratified is not the worst that can happen.”

*EDIT: when I say that Deleuzian metaphysics can explain phenomena like crystallization, I do not mean “scientific explanation”. What I mean is that Deleuzian metaphysics can give an account of the conditions for the possibility of the phenomena, which is a metaphysical explanation rather than a scientific explanation. My answer to Morton’s question of “…what does the Deleuzian description add that I can’t simply see with my own eyes, aided by a decent chemistry textbook?…” is as follows: The Deleuzian account is not meant to supercede or replace scientific explanation. It is meant to give science an underlying metaphysics to account for the conditions of possibility for the phenomena it studies that does not invoke higher beings or transcendental forms. It does this not in terms of a Hylomorphic or Spiritualistic metaphysics, but rather, a metaphysics of immanence compatible with naturalistic monism (the idea that there are no supernatural events or processes). Metaphysics, as I understand it then, it meant to give ontological flesh to the scientific models such as dynamic systems models that actually do talk about phasespaces and singularities. What is the ontological register of the phasespace? Does it “really” exist? Deleuze can help answer these questions.

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Started reading Deleuze's Difference and Repetition

After taking a graduate seminar on Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus with John Protevi, I decided I wanted to delve deeper into Deleuzian literature, so I picked up his epic masterpiece Difference and Repetition. The power of thinking displayed in A Thousand Plateaus really blew me away, so I was eager to get into his more classically philosophical works. I’m not sure what I will get out of Difference and Repetition just yet, but I plan on devoting a lot of blog space to thinking through this book. I like Deleuze because of his background in complex systems theory as well as modern mathematics and contemporary scientific theory.  Although he is well-known as a “philosopher’s philosopher”, and is often discussed as being a “continental philosopher”, I think he goes above and beyond the typical work being done under the label continental philosophy. For me, Deleuzian thought is fully compatible with science and should be understood in terms of it. Indeed, Deleuze says in the introduction that “Philosophy cannot be undertaken independently of science or art.”

This resonates with something I heard Pat Churchland say about the role of philosophy in  the modern scientific era. Churchland said that philosophy’s role to science is analogous to theoretical physics role to experimental physics. Theoretical physics “jumps ahead” of the known data and essentially participates in a kind of concept creation for the sake of synthetic understanding. Of course, the best theory takes into account all the data collected from the past, but it not simply an analysis of existing data sets, but rather, an attempt to synthesize previous knowledge while at the same time forging new concepts to make new predictions and correct theoretical deficiencies of the old theory. Philosophy should operate in more or less the same way. Philosophy is not restricted to using the vocabulary of established thought, but is charged with the task of creating new vocabularies to make sense of the world in light of previous knowledge, while not restricting itself to the vocabulary of previous knowledge. But the essence of philosophy is the construction of new concepts. I take this to be compatible with Deleuze’s statement that “philosophy creates and expounds its own concepts only in relation to what it can grasp of scientific functions and artistic constructions.”

As you can see, I am tremendously excited to dive into Difference and Repetition. It should offer me a new set of concepts to understand and explain natural phenomena. I even think it will be useful for my own research in the philosophy of mind. I wrote my research paper for Protevi’s seminar on Deleuzian neurophilosophy and I will probably upload it soon, as I think it was a pretty good explication of Deleuze’s relevance to cognitive science. Protevi has already done an invaluable service to the cog sci community by writing his paper “Adding Deleuze to the mix“, which I highly recommend. I hope to someday also contribute to Deleuzian scholarship, and Protevi even expressed interested in coauthoring a paper someday!

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Some thoughts on materialism, ontology, and the philosophy of mind

In my estimation, materialist or physicalist philosophy of mind has always occupied a rather strange place in the hierarchy of ideas since its coming to force in the 20th century and peaking with the “hard nosed” scientific reductionism and mind-brain identity theories in the 1950s. The strangeness arises because so many well respected scientific types accept  materialism and scientific reductionism dogmatically, yet it has a more problematic reputation in the philosophy of mind. David Chalmers is but one example of the sustained philosophical attack on the philosophical coherency of materialistic philosophy of mind. Of course, Chalmers would certainly consider himself to be a scientific monist of some sort and no doubt accepts the edicts of neuroscience without hesitation. Yet when it comes right down to it, he thinks materialism will fail as an explanation of certain mental phenomena, namely, qualia. The essence of these qualities is simply irreducible to materialistic ontology, and that’s that. Moreover, the dialectic in philosophy of mind has branched into a thousand debates about type vs token materialism, supervenience, emergentism, reductionistic physicalism vs nonreductionistic physicalism, identity theory, functionalism, and, of course, qualia, subjectivity, consciousness, experience, thoughts, beliefs, personal identity, action, and so on.

Reflecting on this twisted tangle of ideas is dizzying.  One feels as if in a labyrinth constructed entirely of neatly typed philosophy articles, all disagreeing with each other in very nuanced ways. The lack of consensus is overwhelming and, frankly, quite dispiriting. There are always revolutions within revolutions, counter-revolutions, and temporary intellectual victories, but, inevitably, the younger generations find “devastating flaws” in all preceding philosophical work. Every ten years you hear the great battle cry of “Start over!” and “Shake up the foundations!” It seems the mind sciences have always been this way.The radical shift between Jamesian psychology and Watsonian behaviorism is but one example to illustrate the “revolutionary” cliche that has crippled philosophy of mind. The once popular enterprise of exploring “deep generative grammar” is another example of rapid intellectual shifts that inevitably oversell themselves and overgeneralize their models at the expense of capturing genuine phenomena being discovered in rival labs (Chomsky’s hubris at trying to formally prove learning theories false is  embarrassing)

Everywhere we turn in the philosophy of mind we see various talk of “revolution”. I admit that I have, at times, given into the easy temptation to “turn the rugs over” and declare a sweeping intellectual coup, having at least grasped “what is truly the case”. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that a lot of “underbrush” needs to be swept away from our Cartesian and ontotheological heritage. We need to, for example, thoroughly expunge homuncular thinking, no easy task given that ontotheology is built into our linguistic forms of life. It is hard conceptual work to develop theoretical vocabularies that move away from that heritage, yet make enough sense as to be understood and accepted by the mind that is constructed by that heritage (since it is precisely  that mind which is faced with the task of consciously understanding the world around it).

Philosophy of mind then can be seen as a kind of exercise in conceptual experimentation or concept construction. Science investigates reality and philosophy generates the conceptual framework to talk about and understand that investigation. This is not an original statement. Thinkers before me (such as Deleuze) have accepted similar conceptions of what philosophy can and should do for science. When asked about his research in an interview, it is reported that Deleuze answered by saying “Bergson lamented that modern science lacked a metaphysics. I want to provide that metaphysics, and hence, I think of myself as a pure metaphysician.”

Metaphysics has a bad rap because of its historical associations with ontotheology and speculative pseudoscience. But I agree with Deleuze that we need to rehabilitate metaphysics. The classic essentialist ways of thinking simply cannot handle the complexity and dynamical properties being discovered in modern science, especially the life sciences. It seems that life has formed a brilliant habit of breaking all previous habits in the way it sustains itself through time. I contend, along with Deleuze and other developmentally oriented thinkers, that the problem of speciation and morphogenetic individuation is a paradigm model for thinking about the philosophy of mind. Deleuze helps us avoid problematic questions like, “What is the essence of the mind?”. Rather than talking about necessary and sufficient conditions, Deleuze wants to ask, “How did the mind evolve over time? What were the singularities and highest points of intensity that pushed/pulled humans into our contingent historical pathway?”

Some of my favorite points of highest intensity in human history include bipedalism, opposable thumbs, joint attention, tool construction, singing and music, symbolic thinking (systematicity in reference and compositionality), meta-awareness, introspection, theory of mind, philosophy, the scientific revolution, the information age, and, last but not least, the internet: the very tool that is allowing you, the reader, to hopefully receive these words as a stimulus for the development of interesting ideas in your brain many miles away. What do my readers think? What are the highest points of intensity for human evolution?

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