Foucault Talks Anarchism

A brief remark from Foucault on Anarchism.  On January 30th 1980, in the College de France lecture publication titled On the Government of the Living, Foucault again sought to distance himself from an ideological form of analysis and insists that he is doing an analytics of power.  It’s a kind of love/hate relationship though.  He will reference his own work as an “anarcheology”, adding the ‘an’ prefix in a kind of playful way to denote an edgy critical stance, as well as referencing Paul Feyerabend’s book Against Method, in which Feyerabend describes a history of science in which there is no common structure to the development of scientific knowledge and “anything goes.”  His resistance to the label ‘anarchy’ comes from a resistance to ideology as a way for explaining phenomena and interpreting history. Anarchy is about resistance to power if it is anything, but Foucault resists the term itself for not going far enough in its understanding of power, namely, that there is different kind of power working upon or within us that ideological attachment cannot resolve.

What Foucault is doing is something different: he is seeking to maintain an understanding of power that does not construct an edifice from which then others can then repeat and then become “followers”.  In both style and substance, Foucault resists the kind of theorizing that would place him as an advisor to a sovereign or an official participating in the administered ruling of a land.  Having acquired an immense amount of fame himself, he has learned to be wary of the kind of thinking that would allow others to ascribe him to a leadership role in some ‘movement.’  His aim is not to acquire subjects but to unravel the techniques of power that form subjects, creating subjects to be ruled out of routine practices imposed on bodies.  It fits into his project for that year’s lecture series: analyzing how subjects are formed, how they will be made to affirm a truth about themselves (sin, confession, etc.), and how subjectivization allows power to reach farther down into bodies than it ever had before.  This lecture series will focus on Christianity and the techniques it has invented, which are still very much with us.

First comes his opposition to ideology:

“I have insisted on this rejection of ideological analysis many times…  And this leads me to something like a sort of secret, which is that for me theoretical work… does not consist in establishing and fixing the set of positions on which I would stand and supposedly coherently link between which would form a system.  My problem, or the only theoretical work that I feel is possible for me, is leaving the trace, in the most intelligible outline possible, of the movements by which I am no longer at the place where I was earlier.  Hence, if you like, this constant need, or necessity, or desire to plot, so to speak, the points of passage at which each displacement risks resulting in the modification, of not of the whole curve, then at least of the way in which it can be read and grasped in terms of its possible intelligibility.  This plotting, consequently, should never be read as the plan of a permanent structure.” (p76)

Foucault is describing his method here and the caution that he takes in avoiding the reception of his work as a stable system.  The trajectory he is on passing through various points, the points he plots on a graph for posterity, these do not form a whole picture.  His research program is one in which he jumps from topic to topic, reinventing himself each time and breaking the limitations that the topic imposes.  He leaves a trace each time and you could tell a story about his movement from one to another, but what he resists is the entrapment of having a doctrine imposed on his work.

Foucault scholars have long noted three phases in Foucault’s career, with this particular lecture series marking the passage from the second to the third.  He will move from the analysis of disciplinary power, confinement and separation in the second phase (with a kind of interlude in governmentality and economic rationality we could put into this phase) to an analysis of subjectivization, that is, the way in which subjects are made to exercise power themselves with institutional support.  This third phase always interested me the most as a student because it seemed like a new way of interpreting subjectivity and thinking through the breakdown of individual in modern society.  This problem was wrestled with in existentialism and other post-Nietzschean philosophical moments, but Foucault better than any of them was able to grasp a serious problem at the heart (or near the heart) of the present: the dissolution of the self in the wake of the ubiquitous use of techniques of power on/within the self.  He’s able to do this by not remaining fixated on the subject as it is related to the object, pondering the deep structure of language, or how experience factors into knowledge; instead he will do a modified version of historical analysis (genealogy) and assume that power works in devious and subtle methods that can be revealed underneath history in its minute details, with ideas like ‘subjectivity’ included.

And so we have this intellectual who has forged a new way to think about ourselves and look at how power is exercised, one who became immensely famous and attracted all kinds of popular attention.  Why does he resist ideology so adamantly?

“You can see that this form of analysis… rests more on a standpoint than a thesis.  But this is not exactly the standpoint of, say, the epoche, of skepticism , of the suspension of all certainties or of all thetic positions of the truth.  It is an attitude that consists, first in thinking that no power goes without saying, that no power whatever kind, is obvious or inevitable, and that consequently no power warrants being taken for granted.  Power has no intrinsic legitimacy.” (p77)

His “standpoint” is such that it has led him to question and diagnose every kind of power, not to religiously seek out and undermine every kind of power in all of their manifestations but definitely to be free of the kind of power that he himself exerts on himself and others.  So Foucault has this attitude towards power that makes him so thoroughly suspicious of the workings of power that it becomes self-critical: he will question his own power and take care not to become an enduring, powerful figure.  His own reluctance to become a figurehead of powerful repute, such that disciples will form around him and repeat his words and terms verbatim, is almost a necessary component for the topic he will be studying and lecturing on: the history of subjectivization.  Checking his own power as a public intellectual will ‘rub off on’ those who are listening and studying his own works, they will then be more inclined to unearth the deeper forces acting on and within their own bodies and become attuned to ways in which power is inscribed in their very selves.  Their is a way in which power works upon us in ways that we think are our own but have been tempered and refined by a very long history of rituals, public theological debates, and published works.

Appeals will be made to truth, objectively true things, and the neutrality of things that simply and plainly ‘are’ or ‘exist’ (being).  Foucault will go deeper and it is this feature that has kept him studied by philosophy students.  This background of resisting power within Foucault preempts this though, that he would not be satisfied until he could see the power at work within this knowledge and the forces at play that bring this truth about.

“But given my desire, decision, and effort to break the bond that binds me to power, what then is the situation with regard to the subject of knowledge and the truth?  It is not the critique of representations in terms of truth or error, truth or falsity, ideology or science, rationality or irrationality that should serve as indicator for defining the legitimacy or denouncing the illegitimacy of power.  It is the movement of freeing oneself from power that should serve as revealer in the transformations of the subject and the relation the subject maintains with the truth.” (p77)

We can glimpse this public intellectual’s grasping for the general thrust of what he is doing with his intellect: Foucault the thinker is himself trying to break free from powers working on him.  We could almost say, “okay, it is now up to you viewer whether to continue resisting this deep subjectivizing power.”  If you don’t have the desire to break free, as he does, then you can go on your merry way.  Such would be to continue on as if power was not there all along, its history not conditioning the decisions we felt we owned, and voluntarily ignoring his history of subjectivity.  But if we do accept that historical forces have crept into our basic understanding of ourselves and condition our decisions, then choosing not to absorb some measure of Foucault’s idea, upon entering his thought process somehow or another, can no longer be interpreted as voluntary.  This puts the reader in a bind.  We don’t have to follow him (he doesn’t want us to anyways) but we no longer seem to own that decision.

This might be a source of anxiety or confusion if we take this line of thought to its extreme.  Instead of my own will, I now only have little power techniques pulling me this way or that, determining my destiny.  This is of course a reaction we need not settle on, for the representationalist “it’s either there or it’s not, it either exists or it doesn’t” conceptualization of subjectivity still lingers.  This is precisely what Foucault is trying to move away from.  He feels the need to break away from deep structures on power, others will too.  This is only the beginning, but it allows for a flexibility which will attune readers and listeners to coming struggles.  There may be a time (now?) when subjective identification will be a hindrance, a blockage preventing us from maneuvering through complex spaces of power.

On to anarchism.  Foucault posits the one who objects all by himself, possibly a reflection of people who have responded to his work without approval, by saying:

“You will tell me: there you are, this is anarchy; it’s anarchism.  To which I shall reply: I don’t quite see why the words “anarchy” or “anarchism” are so pejorative that the mere fact of employing them counts as a triumphant critical discourse.  And second, I think there is even a certain difference.” (p78)

So Foucault is defending anarchism as a term first of all, at least not to let it be used as an easy negative that critics can level at intellectuals or whoever.  But he is also claiming to do something different.  This will relate back to his aversion to ideology:

“…if we define anarchy by two things – first, the thesis that power is essentially bad, and second, the project of a society in which every relation of power is to be abolished, nullified – you can see that what I am proposing  and talking about is clearly different.  First, it is not a question of having in view, at the end of a project, a society without power relations.  It is a matter of putting non-power or the non-acceptability of power, not at the end of the enterprise, but at the beginning of the work,  in the form of a question of all the ways  in which power is in actual fact accepted.  Second, it is not a question of saying all power is bad, but of starting from the point that no power whatsoever is acceptable by right and absolutely and definitively inevitable… In other words, the position I adopt does not absolutely  exclude anarchy… but you can see that in no way does it entail it, that it does not cover the same field, and is not identified with it.” (p78)

Anarchists have made use of Foucault’s work in the past, while some have reacted negatively towards it.  This isn’t such a great concern for him as his work was not meant for the enactment of a political program but research program.  He wants to be free from power and finds it at work inside the very subject who would say: “I am an anarchist.”  One could make this identification, utter the words as a vow or a mark of affiliation, and still accept Foucault’s lessons on subjectivization – it isn’t even clear to me that anarchism has been delineated beyond opposing the state.  In fact, the similarities are such that Foucault will have some fun at this lecture on January 30th, 1980 and call his project an “anarcheology”:

“The anarcheological type of study, on the other hand, consisted in taking the practice of confinement in its historical singularity, that is to say in its contingency, in the sense of its fragility, its essential non-necessity, which obviously does not mean (quite the opposite!) that there was no reason for it and is to be accepted as a brute fact.” (p79)

So his historical study of the radical contingency of past events, the wrenching free from a determinism that often accompanies history is something that current, former, or potentially anarchic people can make use of.  This anarcheology (a cute-for-being-clumsy word to write) will likely have resonance for people troubled by the residue of historical materialism and technological determinisms seeking to lead the people to the promised land.

Foucault’s resistance to power runs very deep and it leads him in the last part of his career to look into Christianity’s legacy on individuals.  From this novel type of power that reshaped western or European culture so long ago, we can learn what some of the roadblocks are that are keeping people constrained in their routines, ‘locked up inside themselves’ as it were.  But instead of moving from one ideology to the next, or using this technique to start up a new one, Foucault’s “standpoint” keeps the reader critical and self-critical of the things that hold us back from moving on.

Forgive me, that was not very brief.

‘What Is Grounding?’ Deleuze’s Journey through the History of Philosophy

In this early 1956-1957 lecture previously unavailable to the public, Gilles Deleuze takes his students through a tour of the history of philosophy by using the red thread of the notion ‘grounding.’ What Is Grounding’ is unsurprisingly insightful and sweeping in scope, explaining the general thrust of many canonical philosophers and how the concepts of each prepares the way for the philosophers that follow them, forming a single story. The big attention-grabber for these lectures for those well-read in Deleuze’s oeuvre is that finally a published work in which he “positions” himself with respect to other famous philosophers of his day or era, especially Martin Heidegger. We also get a discussion of Hegel and his placement within the history of philosophy. But emphasis on this common thread of ‘Grounding’ has much more to reveal about the obsessive work of European philosophers than taking names and claiming lines of affiliation.

One can imagine Deleuze speaking in a conference room to a room packed full of youthful french intellectuals (the translator tells us that by the time they were given, “Deleuze’s lectures were already ‘must-see events’”) and moving from one philosopher to the next, jumping from the enclosed territory of one great thinker to the next in summary fashion with the audience desperately trying to keep up with his torrential pace. These kind of exercises in the imagination are fit for invoking too, for right at the beginning we get a foreshadowing of Deleuze’s trajectory in the project of ‘What Is Grounding?’: weaving through the “infinite task” that philosophy has set out for itself and not so much untangling it as passing through it with constant motion and remaining untangled in any one of its locations.

You can get a copy [here]

We have barely begun and already we learn that the beginning of the lecture was lost. I’m inclined to think that this is a deliberate joke that has been put over on the reader, but it is entirely plausible that in the 1950’s the tape recorder was not set up in time. It’s unfortunate, because he began with mythology and its “foundational heroes” according to the footnotes. So immediately we have the missing beginning of a lecture on philosophy that is not philosophical, instead it is a mythological prompt for the incoming great names of the history of philosophy who attempt to distinguishes themselves from the great names of mythology. Philosophers will perform a different task, attempt the construction of a work that is not involving fictional beings and unreal creatures, theirs (and Deleuze’s also, he unabashedly claims to be within the philosophical tradition) will be real. The thoughts composing the work(s) of philosophy will be real – resting on sure ground. But we don’t get to this distinction so easily: thought must first of all seek to be free of something and start something new, something otherwise.

Thought must be wrenched apart from the functions and reasons of the ceremony and the ritual. Those binding agents that keep a people together, that mark the body and place it into a symbolic regime that forms the body of the tribe or culture. Set at a distance from the ritual, thought will eventually come to realize natural ends. It is tempting to regard the tribal/ritual as the natural, whereas the progression into civilization would detach us from the natural, from the integrated earth cycles, but realizing nature was never a task that would have made any sense to a ‘primitive person’ (so conceived by the educated). With the coming of philosophy we get a proliferation of distinctions; nature or natural ends somewhere along the line of time became distinct from the ceremonies and rituals of culture.

“On the one hand, the human being can realize natural ends, but at the same time, does it not produce something in itself by virtue of being human? It transforms the natural ends. What is the function of a ceremony and of a ritual? It is distinct from a natural end.” (p13)

So we have natural ends which we as humans can realize if we make an attempt, but the culture by which humans must operate within is something distinct from it. Every ritual has a natural consequence and cannot be extricated from nature, yet here we are with this distinction between the natural ends and cultural ends. This distinction is persistent and the reunification of the two “back into nature” is not some place we can suddenly leap back into: a synthesis is always something new and the stakes of our cultural games are never very far from the positing of a holistic entity or an original point of unity. This will turn out to be a major lesson from these lectures: the project of grounding is an “infinite task” (p14), the realization of natural ends within the realm of human culture is an infinite task. It is a task with many rewards (just think about the many successes of modern science) but one which Deleuze’s thinks is never-ending; we only get a plurality of natural ends for all of our efforts.

Natural ends will be sought after by the philosopher in their reality; a philosopher “realizes”, remaining unsatisfied with fine speeches, mythical tales, and other products of culture. The philosopher seeks no less than the reality of nature and this sets them off on an infinite task, which I take to mean it is a task that will never be completed: “the transformation of natural ends into cultural ends renders them infinite.” (p14) So we readers get something new with the philosopher, but this something new comes with a price, or with strings attached (to attempt an avoidance of commercial language). Deleuze allows for a distinction between philosophy and mythology, between those who attempt to realize nature and those who wish to recite stories that reinforce the lessons of culture, but one that is a marked by a difference in task. We don’t get to say, in that triumphant way that both science and philosophy often does, that everything before it was superstition and ‘mere myth’, as if the new method was superior in its progression. The difference is one of endeavors, the purpose or motive of the person taking up a project.

“If, then, mythology is the imaginary, it is because infinite tasks are not to be realized. Mythology presents us this state of infinite tasks which ask us for something else than their realization.”

In that pre-socratic way of philosophizing, we have the striving for natural ends in the attempt at finding something in nature which everything else can be reduced to. The elements of fire, water, air, earth, and even (or perhaps not) mind (nous) each take their turns in claiming the status of elemental substance of nature. Here we are searching for natural ends and using rational arguments to achieve these ends, but something qualitatively different happens when reason enters the picture, or should I say, the ends of reason:

“But natural ends are not yet ends of reason. They are values, sentiments which are felt and lived. Then what will we have to call reason? If, for their part, natural ends present themselves for realization, this time it will be infinite tasks which demand to be realized. They will become the proper end of reason. This is what happens when thought commits itself to realizing itself.” (p15)

Deleuze just breezes by this and moves on to the notion of grounding, but I cannot help to pause and appreciate the brevity of this opening remarks to a long lecture. The natural ends exist before and without any help from humans accumulating knowledge about them. However, when these natural ends are presented by humans and concepts are formed, culture is faced with infinite tasks. They will become the concepts of thought which seek realization, but realizing objects of thought within nature is an infinite task. This isn’t to say it is impossible to realize natural ends, or that we have come to reason by some primal error; Deleuze is only saying that the task of realization is infinite.

But then suddenly, right in the middle of the paragraph, reason, the means by which these ends are meant to be reached, is folds back on itself and, instead of reaching a single end, reaches for the infinite tasks themselves instead of natural ends. For we are in the realm of thought with the realization of natural ends, and somewhere or somehow, infinite tasks will replace natural ends for realization. Realizing natural ends is already an infinite task, but infinite tasks will become that which “demand to be realized” when “thought commits itself to realizing itself.” The ends of reason take on a new life apart from the natural ends.

Kant and Hegel will be the first names to appear and they are brought in to demonstrate the act of thought trying to realize itself, or the entrance of infinite tasks into realization.

“Kant and Hegel say that the will contemplates itself of rises to the absolute when it is the will to freedom. In this will to freedom there is the activity of being reasonable, which consists in realizing the infinite task… The grounder is then the one who poses and proposes an infinite task… To ground is to raise nature to the level of history and of spirit. All who propose values to us appeal to a ground… From the moment when the grounder proposes infinite tasks to us as something to be realized in this world itself.” (P16)

‘To ground’ is the act of realizing infinite tasks instead of realizing natural ends (or any other ends, but is as a result of the project to realize natural ends that the infinite task appears). The infinite task itself comes to be the object of realization. An object of thought that set itself apart from mythology, story, gods, etc. ‘doubled back’ on itself, as it were, and became something new: an infinite task that seeks reason itself as end (vs. as means to natural ends) and places reason where natural ends once were. Whereas natural ends once were brought into culture with the use of reason, reason itself took their place when a natural ground is sought for culture ends. “Reason as supreme end could only present itself to the extent that the infinite tasks themselves become things to be realized.” (p18)

We then move on to values and will for the last short segment of part one.

“The notion of value” says Deleuze, switching gears most unexpectedly, “has been created by Nietzsche in The Will to Power. For him there is no truth, there are only evaluations. To affirm that everything is value is to present a mystification which must be destroyed. Whence Nietzsche’s polemic.” (p.18)

We come back to Kant by way of the will:

“The infinite task as value was a content of the will. It concerned something else than a simple desire. To love is first of all to want. On the level of values, the will had a content exterior [and] heteronomous to it (Kant).”

But then, the will is extracted from what it wants, its content, and is allowed to double back on itself. The will will desire itself. To praise or blame, to hold in esteem or abhor, in other words to value we first desire. But Kantian values and other values that hold to the notion of grounding will be different, they will turn inward:

“These values to be realized take on their particular figures because the will becomes autonomous. It is a will which wants nothing else than itself. A will which wants nothing but its own content. Autonomy is presented as universality. It is exactly Kant’s autonomous will.” (p19)

For a number of reasons which Deleuze will get into later on in the lecture, Kant is this moment of the will becoming autonomous in thought. Kant will set about the task of grounding, the infinite task that will be the source of value (in the singular). The last paragraph is worth quoting full:

“The diversity of values came from their being transformed natural ends. They were still attached to natural ends. But when the will determines its own content, there is no longer a diversity of values. Grounds are no longer infinite tasks presented as values. The foundation became conceptual. We pass from mythology to philosophy.” (p19)

The will is detached from natural ends when there are no longer multiple values, or, rather, the correct order is that the will folded in on itself and then excluded the diversity of values in posing a ground – a single ground. From many to one value: a foundation, a ground for us all to stand on. A single earth that we all share, but only as decontextualized and self-driven individuals. The single ground that props up the abstract individual or the subject.

Nietzsche will object: there is desire without the one who desires, the individual being an image among images. Nietzsche’s philosophy will not be of the ground, it will not be grounded – he will add a mystification.  He will invoke Dionysus.

From here we will trace the story of philosophy using ‘ground’ as our guide. This is the ground that claims the source of value and resides beyond any particular natural ends and therefore must be conceptual.

From ritual and ceremony, with accompanied indirect imagination,

to the direct realization of natural ends, with accompanied infinite task,

to the infinite task as thing to be realized, with accompanied autonomy or freedom of the will,

to the consolidation of a plurality of values to a single source of value: the ground.

Grounding will be the infinite task that seeks the source of value (in the singular), be it The Will, Spirit, History, or (I would add) Matter.

From World to Machine

Nothingness as being-not-at-home, falleness, the anxiety of transcending the world (and so constituting the world as a unity as a distanced observer). To overcome this Nihility would mean a reinterpretation of the world as not a distant whole one leaves and views from afar, nor (crucially) is it to re-immerse oneself in the world as if one could become whole again in a reunion with a primordial past. The world must be exposed for what it has always been: a being.

This is more radical than it seems at first glance, since the concept of world is supposed to be in contrast to the self (the Self which One believes One-Self to Be). To shatter the comfortability of self-assertion as something we or one has, owns, or possesses needs a complimentary shattering of the world as a self-contained whole.

But this is not mutual disintegration, it is a mutual fictionalization and multiplication. There are many selves and many worlds. Only in becoming a singular whole does the process of fictionalization begin. The singularity (along with a complimentary multiplicity) as a different conception of being-one; never entirely alone, it nonetheless cannot resist fictionalization. Robots, cyborg war against humanity…

We are afraid of our world crumbling before our eyes. Machines of desire, abstract machines, flesh machines: these will only run away from us in frantically trying to retrieve something we have lost.

Deleuze and the Advertisers

What say you on Philosophy and Marketing Gilles Deleuze?

“Finally, the most shameful moment came when computer science, marketing, design, and advertising, all disciplines of communication, seized hold of the word concept itself and said: “This is our concern, we are the creative ones, we are the ideas men! We are the friends of the concept, we put it in our computers.” Information and creativity, concept and enterprise: there is already an abundant bibliography. Marketing has preserved the idea of a certain relationship between the concept and the event… The only events are exhibitions, and the only concepts are products that can be sold. Philosophy has not remained unaffected by the general movement that replaced Critique with sales promotion.”

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? p.10

Creating concepts, a painstaking labor of philosophical invention, an expression of intensified yet drawn out attention on a deep problem, becomes the work of an ad-man looking to turn a profit. The cultivation of something new out of the old that is both an ode to the great ones of the past and a monument that goes beyond the narrow concern of mere Time is now a data entry point meant for as many eyes as can gaze upon it.

The consumption of the concepts is made increasingly more vociferous under the careful craft of the graphic designer, the copy writer, the editor, the marketer. We feast with our eyes on the spectacle of splendor created by the genius in the skyscraper. So in-tune with the act of invention is the artist of abstractions that he pulls the strings of the eager masses to the point of them following him along, following him ever more along his extra-terrestrial trail of joyful seduction. They never see him. He blends in ubiquitously with his minions of desire even while they follow him into his thoughts, always on the cusp of some clever production thanks to his conceptual clarity.

Wearing no robe or crown, sitting in no house or court, the advertiser walks through the crowds just like his other fellow citizens doing their jobs. But they follow his thoughts more surely than any devout subject before them, reaching violently for that slice of heaven, that moment of bliss, before returning inward for the next go-around.
The mass is never one, the individual always initiates the pursuit of its object.
The mass is never one, it is divided into selfs with no use of conformity.
The mass is never one, our differences make us special.
The mass is never one, the horror at the potential for such destruction!
Going out on the streets, going out to the show, going out with a bang, but always going back in.

Self generation is the well spring of eternal creation: the Ad man has learned this well, even if not disciplined by an elder – especially without such discipline. The mind is a canvas on which to paint furious concepts – all of which are at one’s disposal. Gratitude flows rapidly into the mind, measured in shear stock. The mind is by turns championed and questioned repeatedly as a new project is always on the horizon. The work to be done, full of pride and determination; the warmth of the ownmost – I can always come back. The mind now a heart-beat.

The Advertiser shares the philosophical Illumination with you, in perfect communication.

You see? He’s not entirely selfish. Among them traversing, bestowing the gift of the concept in plain sight. But the mind keeps searching, wanting, demanding; and the advertiser provides more, forever more.

See? All you had to do was reach inside and pull it right out. No need for a fuss.


How’s this?

I grew up saturated with advertisements, then I found philosophy.
Then came Mad Men: a philosophical show about advertisers.
Now I write of philosophy and its assumption by advertising days before the season premiere.
Therefore I am advertising for free on my philosophy blog for a TV show about advertisers.
I have come back to advertising, as a philosopher against advertising.

Watching this will make it all better: Get it on Netflix.

Century of the Self Documentary

Here is a link to the full BBC documentary by Adam Curtis The Century of the Self. It is a kind of historical, factual, British version of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. It details how Sigmund Freud’s idea of the unconscious drives was promoted in America and into advertising which was then used to control entire populations of people. The central idea of the doc is that these unconscious drives that Freud “discovered” became so popular and a part of mainstream culture in large part thanks to two figures: Anna Freud and his nephew Edward Bernais. Anna Freud practically sold her father’s ideas to the mass market, and Edward Bernais used them in principle for mass marketing schemes, pacifying the “dangerous” crowd.

It is extremely matter of fact and traces these developments all the way up into the Clinton administration’s use of them for his presidential election campaign. The entire century is taken into account, with the political implications for manipulating mass desire showing throughout the twentieth century. This is a Must Watch.

The Ecological Thought vs. Gaia Theory

A direct engagement in a response that Tim Morton made to my projected stress onto him about James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory and the imminent collapse of the biosphere:

The positive and negative feedback loops that Lovelock uses in his Gaia Theory operate as systemic interactions between objects that accelerate one way or the other. Either they unleash certain objects that wreak havoc on the total of the environment of the Earth and disrupt the balance that Lovelock believes stabilizes the Earth to make it habitable for life, or the feedback loops ‘cancel out’ negatively and balance the objects in the environment. The negative feedbacks have certain objects and the processes in which they are caught up in pushing against each other, working towards a goal of hospitality for life and complexity (life and its mutations into new life forms). These processes of positive and negative feedback are like the difference between unchecked expansion of empires or viruses and the system of checks and balances or the limits that environments pose on the breeding of populations beyond a certain “threshold”.

Positive feedback loops have a potential of spiraling out of control and disrupting the environment to such an extent that most of the living beings cannot cope, for (as Lovelock claims) the loops that have persisted for a few billion years (1/4 of the supposed life of the universe) have altered to such an extent that the biodiversity working its complexifying magic would be seriously stunted: most life and species would die off. This is the terrifying thought that Lovelock is said to have uncovered and I sought out Tim Morton’s advice on, seeing as his ecological thought is so penetrating and formative of my own thought (still in its early stages). His response is two-part and can be found here and here.

Morton sees the holism of Lovelock as a form of Big Modernity on which we project a metaphysics of presence. Not having come to grips with “the nothingness in the phenomenal-thing gap”, we readers are narrowed down into a forced choice and can only resort to our particular decisions or some grand project of modern technological advance. The grand technological fix of the future that humans can make to the biosphere at large would be the only option to maintain the constant presence of Gaia, preserving our ‘more present than thou’ attitude of an existing Reality. It is the only alternative to one’s less significant decisions to drive a car (spilling CO2 into the air) or not when the holism of Gaia Theory is under consideration, or so Morton thinks. Relying on a technological salvation from the apocalypse to save the presence of the Real would be the only thing else one could think of in contrast to the decision to carefully measure one’s individual *carbon footprint* – insignificant considered in isolation. Morton seems to think that the fire and brimstone of Lovelock’s lament over the destruction of the Gaian aspect of the biosphere forces us into an impossible position that leads to cynicism and resignation, due to our (the reader’s) divided powerlessness at such a really existing entity.

This giant entity is an environment as well as a quasi-fiction (he named it after a goddess), and, being a kind of Whole, it is irreducible to the component parts that make it up – swallowing our actions in their individuality (the reader reading alone) up into obscurity. But the problem of the whole remains, only now we can only dream of the potential for a “great future innovation” to save us. The problem I have with this interpretation of Gaia (that terra-ism necessarily follows from such holism) is that Gaia is not considered more real or present than something else but a mere self-organization of matter in a far from equilibrium condition. It doesn’t seek the reality of presence in the way that Nature or the external world in its totality does but simply describes a scenario in which a machine has come to self-regulate given certain conditions, namely, being far from equilibrium. There is a newish science to this phenomenon of self-organization that can be both modeled virtually and observed, as Manuel DeLanda has shown in his impressive works. Gaia is just a localized theory of this science in the planet Earth system.

The feedback loops that Lovelock harps on have indeed stabilized an environment that accommodates life. I have no problem with the usage of a mythical goddess to articulate an argument about a process that one has discovered, but it is in taking this thing as a whole that issues crop up. Lovelock makes a mistake by calling this thing a whole, indeed a direct contrast to the reductionism so often characteristic of scientific inquiry. The process of regulating materials in a systematic way has made life habitable on planet Earth: negative feedback loops have worked wonders in this far from equilibrium situation.

In spite of what Morton says, Lovelock does assert that for humanity to be burdened by the tasks that Gaia does for free would require way more central planning than any previous war and is near impossible. His solution is to embrace nuclear energy with all of its dangers in order to save civilization which he so reveres from carbon emissions. I don’t see civilization as such a thing that needs protection but instead point to a more ecological existence that empires and capitalists spawning from civilization have mostly tarnished. Lovelock is stuck with a desire to keep civilization while simultaneously understanding that it’s own unquenchable desire for growth is what is besieging Gaia. To his credit, he (a scientist) understands the limits of reductionist thinking, the harmonious-primordial-natural past and linear causality; unfortunately, he moves back to holism to explain the self-organization of Gaia. Perhaps there is a way to fuse self-organizing thinking with the ecological thought and not get hung up on Nature, Civilization, or other ‘Wholes’.

I am convinced of the truth of Lovelock’s theory, especially after reading about the science of self-organized phenomenon in far from equilibrium conditions in Prigogine and Stengers’ ‘Order Out of Chaos’. As a whole, a self-organizing process is able to detach itself from the parts that supposedly make it up – the things that are organized by Gaia. But the part-whole distinction raises up old conceptual formulations that are hard to shed. As something different from the component parts that compose it, Gaia seems to most like a transcendent being external to those parts. This is crucial and hard to fathom: Gaia is only a mythological being, a name standing in for a process that functions as a balancing act. It cannot really lay claim to the whole, but it is still a self-generating process far away from the equilibrium of classical physics and the concepts of the generic philosophical tradition.

We the readers and actors need not defer to some emancipatory future technology or bear the responsibility of global warming on our own personal shoulders, but the processes that Gaia allows must be rigorously defended somehow even if we don’t see clearly what that tract would look like. It makes no practical difference if one sees this as Gaia to be vanguarded or multiple processes that need to be maintained, so long as the bodies are mobilized in a way that life can go on instead of be attacked by its environment. Mythologizing a discovery of science in self-organized activity, an oddity to beings attracted by symmetry and having employed causal reasoning for so long, could be a benefit to the goal of keeping this system life-sustainable or not. A familiar name helps one grow accustomed to an unfamiliar, foreign idea. One way or another, this process is under extreme and abrupt stress and there is little time to reorganize human societies so as to keep the process flowing.

A process. This process will continue to assert itself regardless of what we humans do, but we are severely weakening it, and by weakening this process we will drastically weaken life’s capability to thrive. That there are a few million people scraping out for survival in the polar regions instead of bountiful biodiversity is an awful scenario; I really don’t mind if I have to resort to ethics or vitalist centralism to assert this – we have an obligation to both continue living (this includes non-humans) and to obey the processes of our environment that support our living once we have understood these processes (scientifically or otherwise). Having the means to conceptualize – or just even phenomenologically perceive the self-organization of one’s surroundings intuitively (like “mother earth is provider of us all and must be cared for” or whatever) – how contingent one’s life and each other’s life is on those systemic flows is a legitimate, justified reason to preserve that self-organized stability and not let it cross that threshold. Preventing the irreversible processes that will be unleashed after reaching a 2 degree rise in temperature are an ethical obligation unlike any injustice to the poor, the animals, or the environment because *one* or *we* living creatures cannot exist without the health of Gaia (the self-organization of the biosphere) from the outset. Perhaps using the term “ethics” is inadequate, but it’s the best we’ve got – without it, we humans will allow that which gives us life to dissolve (not disappear), all the while throwing our hands up and saying “oh well, that’s just how it goes!” when we could have stopped it and continued flourishing for who knows how much longer. Fossil fuel consumption is chipping away at the planet’s ability to foster life, it is time we face this fact and act so as to let life prosper again.

This failure to understand and transform our activity in light of Lovelock’s elaboration of Gaia(self-organization in the biosphere) would be an instance of life in self-destruct mode instead a mutually beneficial life-Gaia ecological mode. Life needs no verbal legitimation to persevere, but now we can chose an orientation that will continue life in a more life-favoring way or go into an era of mass death, extinction, and scarcity. Indeed, given the right plan and commitment of certain individuals and the proliferation of this new knowledge of self-organization among the correct population of decision-makers, a plan to continue the comfortable hospitability that our planet has provided us living creatures could be carried through. It is so obviously more desirable, both ecologically and vitalistically, to work towards this outcome that it is not a stretch to say that any elaboration leading towards an outcome incompatible with this self-regulating behavior (given that one understands these Gaian processes) is life-negating nihilism. In short, to disregard Gaia is to disregard that which conditions life – to be ambivalent about the continuation and enjoyment of life.

The apocalypse is on the horizon: the movies, video-games, and literature about zombies and post-apocalypse are on to something. There is a threshold that we cannot cross before catalysts take effect and the planet will be put on an irreversible course that will make our human lives and other animal’s lives a living hell. Yes, we need to act now positively and not in a cynical mode where the terrible event is off in the distance and inevitable, or a preservationist mode where as-yet-unimagined technology is the only thing that can save the Presence of Nature. But we must understand that there is a threshold of temperature rising that we cannot cross for it will create positive feedback loops that will place all of Earth’s creatures in a far less desirable state than the one we have now. A desirable state would be one where life strives with less pushback from from its environment, and the disparity of crossing the threshold and not crossing the threshold is staggering. There are folks who understand this and are trying to stop it like Bill McKibben with his essay on Global Warming’s Terrifying Math and David Roberts’ Tedx video in Grist.

This is an strange moment – perhaps the greatest and most epic moment that humans have been placed in: we know that our own stabilized practices will mutilate and impede the existence of life and we can change them – all that is left is to figure out *how to stop these practices*. When it comes to strategizing on actions I am all ears.

It is a comparably few who understand these processes of self-regulation and just how much damage to them is being done. The rapid industrialization of the twentieth century is like the World of the Forms crashing down on the Earth and stratifying it in its own permanent vision of equilibrium – all the while ignoring the fact that the biosphere of Earth operates in a *far from equilibrium situation*. Our human desire for elegant symmetry and equality in our theory could very well cause a mass die off that also could have been prevented by humans. Industrialization has allowed a clever and adaptive species to put the carbon in the ground into the air and, without a radical shift in practice, set this self-organizing system back 100,000 years. This is the basis for an ecological ethics. An ecological ethics must include not just things and bodies – living and non-living – but processes: systems that operate and disparaging scales such as those in far from equilibrium conditions resisting entropy. This is crucial to the continued prosperity of living things either human or non-human for the next 100,000 years.

I’m curious about this difference I have made here between things/objects and processes/systems. I had a twitter battle with Levi Bryant over Object Oriented Ontology (you’ll have to search if you want to find it since I don’t know how to get the conversarion history link – but it would be worth searching @onticologist with @billrosethorn) and its potential inability to think the latter. I don’t want to jump to conclusions but invite more conversation on this subject. This is something Lovelock has internalized about skeptical scientific inquiry: after his initial Gaia Hypothesis buckled under the poignant critique of Richard Dawkins he accepted its defeat and retooled it to make a more robust theory – holism issues aside. Similarly I want to be open to an ontology that is held by such penetrating thinkers as Tim Morton, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, and Graham Harman. This is far too important a topic to let academic quarrels get in the way and I have always viewed criticism as a positive, life-affirming exercise done between friends and not as polemics.

We need not care about the outcome of the Earth and the life in it. Our thoughts and concerns are infinitely moldable into one form or another. But to take the whatever attitude is to deny that which springs up from what one is (if it is reading this right now): A Life! This is nihilism and it takes many forms along with the thoughts we conjure up in our discourses. It is a topic that needs more attention on its own. As Nietzsche coaches us, and Deleuze constantly reminds us in Nietzsche and Philosophy, to desire nothing is still to desire. We cannot rid ourselves of the will to power of life, and to will nothingness is still to will – perhaps even more intensely. I end with this because when I met Tim Morton on Market Street in San Francisco, a few words of his words still ring true in my mind to this day: nihilism is not something one arrives at but something one must pass through. The good stuff comes after passing through nothingness.

I mentioned earlier the possibility of a joint venture between the ecological thought all this self/process theory. I am becoming more and more convinced that how we deal with the thought of nihility – nothingness – is the great question for this epic problem.

Here’s to a more hopeful future.