We should not use ‘belief’ loosely, as if certain statements’s truth value depended entirely on cultural values and all of the emplacing phrases like ‘conceptual schemes’ and ‘web of beliefs’ for their becoming/being true or false. Something is not *made true by one’s believing it, something else is going on with the word belief. The import of the word ’belief’ comes from religion and the repetitive affirmation technique imbued in people during a particular historical periods and geographical locations. The practice of individualizing affirmation that the subject is made to express in public, private, and in dialogue according to prescribed rituals has as much to do with the meaning of the word ’belief’ as it does with forming subjects who are then led to thinking that they must confirm sentences into truthhood. The subject-object distinction is as much a product of these processes as it is a constant structure of language and sentence creation. The intensifying of religious practices has done nothing to subvert this basic function of meaning creation, it has only made us turn about from one side to the other in hopes that one day we will form a unified theory that is held steady from top to bottom. Continue reading “Thoughts after Reading a Chapter on the Philosophy of Language”
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.
The world that we inhabit today is tangled up in such a convoluted manner that we can only give it its proper name by calling it a labyrinth. This world of ours is no longer a limitless world of indefinite expansion and sustained growth, nor does can it appeal to another perfect world from which we can extract the pure forms and make sense of it. Yet these activities account for most of the activity that goes on day to day in labor, production, and thought whether we admit it or not. The labyrinth has grown so difficult to navigate that the tools, conceptual and otherwise, received by history and culture are no longer are up to the task; and the task is quite simple: to prevent self-destruction, which will entail shifting both ourselves and our worldview into new beginnings.
Disentangling the labyrinth is not possible at the moment and no quick and easy answer will get us out of it; each answer is twisted and contorted to increase the scope and complexity of the labyrinth. The way forward is not simply to become fixated on an object or an end and strive toward it but, first and foremost, the way must be walked, the path moved along, one must stay alive. Dead ends, black holes, red herrings all conspire to attract towards them and direct the flow of movement inwards as heavy objects offering sanctuary and satisfaction. These dead ends conspiring together patternize bewildered bodies undergoing the experience of moving through the labyrinth. If one is to avoid these traps and snares, if one is to keep moving with the hope of the future held safely in one’s hands, if we are to survive, then the logic of the labyrinth – its rationality – must be understood and its construction seen in full view. This will involve an entire culture of beginnings and ends in science, philosophy, myth, and history to elaborate, but this involvement by no means implies a comprehensive view or assured knowledge of its object – an impossible endpoint within a task only concerned with beginning.
Guidance through the labyrinth is better equipped when one understands the place one occupies not as a vector point in a field of space but as mythical place with strange processes and spells being casted systematically without clear precision. A map and a GPS will help you get from point A to point B by drawing a zigzag line showing the way to your destiny (the destination), but we are not concerned with destinies and ends but creation and beginning. The act of creation cannot rely on a history of predictions whittling down chance and error to a minimum with their accompanying theories and devices while it also cannot avoid the place that this history has brought it to: it must be on one hand self-composed and on the other hand grateful for the gifts of history. To get through the labyrinth and not be drained of one’s creative capacities or excessively burdened by the sheer size of the world bearing down, recognizing the immense intricacy and complexity in the form of a singular name like ’the labyrinth’ will be of considerable utility. This word represents a place meant to induce the confusion, contradiction, and paradox: which is exactly the term needed to relieve an individual of this duress and reaffirm the quest for beginnings. For experience of being inside of the labyrinth is a common experience localizable in a given place, yet the effect of its walls and tricks is to remove this common element. Myth has a way of taking a problem and offering a fantastic reference for avoiding the frequent mistakes in handling socially relevant decisions pertaining to those problems. The labyrinth will be a touchstone for its invocation of confusion and frustration as a mind-state but also as a place-ground conspiring against the mind that seeks an object or a state to arrive at. There will be no such object-savior or tranquil state, however, skills will be sharpened as we make our way through this meticulously laid out place.
Enter Cornelius Castoriadis and his book Crossroads in the Labyrinth. Or, rather, enter the labyrinth. The gate appears suddenly and then disappears after the first step. “Was that a gate back there we just went through? Can’t be sure anymore.” If we could just retrace our steps back to the entrance we could leave the very same way in which we first came inside, but this has already become an illusion, for our questions demand answers and not mere rhetorical tricks of entertainment. Sophistry will no longer do for us after passion has entered the scene, a passionate love for wisdom has taken over us. Wisdom intoxicates with an ambiance we cannot see as an object before us and in our perception, yet it propels us farther than anything hitherto has been able to. It will sometimes feel as though this jolt of energy came from within us and was there all along, or that it was imbued in us from another world perfectly arranged and never ending. Allowing these thoughts to be our guide will plant us between two sturdy walls and make us stare upward at the lazy sky with only clouds and storms passing by to observe (with luck), or even worse: we will end up staring at one of those walls. One wall could be labeled ’inside’ the other ’outside’ and staying in the middle will not help us move forward to the next convergence if those
are our only options. They will not appear as walls constraining our motion and within which we navigate if they are our only points of reference: they will fill us with awe and admiration, these beautiful walls, these answers.
The love of wisdom undeniably demands answers, but we mock our lover by grabbing hold of it and holding it up to the sky. Soon wisdom will become disinterested and simply leave us behind as we try in vain to maintain our grip, and then the whole relationship simply falls apart to neither party’s benefit. To think with wisdom there needs to be some mutual agreement of coadaptation between the knowledge wisdom holds and our activity and our contribution to it. This knowledge has already come a long way, split off into many disciplines, and seeped into nearly every facet of social life whether one decides to enter into the amorous relationship or not. So in order to join up with its path of motion and influence its trajectory it is necessary to dip into the history knowledge that such wisdom has inspired. Only then does the path open up towards a convergence that strengthens both wisdom and ourselves:
“To think is precisely to shake up the perceptual institutions of the world and of society, and the imaginary social significations born by this institution. What is akin to perception in this case, is that when we consider thought which is already achieved, we confront the schema of background/figure, and the necessity of such a schema… original thought posits/creates other figures, brings about the existence a figure of that which could not previously so exist; and this involves, inevitably, a tearing apart and a recreation of the existing background, the given horizon.”
This inevitable schema of figure/ground factors into the current quest as the given monuments left over from history and which constitute the solid structure of the walls of the labyrinth we wade through. These walls are figures firmly placed in the traversable ground directing our movement and any creation of ours will inevitably recreate the same structure. But the movement and composition of flows that follow from such a creation that radically unearths a new figure is not so determined:
“A true relationship with such a thought strives to retrieve this moment of creative tearing apart, this new and different dawn in which at a single stroke thing take up another configuration in an unknown landscape. This in turn implies that, for us, this thought of the past becomes a new being under a new horizon, that we create it as object of our thought, in another relationship with its inexhaustible being.” (p.xxv)
Both the figure erected and the ground surveyed become newly minted only as the reproduction of a prior “tearing apart” exercised already before the act but always different from the old act. The act of creation summons all that is lying around and constructs something truly new on both a new ground and as a unique object. Though it be new in both figure and ground, we only add to the labyrinth, even if we cannot see beyond this slice of it. The labyrinth by itself is no figure or ground, no work of creation either, and is thought futilely if as a exclusively a figure as well as exclusively a ground; it is a place not to be mistaken for its concrete walls or floor which account for the lot of its material, but is nothing without them. It is a forest bewildering our sensibilities and wreaking havoc on our ideas, but it is a place nonetheless – a place we are undoubtably inside and within which we must construct.
The labyrinth is theory itself, and theory must always take into consideration the extending of thought to its limit while acknowledging the particularity of this act here, or that perception there. But as soon as one catches wind of these questions and the difference that distorts the certainty claimed by an experience or a true statement, doubt itself carries one to its limit in a skeptical stance of defensive parrying like an aikido warrior. As sure a substitute for knowledge as this internalized doubt may sound, it risks falling into disrespectful boasting against its opposition without which it would devoid of response for it only reacts to and channels away from. Truth must be admitted in circumstance *and allowed to push outward beyond historical contingency or else collapse – swallowed by the labyrinth. The intense desire for knowledge that compels actors to jog through it and to construct pieces of it is as inescapable as the labyrinth. Even if our desired object becomes a negative destruction of the labyrinth as its creative act of “dehiscence”, such a force will remain impotent without properly navigating it towards a convergence – the crossroads in the labyrinth. Once again, this means assuming the theoreticians mode of practice to link up with other actors likewise stifled by the labyrinth to build a contrary edifice in the opening.
We need not throw on his (and it almost always is his) robes and become fitted out to a priestly comfort in order to navigate through the labyrinth though. However protection will be needed. It’s better to thing of one’s appearance walking through the labyrinth as armor with an agonistic functionality: call it your arg-garments. Skillful rhetoric and sound tactics are only as good as conveyed to a collective group of some kind, and this necessarily involves visibility and showing up. Of course, neither appearance nor a concise plan will save you alone and only assuming the proper surface garments along with latching on to the proper flows within the labyrinth will together let way forward open.
“Theory exists neither as a ’view’ of that which is, nor as a systemic and exhaustive constitution or construction of that which may be thought, whether arrived at a single definitive moment or a process of gradual elaboration. No breach opens suddenly within the walls surrounding us, so that we can at last see the light of the sun which has always been there. And no more is there an harmonious edifice whose overall plan we shall progressively discover as we work on its construction.
There is theoretical activity, the making/doing of theory, which emerges only at a given historical moment. This human activity or undertaking is a social-historical project: the project of theory. To give an account of, and a reason for – logon didonai – everything: the world, the objects surrounding us, their ’laws’, ourselves, this activity itself… This is a pure fact: we can do no otherwise. We can do no otherwise, once the question has been raised. And we know that it has not always been raised, since the beginning of time, but that it happened at ’a given moment’.
If this is so, are our questions and our projects perhaps contingent? Yes, but for whom? For an absolute Spectator. But to speak or think this way, this absolute Spectator must himself be doing theory, a theory dependent on the categories of the necessary and the contingent. We are not and never shall be this absolute Spectator. Yet at the same time, and despite what has sometimes been said, we cannot prevent ourselves from adopting his fictitious standpoint, even if only to declare that he does not exist, or that he cannot be conceived without contradiction. This which we are speaking of as contingent – this which is neither contingent, nor necessary – this is our reality. Can we get out of it? It is obvious that we can’t. It is obvious that we can. Unless I succumb to delirium, I cannot but think that thought is a social-historical creation – and that this thought is true. And, unless I succumb to delirium, I cannot think either that all thought is true, or that, when it is, it is capable of accounting for its own truth; I cannot think either that thought is founded upon itself, or that it is transparent to itself.” (p.xix)
Delirium, absolute Spectator, a given historical moment, the activity of theory: our guide’s harassment of our intellect is the expression of tough love. For we can only follow him up to a point before that point disappears and we are left to make our own way. We assume the role of spectator only to learn how to abolish such passive receptivity, we learn the from the privileged volumes of history chalked full of mistakes and self-congratulation to imagine the blood-soaked result of victories, we learn to rationalize in the logos of our culture bearers to achieve gradual metamorphosis, we go into delirium to experience ourselves the raw form of Dionysian exuberance; but we can never sit comfortably again.
So strap on that armor and sharpen those arguments because now that the labyrinth’s illusions, traps, and blockages are better visible we must meet perhaps our most formidable agents of anti-theory: Modern Scientists.
Levi Bryant has drawn up a brief manifesto of a nihilist reflection on the world and life’s place in the one and only world as a mere accident. His materialism in the matters of human belief brings forth succinctly and strikingly a conception of the world as void that is reminiscent of Lucretius. World here functions as a pure void, an empty space on which the dance of matter takes place. This distinction of matter and world seems to recreate the full/empty binary which then is grafted on to existence as a whole, or, the universe. The manifesto is well worth a read and long contemplation, as well as a follow up from arranjames.
But must we abide by these terms and this conceptual framework? The world conceived as it is here is doomed from the start to void and nothingness, which is clearly the only conclusion that could follow from this conceptual treatment. When imagining the world as a single unified place (and this must be an exercise in the imagination, or perhaps an intellectual excursus within a conceptual model), it could not possibly be full and perfectly meaningful to the point of which a perfectly understood significance could give cultural actors access to it. The world is at once occupying the figure and the ground, holding both the indisputable ’thereness’ of existence as object and also the setting, place, or environment upon which all objects dwell. Lying within this word is the collapsed distinction which at first allows for a meaningful object to become a thing under consideration with its own properties, tendencies, structures, and relations to other objects. An object must always ’be’ amidst a backdrop, a backdrop which tries to attain distinctly objective status as a cognizant thing when the unification meant for an object is “outsourced” to its own ground.
This linguistic movement of a binary opposition (figure/ground) is accompanied by the enormous successes of scientific institutions which have brought along with them a discourse rife with philosophical undertones of disinterested objectivism. However, these matters are largely ignored by today’s scientists and left to the “lofty intellectuals” so they can do their work of infinite knowledge production in their secure, unchallenged ’world’. Their experiments, results, and the method so fruitful in producing useful technologies for their nations do indeed prove themselves over and over again to be of great worth. Though the dis-coveries of these material things in their patterned movement can lay claim to truth in the minimally predictive sense, when science moves to theory and, either consciously or unconsciously, harkens back to the beginnings of science in the certainty, finality, and universality it must (if sincerity and honesty is given to the words and concepts with which they construct those theories) admit to itself that it is engaging in philosophy. Recourse is always given to a history of actors, experimenters, and observers that carry science from one new mode to the next, and the unifying thread of science does indeed have a history that goes as far back as when ’physics’ was called ’natural philosophy’.
Bringing up the paradoxes and entanglements of science with regards to the nihilistic refusal of meaningful belief in the world is can be of some utility here since it problematizes both subjective commitment and disinterested (supposedly non-subjective) knowledge. If the separation of subject and object would be held apart so firmly, the subject would be forced to have as its object of conscious adherence (ideology if you want) the forced choice between a foundational social/ego or bare objects/things. I believe things are more complicated and intertwined along with Merleu-Ponty. The reflective and inward-folding that a solitary writer is privy to can be also recognized as an object in the “mind-space” so as to balance the linguistic relationship. A sentence that makes sense, written down or spoken between those within a common discourse must be the result of an actor in a performance – and on a stage. Ideas are inextricable in thinking about the world and any of its particular objects and we must place them some*where* – as we must do with objects, placing them in the world. However, when the object tries to become its own ground, to take over the whole stage as it were, we get an idea that attempts to both produce its own existence and declare for itself nothing at all.
This is an extremely important topic, since I have both flirted with nihilism and remain very open to the Spinozist-Lucretian-Nietzsche Delueze thread that treats nothingness as nothing (as a mere linguistic nothing and not a source of creation or attachment). This all set within the problem of global warming and the threat of ecological collapse which I want to hold out as avoidable. There is so much still yet to be done.
Having gone this far into the labyrinth of theory I should make something clear: these thoughts gave been germinating in my mind for quite some time now from various sources. But those consistent bloggers have made it seem like there was a community of participants willing to read what I wrote and I owe you all thanks for inspiring me to experiment with this mode of expression. It is very strange indeed having so many ideas floating around both the Internet and my face to face encounters and this reassures me that I am onto the right track with regard to the topics, even if the content is disputable. A great deal of my influence has come from reaching out into other spheres and keeping running debates with friends and fellow autodidacts, but blogs allow rough thought to just “get out there” and be seen. The books that I’m drawing from in this piece which I haven’t yet been able to make good enough essays about yet are Cornelius Castoriadis’s Crossroads in the Labyrinth (a staggering work of theoretical genius), Robert Pogue Harrison’s Forests, and Deleuze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. I’ll get around to coming up with more substantial works on these books soon since they have been so educational and I want to share.
As a teaser: the social actor is inextricably bound up with yet opposed to Nature. Nature is less a world than it is a labyrinth. The place, region, or territory is neither neutral or empty. The place of nature (seeing as it is that the social must juxtapose with nature) is the forest.
In the opening scene of Final Fantasy VII, a black sky fills the screen as the camera pans across numerous individual stars and their constellations. Each star moves in conjunction with the other to give an impression that the space-scape is three dimensional and the point of view enmeshed with the tiny luminous objects in vision. The movement of the camera drifts aimlessly around and throughout the vast dark space of pixelated light sources slowly yet curiously. Some stars move quickly as if closer to the observer, some move very little giving the impression they are farther away, and the screen sways in empty space allowing these stars to express their relative distance. The whole scene is indeed wondrous and enchanting – one feels absorbed in this vast world, yet more actively attending to it. One’s gaze is in constant motion but at an uneven pace; without a clear direction any point of light in this cosmos can be attended to, yet none catch the camera’s interest in particular. So we are left wandering through the mere specs of light in the otherwise emptiness of outer space.
Suddenly a flower girl’s polygonal face appears and the music kicks in (go find it: ‘FF VII Opening Bombing Mission’, I can think of no better intro music to an epic story). She walks out from a dark alley carrying flowers into a busy city street where cars rush pass blowing smoke out their tail-pipes amongst neon signs, ominous buildings, and other characteristics of a modern industrial slum. The camera retreats for a full look at the gigantic city surrounding a massive energy reactor towering above. You will learn soon that the city is Midgar, the dominant one on a fictional planet that harnesses the life energy of the planet to power it’s industry. Midgar’s influential mega-corporation Shinra utilizes this power from the “lifestream” to produce “mako” energy which then fuels its war machine; an obvious allusion to fossil fuel burning and the extraction of oil from the dead organisms of earth’s past. The planet is called Gaia(!) and it is in peril. Though clearly a fantasy world (it’s in the game’s title) the setting parallels the “reality” of our world offering a simplified version of the single most important process that drives the global economy into (very disproportionate) human prosperity at the cost of the planet: turning oil into energy. The basic premise of Final Fantasy VII is that while this lifestream is the source of all living beings, it is getting excessively tapped by industrial machinery angering the planet and stealing the source of its sustenance. This control of enormous amounts of energy allows a particular nihilistic villain named Sephiroth to attempt to bring about total annihilation on the planet, eradicating the impure humans who he dissociates himself from. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After the panorama of Midgar, a train is zoomed in on then stops at a station. Out jumps resistance fighters from the rag-tag insurrectionary group AVALANCHE who engage Midgar soldiers as they make their way to destroy an energy reactor – and one of them is you. You will kill many of these soldiers in this story (along with monsters, demons, hostile animals and the RPG like) being yourself once a member of this army now turned into an ecological guerrilla warrior. This is the beginning of your adventure: thrown into a sabotage mission as a mercenary you will reveal the dirty secrets of Shinra, travel the world with a rouge group of the best fighters from diverse corners of the world, and attempt to avert a grand apocalypse triggered by those who have consolidated enormous quantities of this magical energy without the best interests of the planet and it’s inhabiting organisms in mind.
This is a video game. A *game* which you *play* as an actor in the story making tactical battle decisions as you guide the lead character and his party through a bevy of threats, eventually saving this *fantasy world* from total destruction. This video-game, however, was made by the people at Squaresoft in mid-1990’s Japan and is trying to tell its players something. It’s not exactly imploring an audience to any action in the real world via a moral code, it’s forcing players into action inside a fictional scenario. In order to get to he end of this narrative, one must play it as a decision maker utilizing the various options in battle and exploring the world as it becomes more available. The story and the game mechanics have been crafted well before anyone gets to play the finished product; the made-up world is crafted before one picks up the controller. Progress in this story hinges on one’s participation inter-actively though and making good choices is crucial to finishing it. The strategizing becomes more complex and difficult as the game progresses along with the plot details, and though in an alternate and deliberately false world these games give players a sense of beings a vital part of a grand story. The peculiarities of these fantasy worlds provide a cover to persuade gamers into a certain style of thinking which must be uncovered in the translation from fantasy to real decisions: the player becomes the medium between worlds which gets to select the ideas which resonate with her/him.
One of the many things I love about Final Fantasy VII, (along with perhaps many of the millions of fans who profess to its grandeur as “the greatest game ever” – aside from the enchanting soundtrack of Nobuo Uematsu), is the first scene in which the player is dropped immediately on an attack against a corrupt corporation controlling the largest city on the planet effectively operating as a parasite on that planet. It begins like all epic poetry: it places you right in the middle of the struggle. The justification for the actions are filled in along the way of the mission (and they are strong), but the battle is on and you had better act fast – the world is counting on you. The game goes from an abstract cosmological wandering gaze to the smokey squalor of the slums to action! fighting! attack! Of course such an aggressive concept of action is dangerously simple and will need to be challenged itself. Between the cosmic perspective of the first shot and the forced raid that begins the action lies a vast chasm – as well there should be. This is after all a blog post of words and ideas (to get all reflective on you), and so far we’ve only gotten to a single fantasy world where one’s health and experience is measurable in numbers, battles are fought by taking turns selecting magic spells and ‘limit break’ special moves, and preparation is done by management of your character’s statistics.
The gulf of worlds that is maintained in fantasy literature and gaming allows for a message to be sent between them by way of metaphors, exaggerated and stylized characters, and clearly explicable scenarios. Keeping the setting in an ‘other’ place, the constructed story does not order or command a decision from the reader/player outside of the game but gives advice in the form of an example to be deciphered and translated. The freedom to strategize inside of this made-up world serves as practice though for implementing whatever ideas are of interest in the real world – but perhaps it should be called the non-fictional world. The fictional worlds offered up in stories found in texts, films, serialized t.v. shows, comic-books, and video-games resemble myths that require active interpretation of theme and meaning. Fantasy video games, especially those with epic stories, are a unique blend of strategy, storytelling, morality play. They send messages without dictation from a world that is not ours but nonetheless can inspire action in non-virtual worlds through hints and metaphors – once the audience has allowed the message to get through by engaging with it.
Fantasy worlds are not real. Anyone can see this – even those heavily attracted to them. Fantasies extract elements from daily life and place them into an ‘elsewhere’ adding magic and other strange entities that have had a constant allure to people throughout history. Simply saying “but it’s not real” is not enough of an indictment to stop people from involving themselves with them: fantasy basks in the illusion and takes it as far as the imagination will allow. This is a blessing not a curse when trying to illustrate a problem or evoke a sentiment – the preaching is executed by example not by dictation.
I’d like to shift gears and outline a certain way of thinking, a style, or tradition if you will that does not seek a bridge over the chasm of theory to action, illusion to reality, falsehood to truth, surface to core, nor the reverse direction but does not throw away the conceptual distinctions either. A theorizing that does not prescribe or dictate actions on the one hand, while on the other hand positively cautioning against theories that do rally and persuade its audience (and the leader/follower dynamic is required for those theories) that to act in a certain way is necessary or inevitable. As if the writer/creator had somehow discovered a formula for fate, the irresistible attractor, the end goal that will be arrived at eventually that now only requires the attention of good or rational subjects for an assured consent. This would be something like scientific certainty derived from the enormous success of the scientific method which, to be sure, has produced a great many truths. But while this method has given those who learn and experiment using it remarkable conceptual insight into material processes – from repeated of patterns human relationships to the interaction of elements at the core of stars – this success is thanks to the model’s, equation’s, and concept’s ability to predict future phenomena in controlled experiments. There is a particular philosophical disposition attached to scientific naturalism that is not exclusive to it which is under scrutiny here, not the practice of science itself.
While debates between naturalism and religion might circulate upon someone questioning science as the greatest bearer of truth and order in the world, I want to claim that the theoretical pretenses of some scientific programs of research are but one tradition that typify a tendency of theories to *explain* and so *rule over* or *settle* all phenomena in a domain commonly called *the* world in the singular. This means that scientific truths can fall in line with mystical and dogmatic truths upon forgetting its utilization of controlled environments and prediction. It is only by delimiting an experimental space separate from the world, abstracted from it as it where, that such a position with the entire world in view becomes possible. Modern European science always had the security of God as the ever present being holding together the world its laws and fundamental forces explained. Quantum physics has shattered that picture, and we still have not recovered.
Physical naturalists and religious mystics have a common impulse that we would do well to examine. The quarrels over who best represents the reality of the cosmos are like so many evil kings vying to become emperor – there is a problem common to them all. There is a reactionary tendency to dismiss scientific experiments that get the same results every successive time they are performed because science as a whole is “just a theory”. But if every-thing has a fictional partner and theory cannot be broken free from as soon as these questions are asked, then a different criteria for what counts as a valuable theory besides total causal certainty must be sought. A particular philosophical interpretation of recent work in physics and cosmology backs up the skeptical pluralism I advocate, and I merely claim that scientific truths (and any truths for that matter) contain or require a fictional/mythical supplement that need not be opposed to those truths but haunt them always.
Yeah, *merely* claim…
There will be time for these issues to come up later, but by way of this introduction I would like to describe a basic style of thinking, a *way* or Tao, made most explicit in the dense volumes of philosophy from Hume to Nietzsche to Deleuze (though also found elsewhere) which is an indispensable driver of the scientific method (if there exists such a method). Though often difficult to grasp and intentionally bewildering, the books critical theorists and/or philosophers leave for us can illustrate an extremely important operation that is at once a movement within formal theories and the material bodies they describe. A movement that does not overload either side of a binary opposition or take positions ’for’ where what it is ’against’ is seen as integral to the field or situation that such a position takes part in. Unsatisfied with option ’P’ or ’~P’, a restlessness shifts the perspective demanding an ’elsewhere’ or oscillating between them to stay vigilant for when that ’elsewhere’ appears.
This movement is actually as ”natural” as the physical laws claiming to represent Nature (in the sense that everything is supposed to be a part of nature) at a fundamental level though I humbly acknowledge that it is inexpressible without non-material signs and symbols. Nature in this theory escapes formulation by laws and using this critical theory entails inhabiting a place of constant tension in the nature-culture or natural-artificial divide; where motion is prolonged even when stuck in the middle of a conceptual distinction so as not to be captivated by any one. This movement won’t settle long enough to be articulated in the singular – a *being* – it remains elusive when positions, explanations, and conclusions are delimited. Emphasizing the intricate internal elements of a wholistic being or the larger environment outside a being instead of capturing the essence of said being shifts the focus to an ever wider or ever smaller perspective. This implies that ’nature’ as a word for what our laws, equations, and stories are “about” is inadequate. Deploying ’nature’ and the ’laws of nature’ takes the bait that it is *the* world we are doing research on, rather than that research being tightly woven in with it ecologically. This is the side-effect of accepting an equality between a thing and world: the cohesion we express denoting a ’thing’ becoming ’world’ results in a fantasizing of worlds.
Whatever laws or consistencies found in the structure of physical objects, the closer and closer their parts are observed as well as the more and more their surrounding environment is accounted for the more differences and dynamic relationships replace definitive beings and enclosed worlds. Quantum physics brushes up against these conceptual difficulties: the role of the observer in these isolated experiments must be examined itself in perceiving the object, or, the relationship between thing and its environment becomes the non-thing thing under examination. Far from a relativist or subjective force contrasted with objective analysis, this movement of relation is inscribed within and along with the concept of being itself: being as object, subject, essence, existence, God, or whatever. Nothingness accompanies beings wherever they go and however they manifest. The void both within and between beings forces us to focus on relations that are always in motion, change, and flux; relations can be systematized and observed but cannot be totalized. The critical movement characteristic of much philosophy and fantasy always demands an escape from such a totality – escapism contains an elemental force just waiting to be tapped into.
This has tremendous consequences for the way we *think* about scientific findings and the pretenses held by many hard scientists, yet does not stifle research or hinder experimentation in the scientific community. In fact, this movement is performed by scientists themselves throughout history as they challenge status quo, traditional dogmas, creating new models and formulas better at predicting an increasingly vast observable field. What is under attack is the dream, and I don’t hesitate to call it such, that the universe can be explained in complete form by a single theory or a single being. Both reflect a monistic concept that tries to subsume or overtake their other, their opposite, and so inhabit the place of the center in relation to the rest outside of it. A bid for power is at play here, one that goes deep into the structure of certain beliefs and rejects the charges of skepticism and pluralism. I shall endeavor to uproot these power plays in hopes that a different way of thinking about these concepts and practices can have a meaningful impact beyond fantasy.
It’s when a strict naturalism, reductionism, and/or representationalism come into the picture that the critical movement is lost. This does not banish these buzz words from general usage; it is when a theory and its posited thing, substance, and force become absolute wholes – central to *all* beings in *the* world – that the pressure against the fantastic mounts. This means a tension should be stimulated by mentioning ’reality’, ’nature’, and ’world’ – instead of an easing calm. These words should inspire curiosity and wonder, pushing one further and further on a quest for wisdom which may never end. These big words are all too often invoked to crush deviancy and bring people back to safe, familiar places that do not challenge common practices, no matter how questionable or destructive they may be. The universe is not static, if it still makes sense to speak of it as if from *outside of it*, it moves and self-organizes while the laws and theories we come up with do not. As good as we have gotten at predicting phenomona, isolating behaviors, and observing patterns, a persistent movement resists. The shortest way to describe this movement would be the movement of the question, so long as this question is joyfully baffling and without an answer in the time at which it is posed.
Why start with Final Fantasy VII before moving on to critical philosophy and science? What could fantasy possibly have to tell us about such theoretical musings? Fantasy in contrast to naturalism, reductionism, and representationalism internalized its own nothingness – it does not reject the empty gap separating it from “reality” but assumes it and in so doing becomes wonderfully creative. Its worlds are deliberately false but affirmative and very educational for the attentive reader, viewer, or player that interprets the message, adding a layer of enticing mystery that most realisms wish to cover up with *the* truth.
Of course it’s not true. Those fascinated by fantasy and mythology understand this much and to pass them off as mere flights of fancy misses something not just about the richness of language and the imagination but material world as well. Of course there is the risk of addiction, as with many habits, signaling a greater issue of excess not exclusive to interests in fantasy. I see the prospect of addiction as getting stuck inside one world common to many undertakings which would hinder a critical movement. We must remember that alternate worlds are meaningful and provocative in relation to each other, in connecting them via an inter-mobility. Seeking out new lands and territories with vigorous energy and a passionate motivation would eventually find its expression in literature given the right opportunity. The restless movement that seeks to both discover and escape covering can be gleaned from fantasy.
Okay, but why FF VII in particular?
While the battles are intense and the thrill of acting out an attack on an energy sucking power plant are a joy, neither the Shinra Corporation nor the city of Midgar are the ultimate enemy in this story. The strongest warrior on the planet is Sephiroth and he becomes so disillusioned and angered over the grotesque experiments with mako energy (extracted and condensed from the lifestream) and Jenova cells (gathered from a meteor of ages ago) that he turns on the planet and the humans altogether. Both he and the main character Cloud are a result of these experiments but Sephiroth falsely interprets himself to be the son of Jenova and sets out to bring the meteor crashing down to Gaia destroying the planet. At that moment the clash of Gaia’s lifestream and the meteor would be absorbed by Sephiroth so that he may become as powerful as a god, leaving behind the impure planet and its corrupted people to achieve a new existence. With his exceptional power as the greatest warrior, Sephiroth seeks only more power, this time transcending the category human and the planet from which they came.
In this story the enemy that must be fought to save the planet is a very powerful force in the form of a single villain that upon learning that he is a puppet for an evil empire and the product of a mad scientist’s experiments comes to reject the entire people and planet he was brought up with and devote himself to becoming one with a greater being – Jenova. Jenova is not of Gaia, she came from outer-space and knows only destruction – the “calamity from the skies”. This is but one way of coping with the prospect of a dying planet and being apart of (a major part in Sephiroth’s case) the process: reject the relationship with the planet and seek out a greater power, one transcending the environment and reaching a god’s existence – a god’s eye point of view.
Sephiroth does not care much for the cries of the planet. Seeking higher existence, one that leaves behind the others to their destruction and goes above and beyond them is one possible response to nihilism. Nihilism is more common today that we would like to acknowledge. How we deal with nihilism is perhaps the most crucial aspect in keeping us moving forward. When traditional values no longer can sustain hope for the future, there is a tendency to withdraw, let the world burn, a seek comfort in a more pure life form. We are caught in a trap of nihilism preventing a healing in the relation between us and the planet: Nietzsche’s last man, the final fantasy. An adequate response to the nihil is to allow it to accompany us wherever we go rather than cast it away for a perfect world. All worlds, the many worlds of pluralism, have a tinge of nothing. Worlds are a kind of fantasy.
The protagonist Cloud must wrestle with false memories, a delusion that he created for himself by assuming the life of his friend Zack. He then finds that he was created from a lab experiment of the same corrupt Shinra Corporation as Sephiroth, but his origin is much worse. Cloud is a failed copy of Sephiroth! Meant to duplicate his powers and become another super-soldier, Cloud chooses instead to fight Shinra and, more importantly, the one he was intended by his creator to become: Sephiroth. Cloud’s response to the nothingness of his illusory past is to forge a life amongst his new friends assembled together from the farthest reaches of Gaia and save it from destruction. Instead of reacting to the fakeness from which he came, the illusion of his origin story, he affirms the quest in the company of friends to avert a catastrophic future for Gaia. He is essentially life-affirming in accepting the nihil of his story before the game begins. Everything he thought was true about himself turned out to be a lie… but he makes a new life with friends gathered together by a common urgent problem.
The motive for extracting of the message from this fantasy story should be obvious.
The strategy I am employing involves finding what is critical in these fantasies – critical in the multiple meanings of the word – so as to inspire and provoke the reader in a way that finding the true meaning (with universal laws or codes) of the world could never do. By moving between worlds instead of ordering just this one world in perfect harmony, one can accept nihilism and pass through its stifling difficulties in a joy ever mindful of the an-nihilation that attaches itself not just to us but every being – Being itself. Fantasy fiction is capable of broaching this negativity and passing on something for us to learn from it outside of its worlds. In the transition from one world to the next, the interpretation is sharpened when the actor moving between worlds must select what is pertinent from one to the other. Making such connections and moving in and out of worlds can make one all the more critical of attempts at unification and totalitarian logic. In fantasy we can find the means to escape the logic of certitude, of completion, of tyranny – provided we stay in motion and use our ‘limit breaks’ wisely.
The attempt here is to get situated in an intense place between two nothings. The project is a further enhancement of Simon Critchley’s double meontology from ‘The Faith of the Faithless’. It is the difficult task of steering between poles that are both hazardous: the nothing of possible futures where one can place one’s hopes in and the nothing of a historical narrative at once political, subjective, and fantastic. When maneuvered well, with style and craft, this can lead to a creative outburst that avoids both excessive passivity and activity. I believe that it is in this weird space between two nothings that not only new expression becomes forged but expressibility becomes possible.
There is no more pressing concern that can be addressed right now than global warming. Think about it. Our planet has the very rare quality of having just the right temperature for H2O to abound in three different states of matter. We earthlings are a privileged bunch. Thinking beyond earth and into stars, galaxies, and other planets inspires wonder (or wonder inspires thinking towards the sky), but, also, right here on this planet matter/energy has found a way to loop and grow and evolve into what we call life. Writing and speaking this way can stop us in our tracks and make us stare out in astonishment, but it also can provide cover against seeing what is right in front of us and forget where we are. Where we are historically is in the funky position of being unable to think past certain concepts stringing us along a ruinous path; ruinous for us and our environment. But I contend that part of solution is blurring the lines between ‘us’ and ‘environment’. Thinking about ecology instead of Nature is to think a forward moving coexistence instead of a detachment.
Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought (Harvard University Press, 2010) presents a way to rethink our notions of ’nature’, ’life’, and even ’world’ in a way that allows us to respond to the breakdowns in complex systems honestly and think through them both realistically and fantastically. His ’Eco Thought’ is timely in that it wrests Nature from its status as a “place over yonder” one can ignore by
resuming Cultural pursuits or visit on a hike in the woods and injects it directly into us. It is timeless in that it does the critical-textual work of marking out the beginning of a new era.
We never achieved a break from Nature as human beings in civilization but conceptually and in language. Blending and bewildering conceptual oppositions like Nature-Culture flows seamlessly from paragraph to paragraph for Morton, spreading virally throughout the book. Indeed, his concept of the ’mesh’ blurs even matter and life in a non-vitalism making room for the terrifying inside us and outside of us. What we call life is just matter/energy flowing in an interconnected mesh, “[t]his flow has been ongoing since DNA started its random mutations. Evolution is mutagenic. It isn’t linear or progressive.” (p.43) Eliminating our secure position as humans or even life-forms and unsettling our false pretenses to independence from “the rest” puts our ideas into extreme doubt. This isn’t to convince you that you are not alive but that you, I, and we are not the culmination of anything in time but instead a presently contained mutation with no end.
This can feel like one big negation of reality, and Morton even writes: “Negativity might even be more ecological than positivity is. A truly scientific attitude means not believing everything you think.” (p.16) Yet this profoundly weird nothing that follows us along subverting all attempts at transcendence and identification is not to “put us in our place” in bare existence. It is to reject the distance implied in delineating place to show that everything is interconnected but not in a completed whole. The holes found everywhere in the w-hole prevent a world from asserting itself. No safe haven is given by taking sides in the traditional divisions used to clarify problems of the being of the world like Mind and Matter. The strangeness of connectivity without coherence undermines all efforts to make sense of the world by carving it up into well-ordered sections. Negation has gone viral; the hole is quickly found in both areas.
“The ecological crisis makes us aware of how interdependent everything is. This has resulted in a creepy sensation that there is literally no world anymore. We have gained Google Earth but lost the world. “World” here means a location, a background, against which our actions become significant.” (p.31)
Its as if globalization and our dominance of the planet has left no where to go – no setting or stage from which one can say “this is where I am”. Sweeping the basis for meaning away can be a dreadful thought, and Morton’s only consolation “to the tear in the real [is]… [i]f it has always been there, it’s not so bad, is it?” (p.31) His concept of the mesh accommodates differences in time and location; it is only in this historical moment when the planet is under domination by such a concentrated system that we feel the anxiety of losing our home.
Thinking past this loss of world and coming up with new concepts for this purpose means leaving behind the world as a container and even the universe of physicists. The act of creating concepts is a philosophical exercise in the vein of Delueze and Guattari and the ecological thought is precisely a conceptual way of imagining a mode of being within language that gets through a physical-ecological problem. This involves mystical and spiritual revival but in a way that does not imagine other more perfect worlds, ordering them with respect to our mortal inferiority. Heck, it doesn’t even encourage the reader to focus on the real world exactly:
“…what we think of as “imagination” is just an after-image, an extrapolation we make when we notice people using language… do we have a sense of *world* in our heads, a background against which we can operate?” (p.88)
The Wittgensteinian move is to recognizing the limitations of language and get us to think the world beyond it without bringing along the messy metaphysics carried over from language, but Morton contends that even the world is stuck within those linguistic limits. The difference of conceptual relations spills into reality whether we discourse or not: cleaning up our language and speaking of the world outside of it will do us no good. We’d do better to think in terms of ecology, instead of forms of *life*.
Ecology evokes environment, life, and science so that we are encouraged to internalize the methods of scientific inquiry yet also avoid miring ourselves too much in its technical terminology. The mesh permits their inter-connectivity without ordering them centrally or referring a word to its ’thing out there’ identically. If we are going to properly deal with the climate we need sound, trustworthy science to compliment a radical shift in (for lack of a better word) consciousness through concepts. This is the difficult work of thinking the tangled concepts in a style that paves the way for an ecological existence. This existence is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety but this need not and cannot result in the desperate groping for a harmony that we mistakenly perceive to have lost.
The rapid firing of conceptual distinctions and mind-numbing dodging and weaving in Morton’s book does well in mirroring the swirling confusion of the crisis gripping our planet. It also makes the arguments hard to follow. He makes the paradoxical character of these ideas explicit: “[a]lthough there is no absolute, definite “inside” or “outside” of beings, we cannot get along without these concepts either. The mesh is highly paradoxical.” (p.39) Another big concept of his is ’the strange stranger’ in which “there is no way to maintain the strangeness of things.” (p.41) But Morton scores a clear hit by concentrating on Capitalism and its co-optive logic. The distortion that Capitalism employs in the commodifying of everything from sexual bodies to food production proliferates without individual assent and even encourages rage against itself – as long as dissent can be useful in making a sale. The disorienting groundlessness of ecological philosophy is one particularly poignant method of isolating the ideology putting us all at risk in Capitalism. It gives us a more sharpened mind for evading the snares of Capitalist logic, which thrives on individualizing terror. That terror exists beyond any of us humans and beyond the world, yet Capitalism thrives by enclosing it within individual minds. An ecological mind doesn’t reactively leap into a communal-nationalist passion in its rejection of individuals though. This remains attached to the concept by simplifying the negation. The ecological thought utilizes the form of radical collectives rather than communities of abstraction.
“So along with the political radicalisms that seek to create new forms of collectivities out of the crisis of climate disruption, there must also be a rigorous and remorseless theoretical radicalism that opens our minds to where we are, about the fact that we’re here.” (p.104)
At the same time, the void of intense personal practices found in the likes of meditation are never fully divorced in the mushy interconnection of the mesh. They even allow us to organize ourselves otherwise than the stable routines demanded on us by Capitalism. Individuals joined together in collectives exert a form of relating to each other that is neither Individualist nor Holistic.
Morton’s ecological thought (but is it his anymore?) is an honest work of the thought needed to act responsibly towards not just people but things. Things like chemicals, trees, mountains, etc. are given better treatment by ecological thinking than by a domineering Nature one must repeatedly affirm they are a “part of”. Not even the world is a whole to be a part of. This paves the way for a more stylistic existence that attends to the field of interaction in and out of language. This radical concept is an intriguing development in urgent times.
Having taken a look at the science fiction world of Cowboy Bebop in my last post, I’d like to turn now to Joss whedon’s Firefly. Keeping in mind the idea of meshing the daily pressures of living and working with an imaginary world common to both shows, Firefly diverges from Bebop in many ways. Though both shows follow small crews as they planet hop around their worlds looking for high-risk jobs, Firefly’s world is based on a center-peripheral distinction, instead of an everywhere dispersed corruption, within the backdrop of a great civil war that the rebels lost.
A large focus of the show is on the dilemmas one encounters by holding on to one’s rebellious principles in a world that will not tolerate them. After losing the war to the alliance, the brown-coat rebels (an obvious allusion to the Confederates in the American Civil War) embodied by the two survivors on the ship must find alliance friendly jobs or escape to the less policeable and far more dangerous “wild” peripheral. Our main character Malcolm Reynolds goes through pains to keep his crew flying, fed, and alive without compromising his belief against an invasive centralized government. With dissenters pushed away from the benefits of the center of the verse, they are left alone to fend off the criminal bosses, robbers, and zombie-like “reevers” – or become them. The crew is constantly faced with a choice between participating in corrupt jobs, thereby sacrificing their ethical commitment to resisting any and all slavery (wage-based or otherwise), and being the target of attack from those willfully exploiting. Ever the staunch defender of self-determination, Captain Reynolds always takes the hard way.
The genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction is littered with doomsday visions and exhilarating scenarios of survival in the face of constant attack. Zombie hordes, robot armies, and alien invasions draw up our fears of other mysterious entities that approach we humans as an external threat but one need not look so far away to find catastrophic and alienating scenarios. The fictional worlds of Cowboy Bebop and Firefly offer alternatives to the overtly violent and bleak futural visions populating our culture while retaining the more subtle violence of living and working in a technologically advanced and highly controlled society. The emphasis on more common struggles that have recurred throughout history and still exist today lets the fantastic elements fade into the background, allowing the relationships between the characters to resonate with viewers despite the fictional setting.
These television shows, both of which lasted only one season and have enjoyed a kind of momentary cult-super-stardom, utilize this novel past-future blend of science fiction giving their respective worlds a greater degree of believability without diminishing the majestic sense of inhabiting a foreign place. The attachment to the characters is made stronger by seeming less contrived; the problems they overcome and the comradeship they forge along the way reach across these soft dystopias and into our present thanks to an appreciation of the past. Taking lessons and styles from the past and incorporating them into an imagined future prevents heavy abstraction and lets us look at our own times from a different angle. Cowboy Bebop fuses a cool jazzy noir with a highly technocratic and corrupt capitalist outer-space-sprawl. Firefly brings together western frontier adventure with a tightly controlled central space empire for a more sharp ’fascism vs. freedom’ contrast. Though the worlds of Cowboy Bebop and Firefly differ in key ways, both offer an imagined world that functions like an extended version of our present.
In Cowboy Bebop we get a not-too-distant future in which human colonies have extended out into the rest of the solar system. Hyper-space gates allow rapid travel between planets and moons which are then “terra-formed” to accommodate the ecological needs of earth based animals. Highly controlled dome environments are scattered far and wide resembling metropolises, shanty-towns, “wild” landscapes yet to be developed, and the vast outer space in between them. There is somewhat of a projection of the wild west myth into the future in Bebop (as with Firefly) as there is suddenly uncharted space for outlaws, rouges, and bounty hunters (here called ’cowboys’) to explore. But beyond the caricature of the good old days of adventure, this setting brings along with it another more realistic element pervading life today and throughout much of history: a colonizing capitalism. A single currency called “woolong” is the only unit referred to in the whole show suggesting a uniformity in the system. The main characters are constantly hustling to find work or go hungry and a great disparity exists in the wealth of towns and individuals they meet.
There is rampant corruption and high crime that will be exposed throughout the show, albeit in a case-by-case, decentralized manner. War is seldom spoken of (there was only one mentioned: on a distant moon of Jupiter that was more of test site for biological weapons anyways), but the systemic violence comes straight from the top in the form of large mafia-syndicates, bureaucrats, and the solar police. The illegal yet hushed-up schemes are contrasted with portraits of individuals trying to escape their desperate situations and feeling the pressure of the police, bounty-hunters, and organized crime. In the pilot, we meet a couple trying to escape the drug and gang ridden asteroid slum “Tijuana” for the richer cities of Mars where “there are parks, festivals” and she believes “people are happy there”. The main protagonist Spike reminds her “sure, if your rich”, before he decides to chase after them for the bounty on her boyfriend’s head. These cases along with the high crime schemes make up the bulk of the sessions (episodes) in Cowboy Bebop and test the greed and sympathy of the main crew.
Our characters come from wealthy backgrounds and are highly skilled but have somehow lost their ties to past homes and must drift about to stay fed. They travel the solar system looking for bounties to collect rewards on all the while teetering on the edge of destitution. The lost sense of belonging is a running theme in the show along with the haunting shadow of one’s past. Our characters are constantly trying to either confront or distance themselves from their pasts all the while bickering with each other. This sense of homelessness and longing mirrors the human race in Bebop: a major catastrophe with the first hyper-space gate turned earth into sparsely inhabited desert planet under constant bombardment by meteorites. In an understated reversal hiding in the dialogue throughout the show, Earth is routinely referred to as a place for crazies and cast-offs. Having lost the home planet through its own hubris (detailed in one session where design flaws were ignored for the sake of profit), the human race drifts about a constellation of nation-less colonies: some vibrant and some cold and forgotten. The extremes of sophisticated urban design and unkept decay are depicted in series of transitional shots to the tune of moody music to make the surrounding environment a crucial feature of the story without dominating it. The Bebop crew, like humanity in this world, is torn by a disappointing lack of belonging and becomes a kind of highly functional yet hostile family.