NO MORE ALPHAS: confessions of an eternal “beta”.


Deleuze said that people are always disappointing, that what is important is not meeting or discussing with people but encountering ideas. I beg to differ, as this statement implies a rather reductive idea of the people in our various milieux. Deleuze enriched this onesided intellectualist vision by also taking into account the percepts and affects that traverse us, the gestures and movements, the transformations and becomings that constitute our folly and our charm.

My experience is that you can’t “win” against an alpha and their hate group without turning into one yourself. However, the alpha does not own the territory that it lays claim to, and has a very simplistic (and self-sering) idea of what the territory is. The best response is to widen and enrich our perception of the territory, to see that there is much more to it than the alphas would have us see. As usual the solution is pluralist: subtraction of the One, awareness of abundance.

The difference between the alpha mode of existence and the subtractive “beta” mode should be apparent in all aspects of our life, including in our online behaviour. One application of this idea is in the contrast between speculative realism and its cynical counterfeit. The key to deciphering the mode of existence involved lies in the primacy given to the concept over the supposed “realism” of the alpha (usually male) competitor in a self-nourishing game of thrones.

Some further reflections can be found here:

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ON BOOK REVIEWS: against the empirico-theological prejudice

Some authors have expressed surprise and discontent at the fact that I express my own views in the reviews I have written of their books. Such a reaction suggests that they have an epistemologically naive empiricist vision of a book review. The idea seems to be that a good book reviewer is one who comes to a book with no theoretical background and who extracts a general perspective by a process of induction. Anything else is mere personal prejudice, and has no place in a competent review.

Beneath this empiricist prejudice there lies a second presupposition, one of theological hierarchy. Just as the epistemological empiricist presupposes a norm of total submission to the “facts”, the theological conformist presupposes a God-like despotic author and a subservient creaturely reader. The author is a superior being, and if the inferior reviewer has something of their own to say, they should publish their own book, and not slip their own opinions into a review of someone else’s book.

What these empirico-theological authors detest above all is a review that chooses to enounce or enact a different context for their contributions than the context that they propose themselves.  What they fear and reject above all is the introduction of a broader historical perspective or of a wider problem-situation than the self-serving one that they use and try to impose, one which magnifies their originality importance.

The writing of book reviews is, or can be, an essential creative act, an intervention in a psycho-political field subtending the book in order to make apparent the unconscious (conceptual, psychic, micro-sociological) factors structuring both the act of enunciation and its content that the book embodies.

Adopting a wider, or simply different, context can lead to surprising evaluations of a book. I have written very elogious reviews (e.g. of Adam S. Miller’s SPECULATIVE GRACE, review here), more mitigated ones (e.g. of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s ALL THINGS SHINING, review here), and quite negative ones (e.g. of Graham Harman’s THE THIRD TABLE, review here). I am not trying to manage anyone’s reputation, none of these writers has any need of foreign management for what they and their “team” do quite well. I am responding not so much to people as to the various voices that I encounter and that permit me to think and to say something that I could not say without them. Even when I express opposition the underlying motive is composition, composing my own ongoing digital book.

A very small number of authors I review or discuss are absolutely scandalised by the change of context I operate. They come out looking less important, less interesting, less original than they appear in their own eyes and in those of their tiny coterie of fans and cronies. They seem to think that they can dictate the mode of reception of their work, and that any other mode is tantamount to a crime of lèse-majesté.

Twice this year authors have forgotten their immediate context, and forgotten themselves, to the point of ordering me off one of my own facebook pages because I did not share their opinion of themselves. This is comical, and displays both their tyrannical nature and their ignorance of the fact that their power is limited to a very small microcosm indeed. It just seems natural to them to be able to order me around and to banish me for the “crime” of doxic divergence. They should be so lucky!

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ONTOLOGICAL PLURALISM: Feyerabend’s ontological turn

Bruno Latour poses the quite Feyerabendian question “What is the recommended dose of ontological pluralism“, and he sketches out his own intellectual development in terms of an ever-increasing dose of this pluralist medecine. Feyerabend’s own development can be seen in similar terms but with a slightly different order in the stages he traverses.

The text of Latour’s conference can be found here. A blog post on the parallels between Latour’s and Feyerabend’s evolution can be found here.

Feyerabend went through many stages and understandings of pluralism, in each new step he realised that he had been maintaining some abstract assumption that needed to be jettisoned. He held in horror the sort of structuralist relativism (recently revamped under the name of “correlationism” by those who wish to cultivate a false originality based on historical ignorance) that maintains that we are each walled up inside our own tradition and incapable of communicating with those in other traditions, or even of understanding them.

Feyerabend thought that this perspective embodied an unrealistic vision of the diversity of opinions and ideas, and that it presupposed more structure and more inflexibility than real life contained. For him our “structures” are not univocal, hermetically sealed, cut off from each other, but porous, being constructed out of fluid and ambiguous terms. For example Feyerabend says explicitly that there is no “culturally authentic”murder. One way of combining pluralism with the openness and porosity of conceptual structures was his affirmation that “one culture is potentially all cultures”.

Feyerabend’s big enemy was anti-human abstractions that authorise us to lie, kill, and enslave in the name of some abstract principle dogmatically held. He recommended pluralism as a protective mechanism, not as a principle that would allow us to tolerate inhuman treatment of others as long as it was justified by some narrow “worldview”.

He was against the merely semantic interpretation of theories that produce seemingly insuperable obstacles to comprehension and to interaction between them. He pointed out that in practice such obstacles were not decisive, and that the boundaries that they traced were crossed constantly without causing trouble, and often without even being noticed.

Ontological pluralism is no abstract a priori principle, but is imposed by epistemiological honesty. Feyerabend gives us a rich testimony to the pursuit of such honesty in the various editions of his AGAINST METHOD, culminating in the 4th edition, which bears traces of all the previous stages. Epistemological honesty led Feyerabend to espouse pluralism for Popperian reasons, i.e. for increased testability of our theories. That same honesty led him to see from his conversations with von Weizsacker that such pluralism elevated to a universal principle would disqualify much of science, so he made it into a rule of thumb instead, and called himself an “epistemological anarchist”.

Epistemological honesty does not just apply inside science, so when he was confronted with people belonging to other knowledge traditions Feyerabend realised that even this flexible anarchistic approach needed to be supplemented by “relativism”. Unfortunately, the attempt to produce a coherent formulation of this relativism led to so many problems that to save what is good in the idea (namely, that more than one hypothesis or tradition can be viable) and to exclude the various erroneous interpretations (nothing is true, every belief is just as valid as any other) he moved on to ontological pluralism.

For a more detailed discussion of the phases of Feyerabend’s intellectual development one can read “FROM INVERSE TO PLURIVERSE: Feyerabend’s Cosmological Pluralism“. Abstract as follows:

Paul Feyerabend is most often associated with a destructive criticism leading to an anarchism that flouts every rule and to a relativism that treats all opinions as equal. This negative stereotype is based on ignorance and rumour rather than on any real engagement with his texts. Feyerabend’s work from beginning to end turns around problems of ontology and realism, culminating in the outlines of a sophisticated form of pluralist realism. The still largely unknown ontological turn taken by Feyerabend’s work in the last decade of his life was based on four strands of argument: the historical (or diachronic) approach, cosmological criticism, the quantum analogy (complementarity), and the primacy of democracy.

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FEYERABEND ON SPINOZA (2): heuristics of immanence

Spinoza propounds what Gilles Deleuze calls a philosophy of immanence: all theological notions are eliminated in favour of the rigorous deductive chains of premises and consequences in parallel with the rigorous physical chains of cause and effect. The common view of Spinoza’s system places it under the auspices of scientism: the philosopher and the scientist know the true causes of things, whereas the common mortal in his or her ignorance replaces them with imagined sequences deriving from imaginary causes and fallacious premises, their cognition is illusory.

Is a pluralist reading of Spinoza possible? Paul Feyerabend criticises Spinoza not only for his scientism, but also for his epistemological and ontological arrogance in situating other human beings at a lower level of existence. For Spinoza, the scientist and the philosopher attain objective knowledge, whereas the common man and woman are limited to simple heuristic devices at best, and to mere chimeras in the normal state of things.

The very privileging of conceptual understanding and of causal cognition over the imagination, according to Feyerabend, conserves an element of transcendence in the form, despite its being denied in the content. Yet this is not a necessary consequence of Spinoza’s commitment to immanence.

For example, in his eyes the notion of God employed by Spinoza is a bloodless, de-vitalised abstraction, that Feyerabend compares unfavorably with Newton’s more personal, and much more fecund, conception of God. Even the rationalist Isaac Newton reserved some place for a more humanitarian vision than simple abstraction can accomodate:

“Newton rejected the God of Descartes and Spinoza. For him God was a person showing concern and demanding respect, not an abstract principle” (CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE, 236).

Admittedly, in Newton’s case, the place reserved for God in his natural philosophy is a tiny remnant of what was once an all pervasive component of our knowledge, but it does draw limits to the reign of abstraction:

“Newton … opposed intellectual notions of god (such as  Descartes’s and of Spinoza’s) and emphasised personal relations between God and his creatures” (FAREWELL TO REASON, 146).

This opposition between intellectual notions and personal relations is another variant of the struggle between apodictic knowledge and heuristic conjectures, or between justification and participation, that has traversed our intellectual and existential history.

So we are led to pose the more general question: does a philosophy based on immanence necessarily lead to the scientistic reliance on a univocal knowledge of causes and effects and an over-valorisation of the intellectual at the expense of the affective and perceptive intensities? Or can the eliminative thrust of immanence (for example as applied to politics or religion) be turned against its own mythological self-entrapments (including those of “Nature” and of “Reason”)?

Scientism valorises a form of immanence that is confined within the limits of science. It typically it remains unaware of its own tacit reintroduction of transcendence by means of its scientistic presuppositions. The notion that our ordinary vision of the world does not contain apodictic knowledge of causes and effects but rather heuristic devices to cope in the absence of such knowledge, suggests a possible non-dogmatic way out.

The transition from the commands and prohibitions of the Despot and the Priest to the prescriptions and recommendations of the Expert need not be interpreted as a transition from superstion to knowledge, but rather as a movement inside the same dogmatic form, requiring obedience rather than speculative freedom.

The decisive change is to be found elsewhere, in the passage from the authoritative universality of dogmas and norms to be believed and to be obeyed to the democratic provisionality of hypotheses and advice relative to a given revisable state of knowledge, that can be diversely appreciated and enacted, and a historically contingent situation. The implication should not be that we must leave behind heuristic devices for knowledge, but that absolute authority and blind obedience is for many people today heuristically unsound. Immanence means that we are always in the realm of heuristics. Appeals to immanence cannot be reconciled with an epistemologically naïve submission to the authority of science.

Thus, the Spinozan elimination of transcendence, while a step in the right direction, does not go far enough: it contains dogmatic and authoritarian elements in its reliance on a monistic “knowledge of causes and effects”, which ultimately comes down to a naïve and inadequate view of science. I would like to push this further and say that “Nature” and “Reason” and “Science” are masks of transcendence too. This idea is a version of the Nietzschean move of eliminating “Nature” and “Reason” and “Science”as themselves being religious residues.

For me this idea resonates with Lyotard’s move of a complexifying reading relevant to the present:

“I read Kant [Note: we can equally read “Spinoza”] not just with Kant himself, but, simultaneously, with all that comes after Kant – and this in the hope of ameliorating my complexity or my differentiation” [we can keep this and add: in the hope of ameliorating my pluralism and my immanence].

The result of such non-dogmatic understanding by means of self-deconstructing concepts is perhaps best described as the attainment of the post-Spinozan felicity of ungrounded freedom. This task of ameliorating my complexity and differentiation is the guiding thread of my thinking.

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LATOUR ON SPINOZA: ontological pluralism and religious enunciation

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Bruno Latour’s recent analysis of Spinoza’s asymmetric treatment of religion and science was anticipated by fellow ontological pluralist Paul Feyerabend:

“I cannot stand it when so-called thinkers not only presume to know things better than
their fellow human beings – that would be simple conceit, and conceit I don’t fmd at all objectionable – but put them on a lower level of existence. Here philosophers led the way – at least in the West; just read Heraclitus, Parmenides, Xenophanes and, of course, Plato. Spinoza, gentle, modest, lovable Spinoza argues somewhat as follows: god spoke to the prophets in images because they were not sufficiently intelligent to understand His True Message. Philosophers, having concepts, are. They are therefore entitled to remove the incoherent muttering and shouting of the prophets. I find such an attitude …

A: Where does Spinoza say that?

B: In his theological-political treatise. Well, I find such an attitude contemptible”.

From “Concluding Unphilosophical Conversation” in BEYOND REASON, page 496)

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“THE HOUSE”: anamnesis, entropy and bifurcation

THE HOUSE is a short story by Fredric Brown, published in 1960. Only 3 pages long (pdf here), it is enigmatic yet seemingly fraught with meaning. It seems to display the pieces of a puzzle, but with no clue as to the key. As such it inspires musing and interpretation.

Hypothesis: there is no key (or more reflexively: the key is that there is no key).

Plot summary: an un-named man (“he”) hesitates on the porch of a house and takes one last look around at the road, the green trees and yellow fields, the hills in the distance and the bright sunlight. He enters, the door swings shut, and there is no knob, no keyhole, no lock, and no sign of a door. He explores the house, and ends up in a room with his name on the door, enters, closes the door, and knows it will never open again. The room is a copy of the bedroom in which he was born. He lights a candle, sits and thinks about his dead wife and many other things, the last candle is nearly used up, the darkness is gathering, he panics, screams and beats his hands to a bloody pulp on the door.

The overall movement is from open space and light to enclosure and darkness. There is an archetypal feel to the story. It seems to narrate an initiation or a symbolic adventure, but the meaning remains elusive. The whole thing seems to take place in a “Bardo” state, between life and death. I can only let it resonate and enumerate my associations:

1) Gnosticism – incarnation as imprisonment in the world of matter where the evil, or at least lower, God reigns. The House is the womb. Darkness reigns once the Divine Light is gone.

2) CUBE – There is no exit, no plan, danger and tension constitute an allegorical seeming ordeal, which is perhaps meaningless. The House is the World, a malevolent will presides, there is a conspiracy, or simply blind bureaucratic logic producing something that no one person or group planned

3) STALKER – The House like the Zone does not obey the ordinary laws of Nature, it is a place where self-revelation is possible. The House is the Other, alterity. Full of fragmentary memories, disconnected qualitative spaces, enigmatic objects.

4) 2001 (end) – simultaneity of stages of life (cradle, maturity, old age, corpse). The House is memory, the dispersal of identity into disjointed spatio-temporal blocks. Rebirth into the Cosmos is possible.

5) Deleuze and Guattari: the house is “ambiguous” – conjoining the forces of the Cosmos and the becomings of humans in a finite territory and enclosure, both cutting us off from and connecting us to the cosmos, partially filtering or containing cosmic forces. The House is the territory where stereotypical repetition dominates, or where interior becomings and exterior forces can create new emotion.

6) Derrida: there is no outside the text. The House is the text. Once we are inside the House it closes in on itself, and interprets itself, there is no outside key. We know this from the second paragraph: “There was no knob and no keyhole, and the edges of the door, if there were edges, were so cunningly fitted into the carven paneling that he could not discern its outline”.

7) Jung: the text is not a puzzle to be solved, by finding a unique signification, but a symbol having multiple resonances and meanings. The House is the psyche. Memories, dreams and reflections, evoking archetypes, are juxtaposed within a psychic space. According to Jung, a house in a dream often represents the dreamer’s psyche: “the ego is not master in its own house”.

8) Entropy: if the story is to be read as science fiction, one may ask “what science is being mobilised or alluded to here?” Rather than mathematics, as Jesse Willis seems to think, a more salient science would be thermodynamics. The house is a “closed” thermodynamical system, as the hermetically sealed door suggests. However, no system is totally closed, and not only does the darkness seep in but the two trails left by the serpents/caterpillars converge and disappear, as if they have escaped. The house is in a rundown, dilapidated state, light is fading, and a voice repeats the word “Ragnarok”, the Norse end of the world. Entropy seems to be triumphant, leading both to the death of the main character and to the heat death of the universe.

In fact, Ragnarok is followed by the emergence of a new world, just as the serpent and the caterpillar are symbols of death and rebirth, of renewal and metamorphosis.

9) Stiegler: we traverse memories and souvenirs, something is coming to an end, and something else is going to happen, the last room contains the “waiting cradle” and the gathering darkness, will it be birth or death? We have entered a space of anamnesis and of bifurcation. The House is a noetic dream, provoking interpretation and dialogue, calling for an open hermeneutics rather than a closed de-ciphering.

For Stiegler, noesis is at once individual and collective. In the story the memories being passed in review are both personal and collective in nature. Noesis is embodied in the negentropic principle of open processes, “differance“, and multiple hermeneutics rather than in the entropic principle regulating closed systems and cyclical repetition.

The central character, “He”, is cut off from the diurnal cosmos of light and life when he enters the House, and then is confronted with a more nocturnal régime of souvenirs, enigmatic objects and cryptic events. Yet outside the day is ending, the growing twilight creeps inside, and the darkness gathers and creeps closer. The overall affective movement is from nostalgia and detachment to panic or rage, or to the possible birth of some unique emotion.

Of course, the end could really be death within linear deterministic time, or it could be repetition within cyclical time. The hero could leave the house again in the morning, accompanying the rising sun, only to return in the afternoon, before twilight begins to fall, until the whole cosmos runs down.

So the overarching question embodied in the story could be formulated: does anamnesis lead to repetition and decline, or can it lead to new bifurcations? Are memories, dreams, fantasies, and reflections necessarily entropic or can they be source of negentropy?

Note: I am indebted to Jesse Willis of the SFFaudio Podcast for drawing my attention to this story and to the enigma it embodies. He was convinced that there must be a key to the interpretation of this story, and that this key was mathematical. He previously offered a”bounty” of 10 dollars to anyone who could explain the story to him. I argued that there is no key, and if one were to be found it would spoil the story. He was not convinced.

Returning to the story in a more recent podcast (here) Willis now seems at least willing to entertain the hypothesis that I originally proposed, that there is no key, or in Eric Rabkin’s words that THE HOUSE is perhaps better seen as a “problem-story” than as a puzzle with a key.

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