The Damp Earth – The Mother of God

I’m linking to a paper I wrote second semester looking for some feedback. It forms, in part, a response to certain articles in Collapse II through some issues surrounding vitalism I’ve been tarrying with for some time. It has already been turned down from one journal but I wasn’t very happy with the readers notes. Any specific issues you see I would appreciate, though I do ask we stay away from the meta levels.

I should also warn you that it is a pdf.

A Sophic Phenomenology of Invariant Vitalism

24 thoughts on “The Damp Earth – The Mother of God

  1. Couple of things:

    i) I would have like to have seen the qualifier “invariant” explained a little more at the point where it was first introduced.
    ii) What you say about Bergson’s dismissal of the “non-problem” of why there is something and not nothing, in relation to the principle of sufficient reason, is quite intriguing and I would have liked to have seen a longer quotation from Bergson on this.
    iii) “Mathematics is ontology” is a statement about ontology, not about substance. Badiou fairly clearly differentiates it from the claim that the universe is really made of numbers (or sets, or what have you) – the point about the set theoretic ontology that he lays out in B&E is that it is absolutely non-committal about what things are made of; it merely regulates statements about the composition of multiples (of whatever). The void here is a figure of non-compositionality, if I can put it like that – it indicates the limits of what falls under ontology’s rubric, the “pure inconsistent multiplicity” out of which consistent multiplicities are woven. If scientism places its ultimate trust in a given set of presented multiples – the “primitives” of some reductionist schema – then Badiou’s ontology indicates that no set of primitives can ever be complete and final, that elements “on the edge of the void” are touched by the errancy of the void – which I am inclined to take as another name for what you are here calling the perversity of nature.

  2. Dominic,

    Thanks for the response. For some reason that I did not expect everyone has had a real problem with this invariant part, so it is obvious that I need to clarify it. Simply I think this cosmic or inorganic notion of life remains unchanged regardless of the transformation of the organic. I thought this would be clear from the Bulgakov quote, ‘There is no death, there is only life, which occasionally freezes and practically disappears but always remains in
    potential [potency], exists as if in a faint, and the universe is only the development of the
    infinite potentials [/potencies] of life, a ladder made up of its rungs’. I suppose I need to move that up and make it more explicit from the outset.

    I agree with you on the Bergson bit. It’s from the fourth chapter of Creative Evolution. I’ve come to realize writing about Bergson’s philosophy is somewhat difficult because he does not give himself to those sorts of dense sentences that capture everything all at once. It really is a process reading through his books that form a complete image, but hard to break it down discretely. Still, you’re absolutely right that this needs to be worked out in more detail and perhaps even expanded to fill out Bergson’s argument within the contemporary scene.

    As to the stuff on Badiou. Not to sound Holbonian, but I don’t know that I’m not saying what you’re saying. Saying the nature is written in the language of mathematics is not to say that nature is really just strings of set of theory, but in very imprecise terms to understand nature you have to understand via mathematics. Maybe I think Badiou hypostasizes the void more than you think he does, but it has always seemed to me in his writings that he is saying what lies beneath everything is the void or this pure inconsistent multiplicity. Is that not just another way of saying that what lies behind everything is extinction or death, which is to say, nothingness? Also, my point about Badiou and scientism shouldn’t be taken in a strong sense. I’m not saying that Badiou is a strong scientistic philosopher, but that his logic of truth-events tends to idealize how science does things.

    I wasn’t trying to present a two paragraph exegesis of why one shouldn’t read Badiou or why his philosophy is bad. Or, rather, I’m not saying that Badiou is a well paid shill for the existing order. I’m often forced to reassess what I think about Badiou which I think is a sign of his philosophical force. I only want to show in what ways his philosophy, which is so often behind critiques of the sort of work I do, are to me incomplete or weak with regard to the task. I suppose a few sentences would help to clear that up.

  3. With regards to what Dominic said, it would have been nice to have the difference between invariant and “regular” vitalism spelt out a little.

    I might well be barking up the wrong tree here. My mind is pickled with economics.

    If I understand you right you are saying that since man is part of nature like any other, and

    “There is no absolute void in nature, for disappearance of one object signifies its replacement by another, and if the former leaves a determine void, a place, it is still something. The idea of nothingness does not come from direct experience, for in the flux
    of things, fullness follows upon fullness.”

    Bataille comes pretty close to working this out in his essay “Sacrifices”. In life, as in Descartes famous dictum, there is no non-being, there is only being. We can’t even imagine what it is like to be dead, and even when we are dead, we can’t experience it. So hence there is no absolute void, to imagine absence is to posit presence. What you are saying isn’t anthropmorphic, because it isn’t raising man above nature, but saying that man is an element of nature also, birthed from the same soil.

    There seems to be something missing from Brassier’s stuff which concerns his science, that I can’t quite put my finger on, something like what you articulated in the disconnect between what he reckons about science – science discovers reality – and what that scientist chap reckons it does – finds a self-consistant narrative that conforms to the data.

  4. One point about scientific narrativization of data is that it has data in it, and the consistency of the narrative must be a consistency with the data (an ordering into consistency of the data) as well as consistency within and between its own statements about the data. In this way reality, as given in the data, places constraints on the search for a self-consistent narrative: reality is discovered in, and as, the solving of the theoretical problems posed by these constraints. The narrative may not directly or transparently disclose reality, but the real has had a hand in its organisation – not just any self-consistent narrative will do.

  5. Right, but the data is also something. It’s not exactly outside another consistent narrative you know? This isn’t to say I disagree with you, I’m just putting more layers behind it. At the same time we can imagine a history of thinking that is radically different from our own, one that would even be something we would call a self-consistent narrative that will not do but within this other history is an acceptable self-consistent narrative.

    An ecologist friend the other day said something quite good. Scientists and priests both dwell in the contingency of truth and work out from there.

  6. Lurker here….

    It would be interesting to see how the invariant vitalism compares to Deleuze’s brand of vitalism, especially in light of this, “vitalism in this
    invariant mode is ultimately the decision against the principle of sufficient reason and its
    tyrannical rule over thinking thought and existence,”. Deleuze is, at least in Difference and Repetition, it seems, proposing his own variant of the principle of sufficient reason.

    Footnote 13 seems to me like a point that should be developed further. I actually doubt whether Brassier (or Meillassoux) would agree with equating manifestation and being, as you seem to do in your comment on the quote from Brassier. Isn’t his point that being cannot be equated or correlated with manifestation, because the arche-fossil indexes a time anterior to manifestation, and therefore indicates a being prior to manifestation?

    Also, I must say I am surprised, based on what little I know about Meillassoux (basically just the Collapse articles), by your claim that he is guided by the principle of sufficient reason. Isn’t it EXACTLY this principle that he renounces in the Collapse article, “Potentiality & Virtuality”? (See esp. pages 59-61) Perhaps you should specify how it can be that, even in explicitly suspending this principle, he is still guided by it.

  7. Jonas,

    Thanks, interesting questions. With regard to the Deleuze stuff, I think Deleuze’s philosophy has a real consistency to it, but I have trouble seeing how his terminology adds up sometimes. Like the schema of his philosophy of time in Difference and Repetition is so very different from the scheme of Aion and Chrnos in Logic of Sense. He seems to just take on notions and concepts that are helpful for a time, while having a seemingly contrary position in his other works. That’s not to say there isn’t something there but I always just feel a bit confused by some of this stuff especially his principle of sufficient reason which he takes up again in The Fold.

    In part I’m trying to take to heart the critique of correlationism as presented in Brassier’s article. To really write this paper and make it about Meillassoux in more than a cursory way I’d have to read Apres l’finitude, but I keep telling myself just to wait for the English translation, but if I’m going to do that I really need to downplay the tone I take around his name, you are right. I hold to a kind of panpsychism that I think Bergson and Deleuze share with Merleau-Ponty and Bulgakov and it is in this way that I think manifestation and being have to be taken as a whole. Not correlated to one another, but two sides of the same reality. So, it seems to me you are right that Brassier wouldn’t agree with me, but that’s the crux of our disagreement.

    I think there are a few orders of the principle of sufficient reason. I think Brassier’s article is dependent on it, but I’m not sure that come from his source material. Essentially Brassier’s positing of an absolute nothing, or the extinction of everything, is a response to the question “Why is there something rather nothing?” The answer being “There is not.” You’re right though, my response is rather weak here.

    Thanks, these have been helpful comments.

  8. Oh, yeah, and I really look forward to Meillassoux’s piece in the next collapse. The subtractive thing always kind of bothers me, but it should be an interesting read to see if and how Bergson and Deleuze have influenced him. It might be this very reason he rejects the principle of sufficient reason (which I hear is a main target in Apres l’finitude as well).

  9. I only had the time to skim the article and will try to take a closer look at it later when I find a moment. Strictly from the perspective of composition, I think the article would be improved by spelling out the positions of those you’re critiquing in greater detail before proceeding to your critiques. Your analysis requires a great deal of background knowledge on the part of the reader and makes it difficult to follow. I might have missed it, but do you, for instance, explain what Brassier has in mind by the “arche-fossil”? GIven that this isn’t a common philosophical concept, it would help to have that spelled out. It would also help to have a clearer summary of the positions of Brassier and Meillassoux, since they’re emerging philosophers.

    I personally would drop the evocations of “scientism” throughout the essay. Claiming something falls prey to scientism is not in and of itself an argument against a position. Rather, it’s necessary to show how exactly that position fails. You begin to do this in a compelling way in your discussion of Badiou. The problem is that your evocations of scientism distracts from the arguments you actually are making.

    At one point you evoke an interview with a scientist who claims to be doing something different than what Brassier(?) claims science does. Is this really a good argument, though? Brassier is offering a particular philosophy of science. When the scientist explains what he is doing, he is no longer doing science but philosophy of science. Sokal is a scientist, but I doubt there are many that would claim he has a very sophisticated philosophy of science. Similarly, many literary critics would be hesitant to say that novelists have the best conception of what literature is. In short, it seems you could tighten up your argument here, rather than relying on an argument from authority derived from a scientist.

    Finally, towards the end you claim that nature should be talked about through liturgy, not mathematics. This move is jarring and seems to come out of left field. Perhaps you could spell it out more. Given that you work heavily with Bergson and that Bergson is happy to allow for different ways of talking about the world– the scientific way and the metaphysical way –does the opposition have to be as stark as an either/or between mathematics and liturgy?

  10. Scientism is something, I hardly see how it is distracting to point that out. Do you have a problem with correlationism or irrationalism being pointed out by those I’m calling neo-rationalists? I think there is compelling evidence that scientism is a flawed philosophy in part because the relationship it has with actual scientists isn’t very well developed. I don’t really have problems with a kind of argument from authority in that often when we cite things we’re appealing to an authority. The purpose of quoting the Trotta, whose interview is in the same volume, is not to yell “gotcha” at Brassier but to point out this difference in views. Why is it that the scientist doesn’t share the same view? I don’t share the view that scientists need to wait for philosophers of science to understand what they are doing, quite convinced by the Deleuze and Guattari’s words on this in What is Philosophy? Maybe I need to shore this up a little bit, but I’m not as distracted by the word scientism.

    Mathematics can be liturgical in its practice so maybe it isn’t clear but in my head it is not a stark either/or. Perhaps I am saying liturgy, and I don’t mean belief in God so don’t get nervous, is primary in terms of being in the world.

  11. Scientism is something, I hardly see how it is distracting to point that out. Do you have a problem with correlationism or irrationalism being pointed out by those I’m calling neo-rationalists?

    I don’t know enough about Brassier or Meillassoux to comment on the references to correlationism. My take would be this: When writing an article for a journal, you increase your likelihood of getting published by focusing on the arguments those you’re writing about make. Words like “scientism” and “irrationalism” are not words that anyone would endorse in describing their own positions, but are words others lob at a position to diminish its credibility. Very few, I think, would go about saying “I endorse scientism” or “I endorse irrationalism” because these are dyphemisms designed to produce negative connotations. I could, however, see how someone might say “I support correlationism” or “my position is a neo-rationalism”. My theory is that our own credibility is diminished when we use this kind of language in academic writing because it looks like a shortcut and failure to argue (a variant of the ad hominem or a negative euphemism or dyphemism) rather than an argument. When submitting a paper to an academic journal, you generally don’t know the sympathies of the editorial board. You don’t know whether they believe Brassier and Badiou are the cats meow or not, and therefore risk diminishing your likelihood of getting the paper accepted when using this kind of language. Fortunately, you do have arguments to support your claims, so it wouldn’t hurt to edit out this language (and perhaps also the reference to “their master Badiou”). Of course, it’s entirely likely that these sorts of rules change as you gain symbolic capital. At any rate, the issue isn’t whether you’re distracted by the word scientism, but rather whether the editorial board you’re asking to publish your paper is distracted. This also depends on which journal you’re submitting the article too. For instance, you might be submitting it to a journal whose editorial board you know to be sympathetic to such views. I guess I’d just err on the side of caution with charged language that has such negative connotations. It diminishes the credibility of your argument in the eyes of your reader in those instances where the reader doesn’t already share your sentiments.

    I suspect I read Deleuze and Guattari differently than you on this point. The suggestion isn’t that scienstist have to await philosophers to know what their doing, but that scientists don’t produce a concept of science, just as artists don’t produce a concept of art. Scientists produce functives and artists produce affects and percepts.

  12. Actually, to quote Alien Theory (p 14, 17, 22), I think it is fair to say that Brassier does endorse scientism as a positive good and probably wouldn’t mind you saying it to him. Science, for him, offers the final picture of reality, despite philosophy’s protestations to the contrary.

    Challenged by the philosopher to provide something like an
    ‘adequate’ account of the phenomenon of human sapience, the scientist, distilling the various insights provided by evolutionary biology, AI, and thermodynamics, is in a position to put forward a perfectly precise response: human sapience, like many other instances of negentropic energy capture, is a carbon based variety of information processing system, and nothing besides. The philosopher of course will immediately protest that the response is ‘inadequate’ vis a vis the phenomenon in question because hopelessly reductive. But it is no more reductive than the claim that water is nothing but H2O; that temperature is nothing but mean molecular kinetic energy; or that the colour red is nothing but electromagnetic radiation with a determinate spiking frequency

    Its the following either/or which makes me somewhat uncomfortable – but this is something I might investigate in future readings.

    Either the philosopher insists that man is de jure irreducible to the natural ontological order investigated by science because the essence of human being is transcendence (subjectivity, Spirit, Dasein, etc.), in which case everything science implies concerning the ontologically derivative rather than transcendentally constitutive character of Homo Sapiens is not merely irrelevant but false; or scientific statements of the type “Man is a carbon-based
    information processing system” are true -in exactly the same way in which a statement such as “the earth is not flat” is true, not just ‘empirically adequate’ or ‘factually correct’-, and man is not a transcendent exception to the cosmos but just one relatively commonplace material phenomenon among others. There is no longer any room within the bounds of a univocally physical natural order for a special category of putatively trans-natural being called ‘human’.

    If ‘scientism’ simply means refusing the obligatory subordination of empirical science to transcendental philosophy, then by our lights, there is not nearly enough ‘scientism’ in contemporary philosophy.

  13. Note Brassier’s use of square quotes, indicating a reference to the usual connotations of the term “scientism”. At any rate, my point is only about certain rhetorical strategies vis a vis the academic establishment. Again, all of this is contingent on which journals the paper is being submitted to. If the paper is being submitted to a journal that generally publishes papers by or on figures like Badiou and Brassier, then it’s a good idea to avoid such language as it can be inferred that the editors are sympathetic to these figures. If it’s being submitted to a theology or philosophy journal that has a history of publishing papers alarmed by the sort of scientific turn coming in vogue with these thinkers and certain appropriations of Deleuze and Guattari, it will probably get by. If it’s being submitted to an Anglo-American journal that’s largely unfamiliar with such figures, it’s a good idea to beef up the exegesis of the positions (generally articles run about twenty pages or 8000 words anyway). It’s all a question of audience.

  14. Fair enough, I just think that the accusation that Brassier is “scientistic” still stands, on his own beliefs. I think I might be right in saying that Anthony’s piece is the first reflection on his ideas to exist!

  15. I don’t disagree given the limited material I’ve read by Brassier (I had to put down his dissertation because other projects came up). I just think it’s good professional policy to avoid certain forms of rhetoric, lest you risk turning off the editorial board. I realize that this isn’t a popular position, but I think this holds for internet engagements as well. In online engagements the audience issue isn’t so much with regard to the people you’re engaging with online (though I would agree that certain rhetorical modes can make discussion needlessly go astray), but rather with the notorious google search. As someone who was googled prior to his last job interview, I’ve come to think that you need to be constantly aware of how you’re comporting yourself in this medium. One of the central questions any hiring committee is asking is whether they want to work with such a person for the rest of their career, how such a person would behave on various job committees, whether the potential hire will respect their work, etc. Similarly, in publishing articles or giving presentations, it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that the person you’re writing about might someday be making a decision as to whether to publish one of your articles or accept one of your papers for a conference. As we all know, academia can be a pretty small and petty place.

  16. I’m not disagreeing with you on the audience point. Its largely a matter of style, but I’ll let Anthony respond himself, rather than attempting to speak for him.

  17. Obviously if I am googled I will not get a job. I should start going by something else. Any suggestions?

    I take your point, Levi, but I find it lamentable. I wasn’t trying to throw around the charge of scientism as a kind of stupidity. It just seemed to me the best name for what is going on in Brassier’s work and I find it annoying that people use words to mean “bad” or “good” (like materialist generally means good nowadays while esoteric means bad… you’ve pointed out before you don’t like my use of vitalism or pointing out Deleuze’s vitalism becuase vitalism isn’t very well respected). These are words that mean things other than the quasi-moral value given by so much academic taxadermy.

    Anyway, I do hope you get hired even though you said I had my rhetorical head up my ass. Hopefully that won’t get googled. It’s a shame we are all expected to be so perfect and well behaved… actually it is just boring, no? Shouldn’t you be able to call me an ass now and then without that meaning you’re unable to teach a course or be respectful to your colleagues?

  18. Would that it were so. I think we all have a mark against us just for blogging, as this is seen as a self-indulgent, narcissistic, academically useless activity. At any rate, I’m sympathetic to most of the positions you develop in the paper; especially in your critique of Badiou. I suppose that must make me an invariant vitalist. Who would have thought?

  19. ‘this is seen as a self-indulgent, narcissistic, academically useless activity.’

    Well, it can be! But what’s so bad about that? Maybe I need to go under the pseudonym, but I just hate that (nothing against those who do, I get the reason for it).

    Sorry I was a bit defensive at first, I was expecting you to go for the jugular. To be honest, I’m a bit taken aback by your having sympathies with the critique of Badiou.

  20. Anthony, sorry to bring up a topic that’s probably already run its course, but in my reading of Collapse II, which is informed by my having read Meillassoux’s Apres la finitude, it is obvious that what the editors have done is to chose Meillassoux–to say “yes” to his philosophy–against the rest, meaning scientists (Trotta and that other guy), artists (two of them, in Collapse II that is), anti-philosopher (Brassier), and cultural theorist/theologist (the re-territorialing Deleuzian islamicism at the end of the volume). By choosing Meillassoux, they’re baiting science in particular because Meillassoux’s “act” as it were is always more or less to make us all feel silly for thinking that science was the only one qualified to answer for reality as such. Meillassoux ‘s strength, it seems quite obvious to me, is strictly in re-directing the sense of modernity by his retroactive (dia-chronic) alternative to the very “scientism” that has more or less played philosophy since Kant reversed the very revolution–the indifference to humanity that is the essence of the galilean mathematization of nature–which he explicitly took credit for finally setting in motion. Please tell me: is this not the opposite of what you claim both for Meillassoux as well as his incorporating followers (Brassier, Mackay, etc.)?

  21. Austin,

    I’m not entirely sure I understand your question. Again, it is unfortunate that I have conflated Meillassoux and Brassier’s project. They seem to be allies, at the very least, but my main opposition here is Brassier (especially because I have not read Apres la finitude and can only rely on this short essay of Brassier’s).

    What do you see that Meillassoux is bringing us that is better than the Kantian or Galilean “scientism”? I’m not quite clear on that.

    I’m sorry, I just am having trouble understanding what you are asking me, but I would be glad to continue talking about it.

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