A Shield, a Scepter and a Crown: Enlarging the Circle of the Natural

This is Rocco Gangle’s response to Joshua Ramey’s The Hermetic Deleuze. – APS

Thinking this morning of Joshua Ramey’s The Hermetic Deleuze and its call for practices of divinatory and esoteric experimentation along Deleuzian lines in contemporary philosophy, I opened at random my copy of the fat, wonderful and anonymous Meditations on the Tarot:  A Journey into Christian Hermeticism and fell appropriately into Letter III concerning the Empress.  The Empress, following upon the High Priestess and preceding the Emperor in the order of the tarot’s arcana, is a female archetype of sacred magic associated with three personal objects:  a shield, a scepter and a crown.  As the anonymous author glosses the image of the Empress from the Marseille tarot: “if the shield signifies the ‘what?’ and the scepter the ‘how?’ of magic, the crown represents here the ‘by what right?’” (trans. R. Powell, p. 55).  This is the passage, then, immediately following, that divinatory chance provided me:

“Although magic has disappeared from the criminal codes of our time, the question of its legitimacy still persists as a moral, theological and also medical question.  One asks oneself today, just as in the past, if it is morally legitimate to aspire – without talking of exercising – to an exceptional power conferring us with dominion over our fellow beings; one asks oneself if such an aspiration is not due, in the last analysis, to vaingloriousness, and if it is compatible with the role that all sincere and believing Christians reserve for divine grace, be it immediate or be it acting through the intermediary of guardian Angels and the saints of God?  One asks oneself, lastly, if such an aspiration is not unwholesome and contrary to human nature, religion and metaphysics, given the limits to which one can go with impunity towards the Invisible.

All these doubts and objections are well-founded.  It is therefore a matter not of refuting them, but of knowing whether there exists a magic which is free from these doubts and objections or, in other words, whether there exists a legitimate magic from a moral, religious and medical point of view” (ibid.).

To the list here of morality, religion and medicine, let us add philosophy and especially political philosophy in the broadest sense.  Is there a philosophically legitimate practice of political magic?  In modernity and even after modernity, it would seem the answer is no.  If the modern distinction of science from magic (a distinction often traced back to Bacon, although in fact Bacon distinguished two kinds of magic in his context) has in many ways broken down, this has served for the most part as a critical instrument for postmodern philosophy against science:  “Science?  Why that’s just more magic, really!  It’s only blind power, you see, unlike philosophy – weak but knowing.”  In this manner, for contemporary philosophy there would still be a generic distinction between magic and philosophy in play, even if science perhaps has no comfortable place in this matrix to lay its head.  But what about Deleuze?  Deleuze the Spinozist, the Nietzschean, the Foucauldian?  Philosophy for Deleuze is a complex and finely-tuned instrument for distributing, inhibiting and intensifying powers of all kinds.  In a Spinozist vein we might then ask, what can The Hermetic Deleuze do?  Well, that depends on what we are already doing, we philosophers.  Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, it turns out that we are actually somewhere, doing definite things.

This facticity, this contingency – the condition it marks has been one of the main questions for our line of philosophy at least since Nietzsche and Heidegger.  It marks Deleuze as well, of course, and Ramey draws precisely this element of Deleuze’s thinking into relation with esoteric and hermetic traditions.  Ramey is in this way effectively reading Deleuze in light of the problem, clearly of central importance for current speculative thinking, of the relation or non-relation of contingency and the absolute.  (Here I can only nod in appreciative acknowledgement in the direction of Dan Barber’s very incisive earlier post).

In this respect the Ramey-Deleuze project may be distinguished from two superficially similar projects which equally engage an esoteric or withdrawn dimension in and through philosophy.  On the one hand, we have the broad problematic of contingency as instantiated within semiotics as the internal structure of the conventional sign.  For this way of thinking, the conventional sign has been mapped onto contingency understood as arbitrariness; it thus becomes a specification or a case of the more traditional problem of the libero arbitrio.  This way of thinking has its definite effects, particularly in academic philosophy.  For some time now in continental circles the rhetorical tactic of summoning an effect of the uncanny via contingency, especially as manifest in linguistic signs, has been prevalent.  The way certain Derridean-style word-play is delivered, for instance in oral presentations at academic conferences, can be quite telling in this regard.  Frequently haloed with a slightly paranoiac evocation of spookiness, such syntax is clearly intended to be registered as slightly, oh so tastefully slightly, subversive or transgressive.  And there is undoubtedly an important tool or microtactic at work in these symptomatic punnings.  Yet often it seems nothing could be more tiresome in its flatness, more of a symptom of academic docility and submission.  What exactly is at stake here?  In such moves, the pathos and affect of contingency is summoned, but only in a general and in the last instance representational way.  As far as contingency goes, there is only here the name-checked Other, its spooky halo indexed in a well-fortified zone of self-same sterility.

On the other hand, we can contrast what Ramey is doing with the very non-Derridean approach of contemporary ontology in the object-oriented line of philosophers such as Harman and Bryant.  There is no cheap auratic evocation in these thinkers, and that is certainly to their credit.  But there is perhaps an even more insidious equivocation.  This would be caught up in the very essence of their claim to be doing ontology in a rigorous and univocal mode precisely when they speak of objects.  The claim to analyze or explain “objects” in general directly rather than modulating in a transcendental register to Kantian subjectivity or Heideggerean lichtung no doubt gives the objective appearance of a flat or democratic ontology.  But the key objection should be precisely to the term “object”.  The formal character of these ontologies requires that we quantify over some domain.  The attractive character of this mode of thinking is that it seems to just take “familiar stuff in the world” as (one – obvious – part of) that domain.  Of course, this is only to then adjoin the surprising “withdrawn” dimension of objects which would correspond in their idiom to Ramey’s invocation of esoteric practices vis-à-vis philosophy.  But if that withdrawn dimension is truly withdrawn in the radical fashion that is required, then there is no good reason to ascribe it to ordinary objects in any way that can be tracked.  Harman and Bryant are not unaware of this problem, of course, but I don’t believe either has provided an adequate solution.  They seem to admit that their approach only goes as far as the clear posing of it as a real problem.  For this reason, however, those who wish to go in the formal direction of OOO would seem to be better served by going the route of Badiou and cutting out the world of ordinary objects entirely.  A thoroughly mathematical ontology is the only consistent object of this path.  (Here the Harman-Meillassoux connection needs to be thought through).

With respect to both philosophies of the capitalized Other and the interesting, still-developing modes of speculative ontology with their problematic essentialization and necessitation of contingency, Ramey offers a real alternative.  He is, first of all, not rejecting radical contingency by any means.  He makes no recourse to the absolute in the sense of well-drubbed onto-theology.  So what exactly is the sense of the “esoteric” and its spiritual dimensions in his work at this level?  There is a double contingency in play.  On the one hand, Ramey with Deleuze insists upon the ultimately ungrounded upsurge of Event/events.  This would be a basically formal contingency of possibility as opposed to necessity (a la Meillassoux).  But Ramey – here reconstructing Deleuze or drawing out a dimension that Deleuze tends to flatten onto mere indications and textual hints – points to the contingent actual as distinct but not opposed to the contingent possible.  The actual is contingent in this respect in the sense that the tools with which we think are products or deposits of semiotic relays that cannot by their very nature possess any intrinsic necessity.  It is not that they could be otherwise, but that as they are, they are otherwise than necessary.  This presents a purely positive characterization of contingency that does not depend upon either the negation of necessity nor the possibility of negation in general and is on the other hand not reducible to the arbitrary.  Signs that are contingent in this sense possess a dimension of objective indeterminacy that is a function of the power of their semiotic character.  There is perfect agreement here between Deleuze and Peirce, a unified front for contemporary philosophy that has been deeply underthought.  Ramey makes significant headway in exposing this potentially powerful alliance by drawing Deleuze back into Bruno’s Renaissance.

It’s a bit like when the intellectually super-charged prisoners/experimentees in Thomas Disch’s fine science-fiction novel Camp Concentration turn to alchemical pursuits, and it appears from the standpoint of their captors that they have merely reverted to a fanciful, premodern expression of their desire to escape fate – in this case, the accelerated Flowers-for-Algernon-like decline and death that comes with steroidal intelligence.  In fact, however, the prisoners are making use of the language and instruments of alchemy in order to pursue their own subversive project – I won’t give it away – under the watchful eyes of their powerful captors.  (Tony Stark does something similar when designing the Iron Man armor under the custodial gaze of the Ten Rings in the first Iron Man movie).

What matters here is not only the employment of an arbitrary sign-system for certain ends.  It is the differential between the synoptic approaches of the two parties to the given sign-system at issue.  Importantly, this differential is itself mandated by the contingent facticity of the sign-system itself.  Alchemical science as a relatively autonomous system is already situated in a more or less definite place in the overall archival cultural terrain.  It has – from the outside, as it were – a particular aura and flavor determined contingently by the prejudicial ignorance that characterizes every such matter of intellectual taste.

Ramey shows us that our collective ignorance in general, as philosophers, of the spiritual traditions in which we are nonetheless thoroughly plunged is a particular symptom of our philosophical moment and especially its political ineffectiveness.  This is a Heideggerean “withdrawal” that has real, concrete content and does not reduce to a formal consideration of withdrawal-as-such.  It is not a general claim about forgotten sources of wisdom.  It is a definite claim about THESE forgotten sources (i.e. various pertinent techniques of visualization, mnemonics, divination, ecstatic music and dance, sacred geometry, gematria combinatorics, etc.) and the impoverishment of our philosophical practices that neglect these as irrelevant for philosophy.  We are not at liberty to choose the set of instruments available to us that function in the way they do precisely by operating on the cogito, ordinary language and awareness, and the general image of thought by means of exterior irritation and enforced opaqueness.  At any rate, black holes of subjectivity are not side-stepped by fiat.

A large part of what is at stake is the long-standing distinction between natural and conventional signs.  On Ramey’s reading, Bruno conjugates two basic philosophical positions:  (1) a rejection of Aristotelian substances and hylomorphism in favor of an immanently formative materialism, and (2) a theory of signs that puts conventionality within nature as an immanent intensification rather than a discontinuity or transcendence, perhaps the first truly creative – and not merely repetitive – system of materialist mnemonics in the Western tradition.

If Ramey is correct in his analysis, then with Bruno we basically have the answer to the realism/nominalism debate – and it’s not the triumphal retreat into baddish Platonism that has unfortunately wrecked certain otherwise intriguing contemporary theological enterprises.  Instead, we push nominalism over the edge – back into the flux of a materialism that cannot be captured by Epicurus or Democritus (contra the moderns, following Lucretius) but must go all the way to Heraclitus and a real flux prior to any real distinction of logos and physis.  On this ground, in this surging continuum, the use of signs is not a transcendent exercise but a Baroque or Mannerist immanent folding of the curtain of the real.

The upshot of Ramey’s analysis is therefore, as I take it, a practical one.  What we do when we do philosophy under contemporary conditions is to immerse ourselves in signifying and a-signifying practices that are – objectively – already co-constituted by contingent spiritual traditions to which as it happens most of our bosses remain oblivious if not antipathetic.  In particular, then, we are doing in one form or another (when we are not mere careerists) what Iamblichus would have called theurgy and Pico would have called magic, and we are doing so, like them, under conditions of tremendous social and historical stress.  And we need to do better.

In any case, who would deny that we are apprentices and teachers of philosophy?  That means among other things that we are engaged in material practices that summon powerful, immaterial forces and deploy them in the physical world via the propagation of movements and signs.  One important dimension of Ramey’s reading of Deleuze – setting aside all its fascinating and thought-worthy aspects as a major contribution to the literature on Deleuze’s thought – is that the argument it marshals entails a transformation of how we study, write and above all teach philosophy.

Teaching is neither reading nor writing.  It is, objectively, a convocation and summoning of living and dead spirits within a material nexus of objects and forces.  Professor, students, internet connections, bad lighting, Kant, smartphones, chairs.  If Ramey is right, then to be true to our vocation as teachers of philosophy we must necessarily incorporate practices of objective indeterminacy and even explicit esotericism into our classroom teaching in order to make room for genuine thought to take place between ourselves and our students as well as among our students themselves.  Philosophy itself is an introduction of indeterminacy into the complex sensible, perceptual and cognitive semiotics of life for a variety of purposes, from the sheer joy of experimentation to personal sanity and healing to political resistance and social transformation.  In light of this, the classroom must for certain ends become an objectively indeterminate zone of risk and attunement to powers that are and cannot by nature be vested in professorial or institutional authority.  It could be as simple a matter as reading the I Ching at the beginning of class in order to determine the day’s topic of discussion.  Or it could be a matter of fostering cross-institutional relationships between students at our colleges and universities and students of philosophy in politically vital and plastique regions such as Egypt and Tibet.

I’ll conclude then with what might seem a rather strange proposal.  Ramey’s analysis of Deleuze, to the extent that it challenges the means we employ in the teaching and social reproduction of philosophy, may be read as an esoteric commentary and creative contribution to the modern natural law/right tradition as applied to philosophy itself.  I think it would be fair to say Deleuze is not usually thought of as standing anywhere particularly near the line of political philosophy stretching from Grotius, Pufendorf and Hobbes through Locke and Hegel to Rawls and contemporary liberalism.  But of course the exception here is the key figure of Spinoza, whose radical alternative to both Locke and Hobbes simply equates, without equivocation or exception, natural right and natural power.  With what right do we philosophize?  According to Spinoza (and by extension Deleuze) our right to philosophize is strictly equivalent to our natural power to do so.

In my view Ramey, through Deleuze, stands finally in deep accord with this truly (perhaps uniquely) philosophical vision of power and politics.  Yet in his reading of Deleuze via the guiding thread of a concept of the esoteric organized through Bruno’s vitalist, non-Aristotelian, non-Platonist understanding of matter and form, Ramey enlarges the circle of the natural – breaking its natural conception through circularity – and subtracts from its standard notion every logical determination via negativity and negation.  He shows us in particular then that natural powers are capable of infinite and unthinkable communications, inhibitions, amplifications, creations and therapies.  With Bruno and Deleuze we see how this transpires especially in the human sphere once powers are conferred upon emblematic signs in ritual ways that withdraw various dimensions of those signs’ own visibility and comprehensibility from everyday human access.  Such conferral is at once conventional and natural.  And the power it conserves supports our right as teachers of philosophy and religion to the creative transformation of how philosophy and religion are propagated and studied in the academy today.  Something esoteric or hermetic may indeed be the true source of our legitimate authority to speak and teach effectively in the name of philosophy.  To quote Ramey quoting Deleuze, “To what are we dedicated if not to those problems which demand the very transformation of our body and our language?” (Difference and Repetition, 192 in The Hermetic Deleuze, 18).

6 thoughts on “A Shield, a Scepter and a Crown: Enlarging the Circle of the Natural

  1. While it’s incredibly lazy to simply cut and paste from the foregoing piece and then summarize it a couple of words, that is nonetheless what I’m going to do.
    “Teaching is neither reading nor writing. It is, objectively, a convocation and summoning of living and dead spirits within a material nexus of objects and forces. Professor, students, internet connections, bad lighting, Kant, smartphones, chairs. If Ramey is right, then to be true to our vocation as teachers of philosophy we must necessarily incorporate practices of objective indeterminacy and even explicit esotericism into our classroom teaching in order to make room for genuine thought to take place between ourselves and our students as well as among our students themselves. Philosophy itself is an introduction of indeterminacy into the complex sensible, perceptual and cognitive semiotics of life for a variety of purposes, from the sheer joy of experimentation to personal sanity and healing to political resistance and social transformation. In light of this, the classroom must for certain ends become an objectively indeterminate zone of risk and attunement to powers that are and cannot by nature be vested in professorial or institutional authority. It could be as simple a matter as reading the I Ching at the beginning of class in order to determine the day’s topic of discussion. Or it could be a matter of fostering cross-institutional relationships between students at our colleges and universities and students of philosophy in politically vital and plastique regions such as Egypt and Tibet.”
    Absolutely awesome.
    I’ll try and generate something a little more susbtantive for my own blog, suffice it to say Ramey’s material has allowed me to confront some tensions and unusual correspondences that have been surfacing in my own philosophical life for a few months (another element of which would be Stengers’ deployment and engagement with sorcery in Capitalist Sorcery, which – I suspect – has some affinities with Ramey’s hermetic Deleuze). Rocco Gangle’s piece, though, I find just beautiful – a radical alterity to the institutional trajectory I seem to be locked in to.

  2. Hi Rocco. I thought I’d challenge you on the identification of right and power at the end. If you’re talking about Deleuze, I think one can argue that he does not himself accept Spinoza’s identification of right and power, and that he is sensitive to the distinction between right and power made in the classical political tradition you mention. The key document here is the 1960 lecture course on Rousseau, which works through Hobbes and Locke to arrive at Rousseau. I think he accepts Rousseau’s fundamental point in Social Contract 1.3 that no amount of force can prove a right, and that right and power are different in kind. If a government becomes tyrannical, for Rousseau the people rise up on the basis of their right, not just their power. The problem Deleuze finds in Rousseau is that the theory of the general will is too formalistic, and does not account for the function of the legislator or lawgiver, to whom Rousseau ends up giving rather a lot of space in the second half of Book II of the Social Contract, in a way that undermines some of his own proposals about popular sovereignty. So the lecture course ends with this problem exposed. The book Nietzsche and Philosophy, though, can be seen as an attempt to take up this problem precisely through elaborating on the concept of power. Everyone has the ‘right’ to legislate, but rights are nothing without the exercise of power, which has its own field and modes of relation. Deleuze can be read as suggesting that Nietzsche’s reflections on will and power can and should be related back to the kind of thinking about will and power that is found in Locke and Rousseau. For Rousseau, will and right are internally connected (“to yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will; at most it is an act of prudence”), and force and power are external matters; Nietzsche’s qualification to that is that wherever will acts on will, power relations follow – but everywhere, not just in the relation between the lawgiver and ‘his’ people. Hence a general theory of power is needed to supplement the theory of the general will. When Deleuze talks obscurely in the Nietzsche book about the will as the “differential element” of force, one can read him as saying that it’s only in the relation between wills that one is able to see what power and force really involve at the human level (I mean ‘human’ in a non-Nietzschean sense here: homo sapiens). One could even say, on the basis of Deleuze’s interpretation, that power in the Nietzschean sense has to do with the specific character of will-on-will relations among beings who wish to establish their rights. The underlying conceptual distinction between right and power can also be seen in the way that the evaluation of wills is said to be guided by a rebooted categorical imperative (“the eternal return gives the will a rule as rigorous as the Kantian one”, NP 68); I think the distinction is implicit elsewhere in Deleuze as well.

    But Deleuze left the issue of popular sovereignty hanging, and his trajectory through Nietzsche leads him further away from that topic. What he could have done was move further back, to the 17th century, and look at the original raw polarity that emerged between absolutist monarchists and republicans. Bodin and Filmer on the one side, saying that the king doesn’t even need to obey his own laws (if he does so, it’s because ‘it hath pleased us’); and Milton and Winstanley on the other, hewing out prototypes of an activated popular sovereignty. For Milton, “the people are superior to the king” (Political Writings, Cambridge, 190) and the task of the people is to actualise their liberty, and not to backslide from that. If one returns to that fiery juncture, those symbols of shield, sceptre and crown you mention, Rocco, are only to be found on Bodin’s and Filmer’s side.

    But the great thing is that Hermeticism has also been found on the other side; in fact, one could push this and say that the influence of revived ‘Hermeticism’, in its strict sense, is precisely to be found on the republican side, and not among the royalists. Christopher Hill and others have found Hermetic influences in both Milton and Winstanley. There is Milton’s 1645 ‘Il Penseroso’, where he imagines himself sitting in a tower, “where I may oft out-watch the Bear/With thrice great Hermes, or unsphear/the spirit of Plato to unfold/What worlds, or what vast regions hold/the immortal mind that hath forsook/her mansion in this fleshly nook” (Frances Yates said that this passage has a “Brunian ring”, and “suggests the atmosphere of the Hermetic Trance”). Milton’s treatise on education is imbued with Renaissance thought, and it’s interesting to track how Renaissance influences might have fed into his concept of liberty. In his fantastic 1973 edition of Winstanley’s work, Hill speculates that there may have been Hermetic influences behind Winstanley’s thinking in the Law of Freedom, specifically in the passages on how “reach[ing] God beyond the creation … is a knowledge beyond the line or capacity of man to attain while he lives in this compounded body”, and that instead “if you would know spiritual things … know … the spirit or power of wisdom and life, causing motion or growth” (p. 348). This passage can be classed as an affirmation of immanence. So what is the connection between Winstanley’s affirmation of immanence and his politics, between Milton’s apprehension of the Hermetic ‘immortal mind’ and his defence of the people against kings? And between Puritanism and Hermeticism in general? One could try to trace the underground links between Hermeticism and political theories of popular sovereignty. Joshua is tuning into these in some of his remarks about Hermetic politics. And, going back to the starting point, one could also try to connect up Miltonic republicanism with the implicit post-Rousseauian political philosophy embedded in Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy.

    Bodin was also the author of the notorious Demon-mania of Witches (of which James I said that it “collected [knowledge of practices] with greater diligence … than judgement”). So there is obviously ‘magic’ on both sides. If the Puritans do reconnect with Hermeticism, it’s in the wake of the much more aggressive royalist occultism of Bodin and James I. How these mystical currents might have affected the battle between absolutism and popular sovereignty in the 17th century is still relatively unstudied, and is surely, at the deepest level, still totally relevant today. Maybe all the more so because of its occlusion from our collective consciousness.

    Looking at how the 17th century concept of right (in its distinction from power – which is itself a complex concept, of course) was developed through thought-experiments about the state of nature, and reflection on the original nature and situation of Adam, it’s possible to see how amidst all the outer political turmoil of the period, the deeper movements involve seismic mental shifts, where the key points of reference are entirely theoretical. In what spaces was the concept of right carved out? On the streets, in taverns, but also in small dark rooms. I was really struck by a passage towards the end of Badiou’s recent Rebirth of History, where he talks about closing off one’s senses to enter into service of a truth, so that we see “not what is represented to us, but what is purely and simply presented” (p. 99). Accessing concepts of right perhaps involves a similar sort of act of internal grounding, and the construction and reinforcement of a basic psychic boundary between inner and outer. To attempt to get clear on the relation between right and power, though, we’d have to go into the concept of power, and this is already turning into a treatise, rather than a comment on a blog post. I’ll conclude with the formal point that rather than being identical with each other, you could say that right and power are entwined around each other, like the snakes on the Hermetic caduceus! No power without right, no right without power; but they’re not identical.

  3. Hi Christian — much to reflect on here! I can’t do justice to all the issues you raise, but a couple quick points:

    (1) I think you’re right to work within an early modern framework that would distinguish esotericism/hermeticism in a royalist-conservative perspective from its employment by ‘liberal’ or ‘republican’ thinkers. The fact that esotericism does not naturally fall under one or the other heading is itself an important point that should be more broadly appreciated. (From this, the question of evaluation that arose in the responses to Dan Whistler’s post and also Anthony’s latest installment reveals much of its political savor). On this, very briefly, I’d just bring up the Filmer/Locke dispute (you yourself mentioned Filmer but not Locke) from Locke’s first treatise on govt — which almost nobody reads anymore because the argument just doesn’t seem interesting, unlike Locke’s positive proposal in the second treatise. Frankly, Filmer’s claim to ground political legitimacy in a dispensation to Adam and a basically biological heritage looks today pretty silly. But isn’t that in effect — structurally — what esoteric and hermetic traditions usually do? They understand their legitimacy often, not always, in terms of a ‘direct transmission’ of one kind or another, a mediation that forecloses rational, universal communicability. Against this, Locke asserts rights as belonging to the individual as equally objects and grounds of ‘property’. Is this a beginning point to approach the problem of authority and right in esoteric traditions? Can rights be conceived not as a kind of property belonging to individuals, but as an instrument or conduit of power? One that by its very nature cannot be possessed but only transmitted or utilized. What if the political dispensation to Adam is not identified with crowning him, but precisely with granting him his _power to name_? To be sure, politically I’m not coming down on the side of Filmer and Bodin, but structurally I think they might be saying things about political authority that could give our contemporary liberal assumptions a much-needed harassment. Are my political rights derived ultimately from my individual power of labor, or rather from my descendance from Adam (Kadmon) and my participation in the powers he contracts? And to take this back to Joshua’s book, does the Deleuze/Bruno philosophy of nature he propounds help to undergird such a strange doctrine of (natural but de-individualized) right?

    (2) More concretely, perhaps American conservatives are in their own way correct to pose the otherwise ridiculous ‘slippery slope’ arguments against gay and lesbian marriage (‘soon we’ll all be marrying horses!’ and so on). The kernel of truth in these bigoted ideas is that gay and lesbian marriage might actually be something other than the granting of an abstract ‘civil right’ to a previously marginalized group. What if marriage itself is first and foremost an underdetermined conduit of (biopolitical) power, not a fully determined abstract right? There’s every reason to expect that over time gay and lesbian marriages will lead to a transformation of the meaning and social function of marriage itself and by extension society at large. I myself think such transformations are very likely to be positive and constructive of a better, more creative and powerful society overall. But that’s not because gays and lesbians will then be able to ‘assert their rights’ (not that that in itself is nothing). Rather, the marriage-power which exceeds its individual instantiations will have been diversified and intensified along previously impeded channels, with unforeseeable but most probably desirable effects. It might be a more difficult case to make in today’s political climate, but I think it’s a more honest one: ‘I don’t just want gay marriage, I want marriage gayed’.

  4. Hi Rocco – many thanks indeed for this, you’ve made a number of points that really move things forward for me at least.

    Your point about distinguishing the possession of right from the transmission and utilization of right is very interesting. That’s true, Locke does talk about rights as being ‘possessed’ or ‘had’ – and there is an ideologico-semantic field linking the ‘earning’ of rights with the subsequent ‘possession’ of rights, as if rights are the wages of some kind of labour. But I would say that beneath that, there is something more basic to the concept of right in Locke – something that is indeed related to the specifics of his theory of power. Raymond Polin (in his essay on Locke’s conception of freedom) makes an important point when he says that the intuitive appeal of Locke’s theory comes from how he bases it on the experience of the will. The concept of power is indeed axiomatically prior in Locke, and right is derived from it. But how does that derivation work? His argument is that power is a simple idea, given through both sensation and reflection (alongside pleasure, pain, existence and unity; Essay II.7.1). We observe that we ‘can’ think, and ‘can’ move. Then, by situating humans between animals and God, he arrives at the distinction between active and passive powers. Active power is identified with the will: “This at least I think evident, that we find in ourselves a power to begin or forbear, continue or end several actions of our minds, and motions of our bodies, barely by a thought or preference of the mind … This power … we call the Will” (II.21.5). So the will is a power for Locke. But in turn the will can be free or bound. Liberty of the will is when it can start, interrupt, continue or end a train of thought or movement without external restriction. Here we have one solid basis for the concept of right. One problem with the Second Treatise is that it starts with a definition of liberty as freedom to dispose of one’s “person or possessions” as one wishes, which thus gives rise to the charge of ‘possessive individualism’. But (i.) in the same passage Locke qualifies that natural rights cover the preservation of life, liberty, and health, as well as possessions, and (ii.) the right to have possessions is one thing, the ‘possessing’ of rights is another – the latter involves the metalanguage of rights, the former doesn’t. The issue you’re raising is how to think about the metalanguage, and here one could just as well ground basic rights in the right to start, pursue, interrupt and conclude one’s own thoughts, and to do the same with one’s own bodily movements. To push this further, we’d have to enquire, again at the metalinguistic level, whether we ‘have’ or ‘possess’ a will, or whether the relation between ourselves and our will is more fundamental than one of mere possession. The idea of ‘possession’ is not necessarily the essential one. Clearly, one doesn’t have rights or have a will in the same sense as one has a car or sofa, so there is room for manoeuvre there. Locke also thinks right follows from the equality of humans. The issue of equality is very important. If every human has a will, every human has the natural right to exercise their will, “without asking leave or depending on the will of any other man” (2nd treatise, # 4). Here having a will implies the demand that you also utilize it and accept your fundamental agency, so in that sense it is already more than a simple relation of possession towards some independent thing. You’re absolutely right in your point about transmission in esoteric traditions, but one could also point to the universalist aspects of Hermeticism, and traditions that relate the will to laws of nature, or to experiences of ‘natural light’, for counter-examples.

    Or one could point to those theories which relate natural right to the theoretical entity of Adam. For Milton, Winstanley, Filmer and Locke, the Biblical Adam is the vehicle for the recovery of the state of nature. That can be as much a means of bypassing and short-circuiting traditions as a means of continuing a single one. At issue is not just the various ideas about the nature of Adam, but the question of our relation to Adam. In Milton’s case, the relation is complex, and it’s neither a matter of being one more biological descendant of the historical Adam, nor of being automatically equivalent to Adam in the state of nature, but rather that, as descendants of the fallen Adam, we can nevertheless use our minds to think about the prelapsarian Adam, and make use of the comparison of pre-fall and post-fall Adam for our reflections on civil rights. But one can’t go into this without also discussing the sexual politics involved, as well as the issue of the extent of parental power with regard to children (Locke criticises Filmer’s patriarchalism very effectively on this point). Examining ‘the problem of Adam’ in the context of political theory gives rise to all sorts of complications, but if one wants to understand the forces at work in the 17th century conjuncture, one probably has to go into all of that.

    Great point about marriage, loved it. I suppose the question there is whether marriage is essentially an institution in the Humean sense, or whether there is something deeper and more existential/ontological involved in it. Kierkegaard, for instance, would probably reject the Humean account. But taking Kierkegaard as an authority on marriage would be the height of perversity, so I won’t pursue that.

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