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April 03, 2006

Research Notes: Spinoza and desert asceticism, Kant and the urban sublime

Follow-up to Research Notes: Arabia and the geography of asceticism from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Chapter LXIII, whilst bathing in a mountain spring, Lawrence was surprised by the appearance of some kind of wandering outcast, a desert mystic or madman. Earlier he had considered the "periodic rise of intervals of little more than a century, of ascetic creeds in Central Arabia" (p.148). Now again, in this spectacular desert setting, he considers the geophilosophy of Ideas.

Upon the water-cleansed and fragrant ledge I undressed my soiled body, and stepped into the little basin, to taste at last a freshness of loving air and water against my tired skin. It was deliciously cool. I lay there quietly, letting the clear, dark red water run over me in a ribbly stream, and rub the travel-dirt away. While I was so happy, a grey-bearded, ragged man, with a hewn face of great power and weariness, came slowly along the path till opposite the spring; and there he let himself down with a sigh upon my clothes spread out over a rock beside the path, for the sun-heat to chase out their thronging vermin.
He heard me and leaned forward, peering with rheumy eyes at this white thing splashing in the hollow beyond the veil of sun-mist. After a long stare he seemed content, and closed his eyes, groaning, 'The love is from God; and of God; and towards God'.

In the cruel matter of fact world of the desert it would be hard to believe in a loving God, one that deliberately arranges the world for the benefit of humans. This desert wanderer had himself been blinded, rendering his staring looks fitting of someone with a more transcendent imaginary. Lawrence had just experienced the erosion of vision himself, with Sherif Aid suddenly losing his sight to the burning sun.

But here, in an abundant pool of otherwise rare water, it seems possible. The contrast between desert asceticism and the bathing pool, between the pain of driving sand and the pleasure of cool water, between thirst and immediate satisfaction, mirrors that between the desert and its necessities and the town and its free-will. The spring at Shallala sits within a sublime geological architecture. Lawrence's choice of words allies the great Wadi Rumm with the city or citadel:

The hills on the right grew taller and sharper, a fair counterpart of the other side which straightened itself to one massive rampart of redness. They drew together until only two miles divided them: and then, towering gradually till their parallel parapets must have been a thousand feet above us, ran forward for an avenue of miles. p.351

Lawrence, an archaeologist with expertise on fortifications, draws the inevitable analogies. The walls are said to be:

built sectionally, in rags like gigantic buildings, along two sides of their street.


The crags were capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the hill; rather grey and shallow. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture.

Wadi Rumm is a citadel, an overwhelming and enveloping cave bigger than man but making sense of man. It is said that the:

The Arab armies would have been lost in the length and breadth of it, and within the walls a squadron of aeroplanes could have wheeled in formation. Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills.

Wadi Rumm is Lawrence's sublime. Perhaps it is the closest that he gets to Oedipus?

Landscapes, in childhood's dream, were so vast and silent. We looked backward through our memory for the prototype up which all men had walked between such walls toward such an open square as that in front where this road seemed to end. Later, when we were often riding inland, my mind used to turn me from the direct road, to clear my senses by a night in Rumm and by the ride down its dawn-lit valley towards the shining plains, or up its valley in the sunset towards that glowing square which my timid anticipation never let me reach. I would say, 'Shall I ride on this time, beyond the Khazail, and know it all?' But in truth I liked Rumm too much.

But for Lawrence the city, its sublime, and the shame that it makes possible (the invasion of the citadel at Deraa), are not necessary. Ideas, sweeping out of the desert, may go in one of two directions: the Hellenism of the city (and its Christianity) or the surrender to fate, fact and an impersonal God of desert ascetiicisms. The words of the ragged man at Wadi Rumm had reminded Lawrence of this, and of his ambiguous position between the two (whilst relaxing in the spring, removing the desert dust and returning to the city): 'The love is from God; and of God; and towards God'.

His low-spoken words were caught by some trick distinctly in my water pool. They stopped me suddenly. I had believed Semites unable to use love as a link between themselves and God, indeed, unable to conceive such a relation except with the intellectuality of Spinoza, who loved so rationally and sexlessly, and transcendently that he did not seek, or rather had not permitted, a return. p.356
…expressing the monotheism of open spaces, the pass-through-infinity of pantheism and its everyday usefulness of an all-pervading, household God. p.357
Christianity had seemed to me the first creed to proclaim love in this upper world, from which the desert and the Semite (from Moses to Zeno) had shut it out: and Christianity was a hybrid, except in its first root not essentially Semitic.

This is followed by an exposition of the differing origins of the religions, and their routes out into the world. An academic exposition, but one written by someone at the border of these two great Ideational generators.


Spinoza and desert asceticism, Leibniz and urban excess? Just a thought.

November 15, 2005

Research Notes: porous minds and cracked–up agents

Follow-up to Research Notes: how radical can extended cognition be? from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

I just found this in a text file whilst tidying up my laptop. It doesn't seem to have been published yet. There may be a reason why I abandoned it. But here it is anyway...

Section 10.6 of Andy Clark's book Being There is entitled with the question "Where does the mind stop and the world begin?". For philosophy this is a very significant question. For cognitive science and AI, much less so (its just a design issue). Why not just adopt the latter position? Would that be such a scandal?

Clark's answer to the question is both pragmatic and realistic, whilst promoting a proportionate, specific and sufficiently detailled investigation of real minds and environments. This is quite a contrast to the vague generalizations of some phenomenological models.

For someone with an AI/cog-sci background (that I in part share), the identification of a boundary (even a porous one) should only be significant when it could contribute to our understanding of the capabilities, limitations and developmental process of real cognitive processes. Our boundary marking conditions would have to be ones that really make a difference to the cognitive process itself. For example, one interesting boundary marking condition would be:

how replaceable or otherwise is a specific (internal or external) cognitive artefact? Could the individual agent simply swap the artefact with another similar or even totally different artefact? And to what extent would this change the character of the agent?

A related, equally important, but different question is:

how dependent is the development of an agent upon a specific artefact, such that it's abscence makes a significant difference to that agent?

This gets close to our understanding of what an agent actually is: it has a relatively consistent and pervasive character existing over time and to some extent surviving changes to the environment in which it exists. Whilst at the same time, its development and continuation is dependent upon the existence of key artefacts within that environment. It is as Clark says, closely coupled. Furthermore, the agent tends to influence the environment in which it exists so as to promote the continuation of these characteristics, so that an agent tends to be associated with an environment (reverse evolution), whilst the environment tends to promote certain characteristics in the agent and classes of agents (evolution).

This, to readers of recent dynamical systems theory (and the likes of Deleuze and Guattari), is quite an obvious model: 1) there are arangements of mechanisms that interact with and consume other mechanisms through processes of ordering, selection, managed preservation and controlled degradation; 2) these mechanisms have selective principles (the character traits) that are repetetively applied over time; 3) some of these repetitive mechanisms reproduce the conditions of their own production and reproduction; 4) and fewer still reproduce the conditions that make their own reproduction more likely, more desired by the environment in which they exist. Or in shore: they are desiring machines.

I would say that this is stating the obvious. Certainly there is a degree of convergence towards such a model in evolutionary biology. And I'm sure there will also be such a convergence in AI development. So why is it likely that philosophers will still consider it to be controversial? Why does it seem OK in biology, but radical when applied by, for example, the psychotherapist Felix Guattari, to the problem of fixing broken minds and bodies?

Thinking is selecting, is doing.

November 06, 2005

Research Notes: how radical can extended cognition be?

Follow-up to Research Notes: social–machinic thinking, the 'mangrove effect', the 'diagram', the 'rhizome' from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

How radical is the extended cognition thesis proposed by Andy Clark in Being There? Is his argument trivial or with huge consequences?

Page 215 sees both an indication of just how radical its implications might be, followed by a clause that is perhaps an attempt to avoid an engagement with a whole set of possibly esoteric philosophical issues.


Firstly, there are significant ethical implications of an argument that sees a persons mind being extended into the environment. Hurt that environment and you hurt the mind. This goes a little beyond the arguments of human rights lawyers, who could safely say that long term deprivation may affect the development and sustanance of the mind. Clark's argument clearly indicates that damaging the extended cognitive apparatus has an immediate and damaging effect on their mind.

If, for example, a human rights court assessing the actions of the regime at Guantanamo Bay were to accept that abuse of the Quran were a direct physical attack upon the minds of the inmates, then the range of crimes would be greater and more extreme.


The first point opens up a radical debate. The second is just as dramatic in closing one down. Clark makes a threefold differentiation:

  1. brains;
  2. minds;
  3. consciousness.

He also talks about "self", and seems to be referring to the totalized singularity of the collection of factors that make a person individuated. That, I think, is closely tied to what he wold call "consciousness", but the issue is not properly explored.

His argument clearly shows that minds are more than brains, being extended out from the brain into the environment (or perhaps coming in from the environment and parasitising the brain). But he is careful to say that there is something called consciousness that is not extended into the environment. Individual consciousness, my attentional experience, is packaged back inside the individual. It is philosophically safer to say that there is still something, some inelliminable feature of being human, that is not dissipated out into the apparatus of extended cognition.

The clause avoids some very difficult philsoophical ground, but only at the risk of begging a very big question. This clause has the following effects:

  1. a separate set of apparatus must be implicated in consciousness;
  2. this apparatus cannot be reducible to, dependent upon, and part of the environment, as being such would again make it porous and subject to an extended cognition argument.

Obviously the second of these points is hugely controversial, and heading towards the kind of mind/body separation that Clark set out to dispel. But I would say that it is essential to Clark's attempt to keep some kind of separation between subject and object (individual and world). Without some kind of absolutely non-porous subjectivity, his thesis gets increasingly radical. The supposition of an individual consciousness, for example, provides some limitation to the damage that extended cognition could do to our established legal and ethical assumptions.

How to escape from this? Phenomenology leading out from Kant has recourse to time. In fact once can see the predominately spatial way in which much of the extended cognition debate is framed. We have a bounded, territorialized layout of minds and environments. One could argue that consciousness is the experience of this layout in time. The link between "self" and "consciousness" seems to rely upon this, with time, history, evolution and its experience from a specific perspective being the individuating feature:

…the flow of reason and thoughts, and the temporal evolution of ideas and attitudes, are determined and explained by the intimate, complex, continued interplay of brain, body and world. p.217

We could investigate how the environment/mind relationship unfolds differently to an individual consciousness. A kind of "pure time", a "duration", could be the inelliminable fact of consciousness. But what are the origins and effects in the world of this pure time? It can't be an organizing super subject, because that would be subject and hence porous to the world it organizes. As you can see from the passage given above, Clark does actually acknowledge that the experience of being a singualrity in time is the result of a complex dynamical coupling.

There's another possibility. Rather than being an organizer, a Kantian transcendental rationale, perhaps it is exactly the opposite, a hesitation at the core of conscsiousness, the force that holds the folds of time open and inelliminable. A chaotic attractor at the core of being in the world?

My argument is that the "chaotic attractor" of consciousness, and its temporal incarnations, is in fact crucial to perception and cognition. It is the drive behind inquisitiveness and the dynamical engagement of minds and environment. Far from being outside of cognitive science, it will prove to be the key.

But perhaps to obtain this key we have to accept that our ethical and legal assumptions need to be re-thought?

If you are interested in this entry, then please contact me by email.

March 22, 2005

Kant's Creative Philosophy

Follow-up to What Is Philosophy? from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

…and similarly, the title of Deleuze's book on Kant's Critical Philosophy is ironic. Kant didn't really do the critical thing, looking to complete a philosophical tradition by re-examining and correcting its grounding. Deleuze is interested in the way in which Kant invents entirely new ways of thinking, entirely different concepts – is in fact one of the most creative of philosophers.

March 04, 2005

Difference and Repetition, Nietzsche and the creative turn

Follow-up to Freeing the concept of creativity from the concept of possession from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

The answer, for Deleuze at least, is yes. Or rather, the concept of the new or difference (in its composite with repetition), is one of these 'helper concepts' – Nietzsche's best friend, saving him from the interminable closed cycle of Cartesian recognition or Kantian good-sense.

The Image of Thought chapter in Difference and Repetition states it quite plainly. The really big question for philosophy is not how recognition (clear, distinct, true or otherwise) is possible - that's trivial. Rather it is the question of how we break out of the everyday, the familiar. It is the question of how difference is possible. But not in some abstract sense, but genuinely how we go beyond the algorithms of our constitution. So it is the case that Deleuze is not Kantian (or as Keith Robinson has said, perhaps he is re-activating a pre-Kantianism). He was out to engineer a creative turn rather than fixing the critical turn.

In Difference and Repetition, as in Logic of Sense, we see Deleuze dealing with the metaphysical question of how creativity, difference, is metaphysically possible: what is its ontology? In this domain the question concerns the possibility of time itself.

Nietzsche's distinction between the creation of new values and the recognition of established values should not be understood in a historically relative manner… In fact it concerns a difference which is both formal and in kind. Difference and Repetition p.136

But it takes an involvement with Guattari to give Deleuze a chance to answer the really useful problem of creativity. Guattari the psychotherapist involved on a daily basis with dislodging people from the viscious circle. This engagement combines with Deleuze's fascination with painting and with cinema to establish, following on from the ontology of difference and repetitiion, a practical approach to creativity.

February 01, 2005

The attendant figure, deterrritorialization, sensus communis

The figure, as a site of habitual sensation, simultaneously dissipates into a chaosmic and unknowable field, whilst defining itself through its engineering agency from that field, which in this return movement stands as a material structure, habitat or frame. The field, being dense with connections, is that space in which the slightest of movements has a massive and irreversible effect. Habit or the organ has no definite sense in the field, has no role in reproduction, hence the necessity to become a 'body without organs' when passing into the field – zero intensity, zero effect, zero feedback, guaranteeing that a return from the field to the figure in repetition, but renewed from the outside.

But how does one reach zero intensity? – how to pass through chaos and back, surviving in some recognisable form? – how do you make yourself such a body without organs? On fleeing from the habitat, from the aparatus of capture, they say that it is necessary to pick-up in an itinerent fashion "weapons" with which to encounter chaos. The weapon is, in fact, that which draws the diagram: some other thing deterritorializing at the same time against which marks can be cut: the painters brush and colours. As they say, 'you never deterritorialize alone'. The friend of the painter is the canvas, brush, colour, texture. And the attendant figure? As Deleuze says of Bacon, not an observer, a counter-point, but a figurative companion standing as a diagram in the deterritorialization through chaos and back. A sensus communis even.

October 01, 2004

Klee and the separation of painting and music

Follow-up to Van Gogh and painterly diagrams from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Note – this is academic work. If you know about Deleuze's aesthetics, Klee, Bacon etc, you are very welcome to comment.

Painting, as with Van Gogh, establishes a rhythmic pattern. Through an additive synthesis, painting intensifies the body, leads it into chaotic relations with the rest of the material world, provides it with a depth of simultaneous connections, nearing chaos.

For some time painters have been concerned with the relationship between the rhythmic essence of painting and that of music. Deleuze, in a consideration of Cezanne and Bacon, attempts to clarify this relation:

Rhythm appears as music when it invests the auditory level, and as painting when it invests the visual level. Francis Bacon:Logic of Sensation, Continuum, 2004, p.44
Certainly music traverses our bodies in profound ways, putting an ear in the stomach, in the lungs, and so on. It knows all about waves and nervousness. But it involves our body, and bodies in general, in another element. It strips bodies of their inertia, of the materiality of their presence: it disembodies bodies. In a sense, music begins where painting ends, and this is what is meant by the superiority of music. It is lodged in lines of flight that pass through bodies, but which find their consistency elsewhere, whereas painting is lodged farther up, where the body escapes from itself. ibid p.54

Music then acts to disembody, make abstract, deterritorialize onto a distinct plane. As if pulling the spirit out of the body . The incessant seriality of music acts to concentrate and overwhelm the body in anticipation of perception.1

Paul Klee was concerned with this distinction. As both an accomplished violinist and a painter it would necessarily be an issue. Duchling seems to claim some connection between Klee and the ideas of Nietzsche and Bergson on rhythm in fine arts. Did Klee read Bergson? Anyhow, in the face of attempts by critics to say that Klee's painting was musical, used the same structure as music, Klee responded strongly by emphasising that both arts are rhythmic, but in entirely different ways. Deleuze also had an interest in Klee (will look into that more).

This is the starting point for Duchling's book on Paul Klee, Painting Music. I've just discovered this, and it seems to be fascinating.

In comparison to the Romantics, Klee sought the actual basis for the analogy in the most inner being of music – rhythm – which in his opinion not only marks the movement of time in music, but also in art. Paul Klee: Painting Music, Hajo Duchting, Pegasus, p.14


1Consider here Klee's rejection of Hausenstein's Kantian analysis of finality and purposiveness in Klee - Paul Klee: Painting Music, Hajo Duchting, Pegasus, p.12.

August 18, 2004

Van Gogh and painterly diagrams

Van Gogh's technique was also to apply a diagram to the figure in order to divert it from purposiveness into an unlocking of sensation. You can see in this work just how, as Deleuze says, for the painter the hand becomes a second eye and the canvas becomes a second mind.

The painter sees the figure. Seeing in this case is just the repetition of singular affects on the complex assemblage of planes of the mind. The eyes and their movement overlay a rhythmic action on this repetition of affects. Secondarily, the painter diverts this rhythm (of movement and light) to the hands, which have corresponding ways of moving, characteristic means of applying paint (and other painterly movements). This is what Deleuze calls the diagram. Van Gogh developed new diagrams of his own, of his own hands, which you can see clearly in this painting. With the application of sensation through the diagram and through the material of the painting, the canvas is built up into zones, lines, contours, planes, thicknesses, colours etc. At this point the painting faces a great danger, as described by Cezanne, the danger of becoming chaotic, of the sensations on the canvas failing to form a balanced and self-sustaining resonance: chaos. Adding new sensations to the canvas inevitably pushes it towards chaos. The greatness of the painter, as you can see in Van Gogh, is the ability to push the canvas towards this catastrophe, only to rescue it and restore the balance and resonances.

In this way, as Kant would have agreed, the adventure of painting is an adventure of the kind experienced in thought itself, an engagement with catastrophe and a subsequent return.

Kant, painting unlocking sensation in senus communis

Follow-up to Cezanne unlocking sensation, painting nature from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

To reiterate Kant, sensation is thought without purposiveness. It is thought that is not taken up by a concept into some telos, some definite finality beyond itself. Just a present, not a future or a plan. It is an impression, but not that of the Impressionists. An impression expressed, but not that of Expressionism. Always outwards facing to the world, but with an entirely internal character of its own. Already a complex assemblage of interactions across the many planes of the mind, planes that anticipate perception, but singular as these complex registers resonate at the sime time. This singularity frames the sensation, but not in any discursive context, only as a repetition of affects.

In his rejection of narrative in favour of the triptych, the attendant figure and repetition, Bacon is the most Kantian of painters yet. His approach is always to address the sensation with a diagram (as Deleuze calls a painterly technique applied to thought). The diagram imediately diverts the path of the sensation onto the canvas and back out into sensation. Diverts it away from assimilation to concepts and narrative. It establishes, frames, a second register like that of the anticipations of perception, this time on the canvas. The painting becomes a focus for the repetition of the sensation, to the painter and others. It is as Kant says, a sensus communis.

June 25, 2004

Miro's Chaosmosis, Guattari's Art

Last weekend Emma and I bought a Fundació Miró print of Pintura. This is to go in our bedroom at the new house in Kenilworth. Looking at it reminded me of something that I wrote just after visiting the Fundació, an interesting coincidence of reading a book on Miro and Guattari's Chaosmosis. I've rescued the text from my old MT blog and repeated it below…

Andre Breton on Miro's Constellations: "They belong together and differ from one another like the aromatic or cyclic series of elements in chemistry. If one considers them both in their development and as a whole, each of them assumes necessity and value like a constituent in a mathematical series. And finally, they give the word 'series' that special meaning by their uninterupted and exemplary sequence." Miro by Janis Mink, Taschen 2000.

Felix Guattari on the Production of Subjectivity: "In this conception of analysis, time is not something to be endured; it is activated, oriented, the object of qualitative change…A singualrity, a rupture of sense, a cut, a fragmentation, the detachment of a semiotic content – in a dadaist or surrealist manner – can originate mutant nuclei of subjectivation. Just as chemistry has to purify complex mixtures to extract atomic and homogeneous molecular matter, thus creating an infinite scale of chemical entities that have no prior existence, the same is true in the 'extraction' and 'seperation' of aesthetic subjectivities or partial objects…that make an immense complexification of subjectivity possibile – harmonies, polyphonies, counterpoints, rhythms and existential orchestrations, until know unheard and unknown." Chaosmosis (page 19)

Miro described how he would evolve the elements of his works from partial objects viewed while staring at the ceiling above his bed. He worked these partial objects into existential orchestrations relative to each other, generating a "necessity" (in the Kantian sense) to their being produced. Guattari takes the Bergsonian interpretation of Kant in seeing subjectivity as enduring or being subject to necessities (refrains or exemplary sequences). But like Miro he knows that these necessities are not given, they are produced through knowable mechanisms (time is activated) – and if they can be known, then they can be chosen, so he has the possibility of an ethico–aesthetic paradigm.