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Saturday, 28 January 2012

Lalibela: a version

Lalibela is very impressing. Cathedral size churches carved on rocks. An attempt to put together the refuge of a cave and the spirit of congregation of a church. Maybe caves were natural churches as Niemeyer thought when he planned an ecumenical church for Brasilia – a concrete cave. Lalibela's idea was different: use the matter of a cave and bring the church in. Not that the church is only a form, but it is an affordance of many shades of matter. Concrete, for instance, and stone – but in Lalibela the king wanted to carve them. He wanted to build a place for pilgrimage to replace Jerusalem – a new Jerusalem. But new Jerusalens are built on memory, where is hanging dreams, mixed tales, lapses of imagination, abundance of imagination and sheer lies. The city of stones could be made by carving inside the stone.

Now, they say the kings in the Zagwe dynasty were quite eager to play some role in the middle east conflicts – at the time, the invasion of Jerusalem by the Crusaders. Lalibela himself is said to have acquired some land in Jerusalem due to his diplomatic services between the Christian kings and Salahadin. The connection between Roha (old name for the town of Lalibela) and Jerusalem is not a distant one of a far away original and its imitation. One could say that maybe Roha played a role in Jerusalem's fate – it being impressive probably was part of the force of the Zagwe Christian kings in the bargain. If this is so, its geography (and architecture) played a role in Jerusalem's geography. Just as the pilgrims trade in versions. Pilgrimage shapes the imagined cities: one goes, comes back and makes up. Versions are not only epiphenomena, they are productive.

Stones. Jerusalem is built on stone, Lalibela's churches are carved on rocks. Stones are probably the best surrogate for eternal objetcs – they last more than life and seem to be reminiscent of an anorgic creation. Stones are the ultimate icon of what is external to us. A reality of a different kind, outer, harder, less shakeable, less movable. Stones are themselves carved up by geological assemblages. As such, they are part of alliances – they're neither following orders, mandates or laws of nature nor imposing something on something else. Jane Bennett would see them as capable of mod(e)yfication: matter acquires modes because it is modifiable. She then stresses that this is a process of being part of something, acquire a mode is part of an alliance of whatever else is around. In Szymborska's “Conversation with a stone”, one of my favorite of hers, has the stone saying to the person willing to visit its interior: you have imagination, but this is no more than a pale approximation of what you lack: the capacity to be part. This is maybe what stones keep and objects, even those made from stones, lack.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Object-oriented ontologies vs materialism: what is at stake 3 (Ontogenesis)

Been reading Le Clézio's essay on L'extase matérielle (Gallimard, 1967). It is a big praise on the powers of matter beyond what is merely actual. He pictures matter as reminiscent of a time with no struggles - where there is nothing to hate and yet nothing to understand. No object. No crystallised being. A time, that is not an archaic moment but rather an epoch to be claimed, where everything was at stake and nothing had beginning or end. Yet this is not a time gone, he goes. It is rather a time always present. He says there is a world of objects, the world where he finds himself being one of them, a subject. But there is a simultaneous world of matter - a piece of heaven or hell that lies about. It is like sleep where the objects are the objects of dream. Le Clézio insists that he is talking about matter, about a material substract to all objects.

The issue concerning ontogenesis is whether objects need something else to provide for their origin. Hamilton Grant claims that somatism is blind to ontogenesis. Object-oriented approaches could reply that there is no origin beyond objects (no origin of contents beyond concepts, when we move to the ontology of thought). The claim is that there is no space between objects, no space for interaction - nothing acts but objects, nothing is acted upon but other objects. So, for an object-oriented approach, either objects come from objects or they come from nowhere (either objects can provide an ontogenesis or ontogenesis as a question would have to go).

The issue of ontogenesis has political implications. Jonathan Kemp, in an essay of the forthcoming book Submidialogias 2012 takes objects to be a product of a crystallisation by capital. Underneath the objects - under the surface of the produce of capital - lies rougher materials to be uncovered in order to unveil hidden potentialities. Kemp claims that the struggle around capital is the struggle between informed objects and the non-crystallised matter, from where other objects can arise. From crystallised objects no object will follow but those that are blessed by capital. Matter is a political way out.

Epistemic virtues could be not first-personal enough

A piece of work that I started years back in a conference in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada found a home in the Croatian Journal.

Drawing on Bernard Williams' idea that sometimes an appeal to virtues is insufficiently first-personal. I thought that sometimes one can also find cases of epistemic bad faith when one fails to believe following (first-personal) inclinations and prefer to follow third personal epistemic norms (believe something because, say, science says so or grant a logical procedure that is not part of your reasoning or something you understand). Surely, beliefs are complicated things as they always involve transparency (I know what I believe through thinking about the world, not through thinking about myself.) But I think epistemic virtues could also fail to be first personal enough.

Ethiopia: a paradise for anarcheologists

We're in Axum, the land of the queen of Sheba and the emperor Menelick, her son with Solomon, who brought the ark of the alliance from Jerusalem and founded an empire around the Graal. It is Zion for the Rastafarians who flee from around the world including Babylonian Jamaica to come and celebrate Hailie Selassie, the last emperor of the Solomonic dynasty. To me, this is a paradise for anarcheology. Makes me remember Zouzi Chebbi, in Paris 8 last March commenting that the different between fact and version is blurred when once crosses southbound the Maghreb.

The Beta Israel are the descendents of the big court of Menelick (the first) who followed him from Jerusalem, maybe together with the lost tribes and some converted along the way. As for the Christians, maybe they are early converts, maybe the descendents of the hosts of Jesus, maybe the ones who went preach up north in the upper shores of the Red Sea. Ethiopia is often cleaned away from the official versions of those religious and racial stories. Much has to be invented when you see the Falasha and the Falash Mura traditions or when you smell the missing link between Kabbalah, Rasta and the black diaspora. Ethiopians could have been the monotheist influence on the Canaanites that gave rise to them breaking up with their Mesopotamian tradition. Put back one element to the official version of things, and the disruption is uncontrolled. There is no monotonic accommodation, no progressive assimilation to what passes as universal or all-inclusive account of history. It is the politics of anarcheology: the power of the fictions in friction.

Surely, there is an account of things that is Ethiopia-centered. The Menelick dynasty went on all the way through Iodit (the Jewish queen who persecuted the Christians), Menelick the second in the 19th century and Hailie Selassie is the kernel of it all. But it, again, has its own wholes and gaps and pieces of the puzzle swept under the carpet. I thought of an anarcheological definition of universal history inspired on what Levinas once said about the Yosl Rakover manuscript that was claimed by Zvi Kolitz to be his own fictional piece. Levinas said: the manuscript is too truthful not to be a piece of fiction. This is what history could be like: no more than narratives that are too truthful not to be pieces of fiction.

More on anarcheology in the book "Heraclitus, an exercise in anarcheology" by Leonel, Luciana and me coming up at some point this year (according to the publisher).

NB: This was premiered few days back in Facebook because blogger wasn't agreeing with Ethiopia.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Intuition, mind-reading and matter

Watching Avatar over last Christmas, already years after the hype, I was thinking of the scene where the earthling is taught to ride the flying horse by concentrating his thoughts on where he wants to go. It is common in plots where nature is somehow directly accessed and more integrated to human ways to feature some measure of mind reading. I then started wondering how do I go about mind reading. I wanted to be very open to possible episodes of matter reading – salt detecting water, ticks registering mammals, bees seeking flowers, a ball reading off the presence of a wall and animals noticing body temperature variation. What is the content of what is read is a common issue in both mind and matter reading. Does the tick read off a species or an increase in comfort? Or could we circumvent the content issue altogether by saying that they merely react? The frog reacts to the passing fly – but what does it react to when it reacts to the passing fly?

The problem with mind reading – like the flying horse supposedly could do – is that of private content. The human character's mind – or for that matter, his brain connections as they say in the film – is arranged in a way that cannot be read without a compiler. It is like my own private mess where I can find last month bill in a page of a book on Anaxagoras but no one else could find it. The problem of private content is what I take Wittgenstein was hinting at around sections 250 to
350 of the Investigations. Consider the example in section 257 – one of my favorites. The ingenious child concocted a private word for toothache after experiencing an episode of toothache without expressing any public signs of pain (yelling, complaining etc). The issue is whether she can go on applying the private word to correct cases of toothaches (and not to itches in the mouth, to pains in the finger, to metallic sounds or to whatever she finds relevantly similar to the inaugural episode of her private word). If she yells, for instance, an adult can teach the public word to her because there is a common, publicly observed action associated with the ache. Further, if someone yells and presses her hand against her mouth, other people can go and do expression-reading to detect the pain.

What is at stake in mind-reading is how much of it boils down to matter-reading. The flying horse can maybe read not the connections in the rider's brain but rather how this connection affects his body. The horse can exploit the regularity between wanting to go ahead and some features in the body. Thinking is not just a matter of neural connections but also about impact on cells, hormones, neurotransmitters etc. Memory is in the body – and so is mind-reading; what is called intuition involves a measure of exploiting traces left in the matter. Surely, conceptual abilities could make it very difficult the task of matter-reading thoughts. In Wittgenstein's discussion of William James' Mr Ballard (section 342 of the Investigations), he wonders how can the deaf-mute man know that in those rides long before acquiring the rudiments of written language he was wondering about God and the world. One possible answer, albeit possibly not terribly plausible, would be that he detected the same body impressions he had earlier later in his life when he could think in public words. Detection is a matter of finding resemblances – it is about the spontaneity. Sometimes these resemblances are reflected on the body so that they can be detected independently. Mr Ballard has some changes in his body related to a content – say, thinking about God. Two resemblance detectors coincide – the one that depends on the concept “God” and the one dependent on the body change. That they coincide (enough) is a fortunate chance. But isn't matter part of the story to be told about mind-reading?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Object-oriented ontologies vs materialisms: what is at stake 2 (the transcendental)

Following up on the frictions between the object and the matter pole, I was thinking a bit about the transcendental, which is somehow connected to the previous post on objects and concepts, matter and non-conceptual contents.

There is a similarity between those who appeal to matter and those who posit a transcendental level that makes whatever appear possible. Hamilton Grant endorses Deleuze's transcendental volcanism and claims that matter is the stuff that folds and unfolds itself in things. Object-oriented ontologies, on the other hand, posit no special dedicated realm of the transcendental - the conditions of possibility for objects are to be found among objects, maybe among other objects but still among objects. There is no transcendental refuge beyond them, ontogenesis - and this means mainly the origin of objects - is to be done in an object-oriented manner: which objects give rise to which objects. In this sense, the absence of a transcendental promotes a flat ontology where there are no layers other than that of objects. The transcendental that matter provides is that of Schelling's transcendental nature, one that is beyond everything and carries the potentialities for everything that exists while registering history. It is like the layers of the planet that allow for future tectonics while keeping track of previous eruptions. Matter is like the Earth: it harbours a transcendental genealogy, a transcendental geology and a transcendental ginecology. Of all - including morals.

Now, McDowell once said that his disagreement with Davidson was not in any matter of justification - that beliefs justify beliefs - but rather in the transcendental role experience has on our beliefs. He thought that experience makes belief possible and there is a story to be told about that - albeit for him it was clearly a conceptual story. (Notice that the main tract of experience according to McDowell is its passivity, the scope of experience for his has to be one of conceptual passivity and not of non-conceptual ingredients; even though concepts are present, they are present in a passive manner - and passivity is often predicated of matter, or at least of non-formed matter.) Beliefs, he claims, cannot be spinning in the frictionless void as they respond to experience in a form that is external to the realm of beliefs. Here experience has a transcendental role for beliefs to be compared with that of matter for objects: here there ought to be a separate level that makes receptivity possible, there there ought to be a separate level that makes ontogenesis possible. The analogue of the McDowell's position in the object vs matter debate would be that there should be some sort of primeval or primordial level of objects responsible for other objects. Those are not necessarily different objects, but objects that play a different role, a connecting role, an ontogenesis role. In contrast, Davidson's position is that beliefs are grounded on further beliefs - and they are not devoid of any contact with the world because they are intrinsically tied with truth. The analogue of such position would be that objects are the origin of other objects and objects are not devoid of ontogenetic capabilities because they are intrinsically active and animated. A fully object-oriented position.

Here beliefs seem to be like objects for epistemology as I believe the debate replicates in different regions. In any case, there is a difference between postulating a transcendental beyond the object-level (even if it is itself object-oriented) and insisting that objects need no conditions of possibility but the ones provided by further objects.