Monthly Archives: February 2012

Plato on Drugs, Imagination, and Ecology

There are always so many books on Plato coming out, it’s hard to keep up, especially if you’re not a devoted Plato scholar (and I’m not).  In any case, I’ve been trying to keep up with a few of the recent books on Plato.  First, a new book on Plato and ecology was recently released, William Ophuls, Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology (MIT Press, 2011).  Ophuls does a good job of indicating the importance of traditional (i.e., pre-modern) wisdom for developing viable responses to contemporary environmental problems.  Ophuls argues that modern civilization has largely misunderstood Plato, particularly the mystical and shamanic dimensions of Plato’s thinking and Plato’s similarity to Daoist and Native American worldviews. 

Ophuls attempts to show that Plato isn’t the patriarchal dualist that many environmentalists make him out to be, yet Ophuls claims that he isn’t romanticizing Plato.  Plato isn’t an ecological noble savage, but is a “more experienced and wiser savage.”  Ophuls uses a lot of natural law theory, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, and C. G. Jung to develop his political ecology.  Overall, I don’t find Ophuls convincing.  Although he makes assertions that he isn’t romanticizing Plato, he doth protest too much.  He falls into the typical narrative for which the ecological woes of the modern world are due to its disconnection from the spiritual fabric of the universe, which was palpable to traditional/ancient peoples.  That’s far too simplistic of a reading of the emergence of modernity, and a call for more spiritual-material connectedness is far too simple to provide a comprehensive and long-term political solutions to ecological problems. 

In other Plato news, Sonja Tanner has a nice book on Plato’s sense of imagination, In Praise of Plato’s Poetic Imagination (Lexington Books, 2010).  In contrast to the caricature of Plato as an anti-poet and anti-imagination super-rationalist, Tanner shows that there is a more complex role of imagination in Plato, and that complexity can help shine light on contemporary debates about the relationship between philosophy and poetry or, more generally, philosophy and literature.  In particular, I like Tanner’s detailed attention to Plato’s engagement with the “pharmacological structure” of imagination. 

Whether exploring the imagination or political ecology, it seems to me that the key to working with Plato is the complexity and ambiguity of Plato’s pharmakon.  Jacques Derrida’s reading of Plato’s articulation of “drugs” (pharmaka) is already well-known, and more recently Isabelle Stengers has adopted the pharmakon to refer to the kind of knowledge cultivated by cosmopolitics.  Derrida and Stengers have a lot to contribute to a more pharmacological Plato, but the most thorough and comprehensive account of Plato’s pharmacology comes from Michael Rinella, Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens (Lexington Books, 2011).  I’m only a few pages into Rinella’s book, so I don’t have much to say yet.  It’s extremely well-researched.  It’s basically an extension of Foucault’s analysis of sexual ethics to an ethics of drugs, intoxication, and ecstasy.

Climate Change News: Doubters Debunked, Politicians Retreating

The Heartland Institute is a free-market think-tank, and one of its biggest projects is undermining climate science.  When IPCC climate scientists had emails stolen in the Climategate incident of 2009, Heartland expressed joy, saying something about how the release of those stolen documents should make people who believe in climate change reconsider (indeed, abandon) their position.  Now, the tables have turned, and Heartland has had some of its documents stolen and released.  According to one article, Heartland is making this out to be an issue of “common decency and journalistic ethics,” a red herring to draw attention away from the contents of the stolen documents.  A piece in the Guardian sums up the contents of the stolen documents:

The papers indicate that discrediting established climate science remains a core mission of the organisation, which has received support from a network of wealthy individuals – including the Koch oil billionaires as well as corporations such as Microsoft and RJR Tobacco.

The documents confirm what environmental groups such as Greenpeace have long suspected: that Heartland itself is a major source of funding to a network of experts and bloggers who have been prominent in the campaign to discredit established science.

This seems like a perfect opportunity for political leaders to remind people that climate change is real and that it requires real changes to our policies, institutions, lifestyles, etc.  However, that is precisely not what the Obama administration is doing.  In fact, the phrases “climate change” and “global warming” are uttered increasingly less by Obama.  As the State of the Union address indicated, climate change is being replaced by “clean energy.”  Luckily, since it’s clean, nobody has to worry about how much of it we’re using.  The loss of the phrase “climate change” is a bad move rhetorically, politically, scientifically…. it’s a bad move.

Unity Versus Multiplicity in Object-Oriented Ontologies

Are objects unities?  Identities?  Or, on the other hand, are they multiplicities?  This question is answered in different ways in different kinds of object-oriented ontology.  Object-oriented philosophy (represented by Graham Harman) is more focused on unities and identities, whereas onticology (represented by Levi Bryant) prefers multiplicities.  Consider Bryant’s remarks in a recent post:

While objects there are, these objects are neither unities nor identities.  No, they are multiplicities.  The object-oriented philosopher, in a desperate gambit to preserve identity, declares that identity and unity are withdrawn. […]  Such is the phallic logic that haunts object-oriented philosophy.  [….]  The onticologist, by contrast, declares that objects have no unity or identity.  Rather, for the onticologist, objects are pure multiplicities.

Bryant brings up Leibniz and Deleuze/Guattari to elaborate on this point.  An important aspect of Bryant’s position is that objects are wholes and those wholes are parts amidst other parts.  Similarly, when the object-oriented philosopher (Harman, to be specific) affirms the identity of objects, it is not to privilege the whole as opposed to parts.  In short, object-oriented philosophy and onticology both avoid simple whole-part oppositions in their respective definitions of objects.  However, the question or unity or multiplicity nevertheless divides these two approaches to OOO.  Accordingly, Harman (mentioning Deleuze but not Bryant) recently made the following comments about the unity-multiplicity conflict in light of his own call for more attention to Aristotle (in contrast to Žižek’s call for more Hegel).

[A]s long as it remains fashionable to take easy cheap shots at unity and identity with appeals to such concepts as “difference” and “multiplicity,” then you’ll know that we’re still running on the fumes of Generation Deleuze, which was fresh and liberating from around 1995-2007 but now threatens to become last night’s vinegary red wine.

In other words, Harman appreciates Aristotle (as well as Husserl) for positing a unity and identity of objects, and he thinks that the Deleuzian distaste for unity and identity is getting stale.  Harman isn’t dismissing everyone working with Deleuze, he’s “just saying that it’s time to stop adopting all of Deleuze’s heroes and spitting on all of his villains.”  I assume that Harman wouldn’t consider Bryant’s appeal to “multiplicity” as one of the “easy cheap shots” being taken at unity and identity.  It is a shot nonetheless.

I’m not taking sides yet.  I’m just paying attention as object-oriented philosophy and onticology continue developing.  It is nourishing food for thought.  I’ve been deeply influenced by Aristotle and Deleuze, and this question of unity versus multiplicity makes me want to read, re-read, and rethink.

Climate Change in Michigan: Buckeyes are Coming!

How do you get people in Michigan to care about climate change?  Let them know that the Buckeyes are coming.

The USDA has updated their Plant Hardlines Zone Map for the first time in over a decade.  It’s the map that indicates what plants can grow in which regions of the country.  Ann Arbor has moved from zone 5 to the warmer zone 6, which is the zone in which the Ohio buckeye tree grows.

Football is far from irrelevant to environmental ethics and policy.  That’s funny, but it’s also true.

Speculative Philosophy and the Specter of Religion

Reflecting on an upcoming conference, Thinking the Absolute, Levi Bryant posted some thought-provoking remarks on the implications of the speculative turn in philosophy for thinking religion.  The topic reminds me of the anthology edited by Anthony Paul Smith and Daniel Whistler, After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion (2010). 

Bryant’s concluding remarks are right on.  “[I]f the speculative project of philosophy is only complete in thinking both existence and being and their relation, this entails that there is a paradox at the heart of metaphysics. For in striving to think existence, philosophy must think that which is anterior to all thought, that which cannot be represented, and that which evades all conceptual determination. If the speculative project of philosophy is to be completed philosophy must think that which cannot be thought or the unthinkable. Such is the move beyond correlationism and the condition under which it might be possible to exorcise the endlessly returning specter of religion. How this might be done, I don’t know, but such seems to be the projecting [sic] uniting all variants of speculative realism.”

How might this be done?  I don’t know either.  It is no small task: to think the unthinkable and thereby move beyond correlationism and empower the exorcism of the endlessly returning specter of religion.  The task of exorcism is not unlike what Deleuze describes in Nietzsche and Philosophy [Columbia UP, 1986] as philosophy’s “enterprise of demystification,” which demystifies religion, morality, the State, and, of course, philosophy’s own mystifications.  Thinking the unthinkable is active and affirmative, but its demystification is also profoundly sad.  “A philosophy that saddens no one, that annoys no one, is not a philosophy” (p. 106).

Plato and Ecstatic Trance

In a passage from the Phaedrus (265a), Socrates provides an outline of the varieties of mania, of which there are two main types, “one arising from human diseases, and the other from a divine release of customary habits.”  Although discourses such as that in the Timaeus (86b) focus on mania as a disease, specifically dementia (anoia), the passage just quoted from the Phaedrus focuses on mania as it arises from divine release (theias exallages), wherein a god inspires a frenzy that brings one beside oneself (exallos) and out of one’s habits. 

A little later in the Phaedrus, Socrates and Phaedrus recapitulate what they have agreed are the four divisions of this divinely inspired mania, naming each form according to the god that inspires it: 1) the mania of prophetic divination, inspired by Apollo, 2) the mania of rites (teletai), inspired by Dionysus, 3) the mania of poetry, inspired by the Muses, 4) and the mania of love, inspired by Aphrodite and Eros.  Of the four forms of divinely inspired mania, Socrates and Phaedrus agree that the enthusiasm of erotic mania is the best because it brings one to love and remember the ideal truth of beauty, of which all earthly appearances are imitations and reflections. This erotic mania is the focus of the account of Diotima’s speech in the Symposium, which suggests the possibility that Eros inspires a love for the Beautiful (which is intertwined with the Good), and only on the basest level is this love manifest as a love of boys (pederasty). 

Erotic mania is the best type of mania according to Socrates because it inspires a love analogous to the love of wisdom inspired by what is called in the Symposium philosophical mania (philosophon manias)—a love of ideal form expressed through the logos.  This is not to say that any type of mania not inspired by Eros should be inhibited or completely suppressed, but that other forms of mania are less immediate ways of participating in the Good and the Beautiful.  The only type of mania that Plato’s dialogues ever speak of suppressing is that of ritual mania, which is basically a mania of ecstatic trance.  In both the Laws and the Republic, the songs, rhythms, and dances that accompany weaknesses of the soul are deemed unfit for the citizens of the ideal polis, and ritual mania is said to be one way in which such weakness of the soul becomes manifest. 

Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy attempts to overturn the Socratic condemnation of Dionysian ecstasy as degeneration.  Against Socrates, Nietzsche argues that this madness was the source of the greatest joy for the Ancient Greeks, and that the rationality and morality attributed to Socrates are negations of life, which are characteristic of the disintegration of Hellenic culture.

Even though Socrates speaks of erotic mania as the best and of ritual mania as a weakness of the soul, in the Phaedrus he speaks of benefits given through each form of divinely influenced mania, saying that the “greatest of blessings come to us through madness, when it is sent as a gift of the gods.”  Socrates and Phaedrus agree that the Greeks have benefited from the ritual mania inspired by Dionysus, which consists in using prayer, song, dance, cathartic purification, and sacrifice to evoke the arrival of the deity.  Socrates speaks about how divinatory and ritual mania have worked together for the people, with the oracles divining and prescribing the proper rituals to perform in order to invoke a deity to help cure somebody of a disease and bring them back to a sensible state of mind. 

In sum, Plato’s writings are generally supportive of mania insofar as it cures diseases (including other diseases of mania) and promotes rationality in individuals and throughout the republic.  However, the trances and spirit possessions of ritual mania are generally regarded as expressions of weakness that should be withheld from the citizens.  Ritual mania is only deemed helpful in the Phaedrus, and then it is limited to its role in curing disease and curing other weaknesses of the soul.  To put it briefly, Plato suppresses ecstatic trance in favor of reason.  I would argue that this goes hand in hand with Plato’s suppression of the pharmakon.  I’ll say more about that another time.

A Climbing Poem

In previous posts, I discussed the possibility of interpreting poems in terms of their poeticity (i.e. as their own integral units) and not reducing them to their references or their relations to speakers and listeners.  I also considered how this would lend itself to an object-oriented linguistics, for which poeticity does not happen only in poems but in all sentences, phrases, words, morphemes, and phonemes.  Linguistic objects have references and they have relations to speakers and listeners, but they are also alien substances radically different than those references and relations.
When you affirm the poeticity of a linguistic object, you can discuss the capacities harbored within the object itself.  Consider an example: William Carlos Williams’ poem, Poem


As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right

then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty

The poem is “about” a climbing cat, but the poem is not reducible to its referential relationship to actual cats.  The poem itself harbors cat-like capacities of climbing.  The cat-like climbing of the poem is not evident merely from the description of the cat’s adventure, but also from the patterns of sound that are manifest in the poem itself.  For instance, the climbing of voiceless plosives: [t] climbs from its place with [k] in ‘cat’ to its place with [p] in “the pit of/ the empty/ flowerpot.”  Furthermore, [t] climbs from [k] to [p] in three stages, each with four lines.  Therefore, the stanzas of the poem also appear to be in a state of climbing (or Gestalt shifting) from four three-line stanzas to three four-line stanzas.  Similarly, the voiced interdental fricatives in each stanza climb to new positions within each subsequent stanza.  Every climbing that takes place in the poem bears the cat-like movement of climbing over given obstacles and stepping carefully into an empty clearing.  Thus, the dental [t] climbs over the given backness of the velar [k] and fills in the empty frontness of the labial [p].  Climbing is the emptying of the full and the filling of the empty.  There are many other patterns in the poem that resemble the climbing of the cat. 

Twenty of the twenty-seven words in the poem (approximately ¾) are monosyllabic.  Four words in the poem are disyllabic: over2, forefoot6, into10, and empty11.  The other three words in the poem are trisyllabic: jamcloset4, carefully7, and flowerpot12 (the subscript numbers represent line numbers from the poem).  Five of the twelve lines in the poem are composed only of monosyllabic words.  No line has more than one polysyllabic word.  A closer look at the way these words are arranged in the poem will reveal a climbing of words from lines with only monosyllabic words to lines with a polysyllabic word, specifically a trisyllabic word.  There is only one polysyllabic word in the first stanza (stanza A), and it is the disyllabic over2.  Moreover, stanza A is the only stanza without a trisyllabic word.  Stanza B has two polysyllabic words, the trisyllabic jamcloset4 and the disyllabic forefoot6.  The trisyllabic word carefully7 appears at the beginning of stanza C immediately after forefoot6 at the end of stanza B.  Stanza D has the most polysyllabic words with one in each of its three lines: into10, empty11, and flowerpot12.  Along the same line, stanza D is the only stanza that does not have at least one line composed entirely of monosyllabic words.  Stanza A has two lines of only monosyllabic words (1 and 3), stanza B has one such line (5), and stanza C has two such lines (8 and 9).

The climbing from monosyllables to polysyllables does not occur as a consistent increase in polysyllabic words throughout the course of the poem.  The main climb occurs through a series of smaller climbs.  The disyllabic over2 in stanza A is the first movement out of pure monosyllabicity.  In stanza B, the movement out of monosyllabicity progresses, with only one line (5) not bearing a polysyllabic word.  This movement progresses through the first word of stanza C, carefully7.  However, at this point the careful climbers move back down to base camp out of the thin air of polysyllabic words.  The two lines after carefully7 are the only two consecutive monosyllabic lines in the poem.  With five consecutive monosyllabic words, these two lines have more consecutive monosyllabic words than any others in the poem.  Thus, the final ascent to polysyllabicity, which will take place in the last stanza, is prefaced by a long stay in monosyllabicity.  Finally, the lines of stanza D each bear a polysyllabic word.  (The first line of stanza D appears sore-thumbed because, with four words and five syllables, it has the more words and syllables than any other line.)   The poem ends with two consecutive polysyllabic words (empty11 and flowerpot12).  This pinnacle of polysyllabicity was foreshadowed in the part of the climb that culminated in the only other pair of consecutive polysyllabic words, forefoot6 and  carefully7, which were separated by a stanza break.

Just as the cat climbed over the jamcloset into the flowerpot, so did [t] climb from [k] to [p] (i.e., back to front), and so do the words of the poem climb from monosyllabicity to polysyllabicity.  There are a few other ways through which the passage from stanza A to stanza D can be seen as a climb that culminates in the “empty flowerpot” being stepped into.

1. I said that carefullyand flowerpot12 are related as the only two polysyllables to follow consecutively.  These two words also bear the sound-pattern of climbing.  The last [k] of poem (from which [t] steps down to [p]) happens in carefully7, along with an [r], [f], and [l], none of which appear again until flowerpot12, wherein [r] climbs to the right of the consonantal line as [f], [l], and [r].

2. There is also somewhat of a climbing with the labiodental fricatives, wherein [v] (voiced) in line-final position climbs to [f] (voiceless) at word initial positions.  Out of the three voiced labiodental fricatives, two are line final (line 3 and 10) and one is the onset of a line-final syllable (line 2).  Out of the five voiceless labiodental fricatives, three are line-initial (line 5, 6, and 12) and two are at the onset of the second syllables in line 6 and line 7.  Thus, [v] climbs away from voice at the end of the lines 1 and 2 toward voiceless at the beginning of the lines 5, 6, and 7, back to voice at the end of line 10, finally stopping at the voiceless beginning of line 12.

3. Another interesting pattern might be more of a mirroring than a climbing, over maybe both.  The words per line in stanza B mirror the words per line in stanza C.  Lines 4, 5, and 6 have 2, 3, and 1 word(s) per line respectively.  Lines 7, 8, and 9 have 1, 3, and 2 word(s) per line respectively.  Thus, the pattern is 2, 3, 1, 1, 3, 2, and between the pair of one-word lines is the stanza break marking the middle of the poem.

In short, virtual capacities of climbing are at work in the poem itself.  The more that you lay out the patterns in the poem, the more you can feel the pull of the poem’s poeticity, its attraction and its withdrawal from all references and relations.  I’ve been looking over Williams’ Poem off and on for almost a decade now, and although the poem and I are becoming companions, I have not gotten any closer to touching its unfathomable depth.