The Problem with Descartes: It’s Not Dualism

Some people, a lot of people, treat René Descartes as a sort of bogeyman of modern philosophy. Somehow, in the first half of the seventeenth century, Descartes sundered the seamless fabric of Being into two factions, mind and body, a thinking thing and an extended thing, res cogitans and res extensa. With that dualism set in place, soul was thereby evacuated from the universe…except for a tiny piece of property that soul could rent out in the human head, accessed through a steep driveway in the pineal gland. In a universe devoid of soul, humans lost any motivation or justification for caring about anything beyond the solipsistic ego. Thanks a lot, René! There’s no concern for other humans, for community, or for the natural world. Mechanistic thinking thus spurred the rapacious destruction of ecosocial integrity through the development of industrial technologies and market economies. Now, as humans are sawing off the environmental limb that we’re sitting on, it’s more urgent than ever to overcome Cartesian dualism and find a way back into the seamless interconnectivity of existence. No, not really. Something is very wrong with that story. “In order to seek truth,” as Descartes says in his Principles of Philosophy, “it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” Well, one of the things of which I’m doubtful is the idea that dualism is what’s wrong with Descartes.

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Nine Theses on Fire Politics

In his Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx includes eleven statements expanding on the materialist philosophy of Ludwig  Feuerbach. Marx does not mention the material burning within the German name Feuerbach: the elemental materiality of fire (Feuer). More than 150 years later, Jacques Rancière’s Ten Theses on Politics proposed an aesthetic definition of politics as dissensus (not consensus), a distancing of the aesthetic from itself: a partition, distribution, or sharing of the sensible (partage du sensible). Between these materialist and aesthetic political philosophies, there are cinders, remnants of another politics: sharing fire (partage du feu). Theses are burning down, from Marx’s eleven theses, down to Rancière’s ten theses, down to the following nine theses on Feuerpolitik.
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Philosophy as Resistance: Commons for All

Thinking of philosophy as resistance, one might think first of the philosophical activities of Marxists, feminists, and environmentalists.  I would add process philosophers to that list.  For Bergson, for instance, philosophizing is a violent inversion of the status quo.

The mind has to do violence to itself, has to reverse the direction of the operation by which it habitually thinks, has perpetually to revise, or rather recast, all its categories.  But in this way it will attain to fluid concepts, capable of following reality in all its sinuosities and of adopting the very movement of the inward life of things.  Only thus will a progressive philosophy be built up, freed from the disputes which arise between the various schools, and able to solve its problems naturally, because it will be released from the artificial expression in terms of which such problems are posited.  To philosophize, therefore, is to invert the habitual direction of the work of thought. (Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics [trans. T. E. Hulme. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912], p. 51).

That’s not very different from Whitehead’s claim that philosophy “reverses the slow descent of accepted thought towards the inactive commonplace” (Modes of Thought, p. 174).  The question I’m left with is to what extent Bergson and Whitehead can facilitate resistance to a particularly obstinate habit that pervades late modernity: the enclosure of the commons (the becoming-inactive of the commonplace).  For Bergson, resistance to enclosures might have something to do with love, reminiscent of his famous saying, “The motive power of democracy is love.”  In Whitehead, maybe the notion of conformation provides a sense of the commons.  Consider a few quotes from Process and Reality:

The philosophy of organism holds that, in order to understand “power,” we must have a correct notion of how each individual actual entity contributes to the datum from which its successors arise and to which they must conform. (p. 56)

The pragmatic use of the actual entity, constituting its static life, lies in the future. The creature perishes and is immortal. The actual entities beyond it can say, “It is mine.” But the possession imposes conformation. (p. 82)

..and from Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, “Time in the concrete is the conformation of state to state” (35).

Some discussion of the DeleuzoGuattarian concepts of Hardt/Negri would help elaborate on the role of process thought in resisting enclosures and recuperating the commons, as would a discussion of Anne Pomeroy’s work on Marx and Whitehead and the anthology Bergson, Politics, and Religion, edited by Alexandre Lefebvre and Melanie White.  I’ll have more to say about this later.  In the meantime, I’m enjoying the essays in The Wealth of the Commons, edited by two wonderful defenders of the commons, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich.

Deleuze and Wolves

Between Deleuze’s individually written works and his co-written works (with Guattari), he deploys a swarm of concepts.  With that supernumerary distribution of concepts, one might think that there are thus many entry points into readings of Deleuze.  However, some concepts seem to stand out and receive more attention than the others.  The obvious example would be the rhizome.  Everybody likes to bring up the rhizome, whether favorably or critically (e.g., Badiou’s “The Fascism of the Potato”).

It seems like Deleuze’s affinity for human-wolf multiplicities (i.e., werewolves) is another favorite.  I can think of three examples off the top of my head.  First, Catherine Malabou’s “Who’s Afraid of Hegelian Wolves” brings up D&G’s affirmation of wolf multiplicities to criticize Deleuze for doing to Hegel what Freud did to the Wolf Man: homogenizing and totalizing his encounter with plurality and difference.

Second, Jacob Sherman (“No Werewolves in Theology?”) brings up werewolves to critique Deleuze’s rejection of transcendence and to offer an alternative vision for which contemplative engagements with transcendence provide the sort of liberation of becoming that Deleuze was seeking.  In short, becoming-wolf is much closer to becoming-divine than Deleuze admits.

Third, in When Species Meet, Donna Haraway brings up becoming-animal and becoming-wolf to criticize Deleuze (and Guattari) for privileging wolf-human becomings over dog-human becomings (privileging the wild over the domestic, smuggling in a wildness that looks way too much like transcendent divinity).  She thinks that becoming-animal should be much more affirmative of domestic companions, mundane reality, and old women with lapdogs.

Interestingly, Haraway is the only one to challenge the wolf trope and thus challenge the fascination that the rest of us have with Deleuzian wolves.  Malabou and Sherman seem to say that, contra Deleuze’s critiques of Hegel and theological transcendence, Hegel (Malabou) and contemplative mysticism (Sherman) are just as good as Deleuze (if not better) at becoming-wolf.  Haraway, on the other hand, suggests that looking for wolf multiplicities might not be a good way to valorize a philosophical or theological position.  We should be attending instead to the ontics and antics of companion species.

Whether Hegelians and contemplative mystics can get along well with companion species is a question to which Malabou and Sherman surely would respond masterfully.  In any case, the point here is simply that the alarm that gets our attention need not be “There are wolves!”  It reminds me of a fable about a scholar who cried wolf.

Inhuman Perspectivism: A Truth of the Relative

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari distinguish between the relativity of truth and the truth of the relative in their concept of partial observers.  Unlike claims of a relativity of truth, for which truth is relative to different subject positions of human observers, the truth of the relative is inhuman, constituted by the experimental/experiential forces of the things themselves.   Consider their conceptualization of perspectivism in light of quantum physics. 

Heisenberg’s demon does not express the impossibility of measuring both the speed and the position of a particle on the grounds of a subjective interference of the measure with the measured, but it measures exactly an objective state of affairs that leaves the respective position of two of its particles outside of the field of its actualization, the number of independent variables being reduced and the values of the coordinates having the same probability. […]  Perspectivism, or scientific relativism, is never relative to a subject: it constitutes not a relativity of truth but, on the contrary, a truth of the relative, that is to say, of variables whose cases it orders according to the values it extracts from them in its system of coordinates. […]  In short, the role of a partial observer is to perceive and to experience, although these perceptions and affections are not those of a man, in the currently accepted sense, but belong to the things studied. […] Partial observers are forces. […] Partial observers are sensibilia.  [What is Philosophy? (1994) pp. 129-131]

Tool, Deleuze-Guattari, Dionysus

For about a year, I’ve been slowly developing a pop analysis (Deleuze and Guattari) of the music of Tool, particularly with reference to Nietzsche’s hope for a Dionysian future of music.  The good people at Nomos Journal have published a short piece I wrote on that topic (thanks, Seth).  You can find it HERE.

Tool, Rock, and the Dionysian Future of Music

In Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche declares his “tremendous hope” for “a Dionysian future of music,” in which music would free itself from moralizing and rationalizing tendencies and creatively affirm the boundary-dissolving experiences that accompany states of ecstasy.  In the twentieth century, many forms of popular music have contributed to the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s Dionysian hope.  I’m interested in adapting the poststructuralist method of “pop analysis” developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to consider how Dionysian religious impulses are at work in the genre of rock music, with specific attention to the music of Tool, a contemporary American rock band comprised of a vocalist, drummer, guitarist, and bassist.  Tool’s music connects with religious elements of personal transformation, ritual ecstasy, and esotericism while also harboring a critique of authoritarian religious beliefs and institutions. 

A full analysis must wait.  In the meantime, an outline will suffice.  There are at least three main points to discuss: 1) Nietzsche’s critique of Western music and his proposal for a more Dionysian music, 2) the Dionysian religiosity of popular music, and 3) the religious elements present in the lyrical, instrumental, and performative dimensions Tool’s music.   

1. Nietzsche’s critique of Western music can be understood as a critique of logocentrism, according to which music is subordinate to the clear boundaries drawn by rationality and discourse.  This logocentrism is evident in Plato, including his Republic, where the ideal city is described as one in which songs should be arranged in a hierarchy that subordinates their harmony and rhythm to their verbal element, their logos.  This logocentric subordination of rhythm and instrumental harmony also occurs in Christian religious music (e.g., plainchant and liturgical music), where logos is Christ.  In a modern secular context, one can notice this subordination of music to logos in Rousseau’s essay “On the Origin of Languages,” according to which music arises out of imitations of language, not experiences of sound or hearing. 

For Nietzsche, the logocentric domination of music is a life-negating habit that should be overcome by a life-affirming sense of music, a Dionysian music wherein the intense and boundary-dissolving power of rhythm and sound is encountered as a wellspring of creative enchantment.  Moreover, by invoking Dionysus, Nietzsche indicates that this life-affirming music occasions ecstatic states not unlike those experienced by participants in ancient Dionysian rituals.

2. Many forms of twentieth-century music contributed to overcoming logocentrism (e.g., Schoenberg’s atonal pieces, Cage’s aleatory and silent compositions), however the music that has been most Dionysian emerged not in classical or art music but in popular music.  As the pop analysis developed by Deleuze and Guattari suggests, becoming heterogeneous and minoritarian is the only way to effectively escape the master signifiers and major identities that dominate music, and that is precisely what pop music and pop culture accomplish.  Whether rock, country, or hip-hop, popular music spreads through mainstream culture in the horizontal networks of subcultural and countercultural trends, thus engaging while also subverting the standards and authorities that mark the proper boundaries of music as a “fine” or “high” art. 

Lyrics in popular music use local dialects and diverse idioms that transgress proper grammar.  The rhythms and melodies are extremely repetitive, designed not to express a clear development of musical motifs but to provoke uninhibited dancing, community building, sexual activity, and ecstatic states.  The live performances of popular music are very loud, and the behavior of audience members includes acts that are not welcome at a classical music venue (e.g., enthusiastic screaming, singing along with the performers, nudity, and drug use).  In short, the lyrical, instrumental, and performative dimensions of popular music enact Dionysian modes of becoming that escape the logocentrism of Western music.  This is particularly apparent in the music of Tool.

3.  Tool was founded in the 1990s and is still performing and releasing new music.  Tool fits in the genre of rock, but is also closely connected to metal, punk, and progressive genres.  Their lyrics express critiques of religion, as in songs like “Opiate” and “Eulogy,” which satirize religious claims to authority or leadership and the weakness of those who follow that leadership.  Amidst the critique of religion, the lyrics also express commitments to personal transformation and the realization of the divine potential of humanity, specifically using images and symbols from esoteric traditions of hermeticism, alchemy, astrology, and ritual magic.  Some language is more explicitly religious, for instance, singing of embodied existence as a “holy gift” (“Parabola”) in which one can realize one’s “divinity and still be a human” (“Lateralus”). 

The Dionysian character of the lyrics shows up forcefully in the use of profanity in the lyrics, the use of screaming in the vocal melody, and multiple allusions to drug intoxication, disorder, transgressive sexual acts, and death-rebirth experiences.  Furthermore, the lyrics are not the dominant part of the music.  The rhythms and instrumental harmonies of the guitar, bass, and drums are not mixed into the background but are just as prominent as the vocals.  The distorted and electronically altered sounds of the guitar and bass contribute much emotional and chaotic intensity to the music. 

The beats played by the drums frequently make use of polyrhythms, wherein multiple meters occur simultaneously.  Not incidentally, polyrhythms are a defining trait of the ritual music of African diaspora traditions, where the mixture of meters corresponds to the mixture of divinity and humanity that occurs in the spirit possession states that the music occasions.  Tool’s drummer makes conscious use of polyrhythms, and he uses hermetic correspondences to arrange his drum set.  The Dionysian religiosity of Tool’s music is apparent at the live performances, where the stage is often decorated with the psychedelic artworks of the visionary painter, Alex Grey, and audience members encounter drug use, nudity, dancing, moshing, and various boundary-dissolving states of consciousness. 

In short, Tool’s music fulfills Nietzsche’s Dionysian hope and thereby engages in a wildly experiential version of what John Caputo calls “religion without religion,” with lyrics, harmonies, and rhythms enacting a creative dissolution of boundaries while overcoming the life-negating logocentrism and authoritarianism of Western music and religion.