Friday, August 14, 2009

Philosophical lineage

That whole long reflection on science fiction philosophy can serve as a preface to, and restatement of, some thoughts on the line of philosophers that leads from Deleuze back to Lucretius (and maybe beyond, for all I know).  The good Herr Doktor asked me about this the other day when his dad was around.  How would I describe what held together Deleuze's precursors and fellow travelers -- Whitehead, Bergson, Nietsche, Spinoza, Lucretius?  I have been extracting ore from this metallic line for 5 years now, so I should be able to put some sort of summary to it.  So here goes -- and I'm going for intelligible summary here, so don't bitch if you know some of these thinkers and think that I'm cutting some corners.

I think the three key concepts are immanence, self-organization, and evolution, though in reality these are just different facets of the same vision.  The most fundamental place to start is the idea of immanence -- everything that exists comes from within the world, there is no transcendent principle or plan that stands outside it organizing things.  This thesis has the effect of leveling hierarchical ontologies like Plato's that posit some fundamental qualitative difference between this world and the world beyond, a world of appearance and a world of reality.  By contrast, this line of philosophers continually appeal to this world, and to the idea that everything within it is constructed, that nothing is given by fiat, or smuggled in from outside of time.

Ontology is the study of Being, by the way.  If you want to read more about everything being constructed, you can check out this unfinished essay on the body without organs (aka the un-organ-ized body) that I have been working on.  Not recently of course.

Every thing is thus a temporary, more or less stable, agglomeration of parts, separated from the rest of the world only relatively, by its ability to cohere in space and time.  Things actually spontaneously come into being as the parts the compose them settle into some stable self-organization.  In fact, all organization, on this view, is self-organization -- where else would it come from? You probably want to know what the parts are made of, and the answer is other parts.  You can almost measure your distance along the line by the consistency with which this answer is applied.  Lucretius stops with the atoms. Deleuze goes all the way.

Because these things emerge from within the world, because they are constructed rather than given, they are also constantly evolving, both internally, and in terms of how they are swept up in their surrounding context.  The basic ontological picture that emerges is of an eternally flowing river where the patterns of flow constitute the stuff of our world.  Immanence.  Self-organization.  Evolution.

The ontological similarity is only half the reason for tracing this line of thought though, and the less important, purely technical half.  There is another more profound side to this worldview, which has to do with the way it encourages you to actually live.  Because this vision of immanence, of the shifting porous boundaries between things, has an intensely ethical dimension.  It strikes down any transcendent morality and immediately uproots humanity from its "rightful" place at the center of existence -- we come into being just like everything else.  This is an ethics that is entirely amoral, an ethics that refuses to stop with any set of arbitrary moral principles graven in stone.  It is an ethics where you can still hear the echo of "ethology", where the limits to what you are and how you behave (if indeed, there is any sense in distinguishing these) are not pre-ordained but simply defined by what you can do.

(Aside: this ain't existentialism neither.  The point is not to sit around whingeing that God is dead.  Nor is it to say that we have to "create our own meaning" in life.  There's no freakin' meaning, so let's get on with doing whatever we wanted to do.  'Cause we still want stuff even though it doesn't mean anything.  Meaning is mostly just some bullshit we made up to keep ourselves in line.)

So this line has an importance beyond the technical similarity of these thinkers' shared ontology.  These are thinkers of freedom and liberation who take the absence of ideals as an invitation to discover what we are capable of.  How can we live better?  How can we connect our flows up to others an expand ourselves?  What can humanity become if you unshackle it from the limits of a thousand petty gods?  What can you become if you first pass through this purifying philosophical fire?  What expanse of unknown joys lies before us, and how do we begin to chart this territory?

As you can see, there's an almost new-agey-ness to these thinkers.  They are all about joy and creation and the meaninglessness of death.  Not, however, because they believe in the greater reality of some other world, but because they believe so firmly in the importance of this one.

That little flight of fancy leads directly to the last important thing that links these thinkers together -- a deep concern for aesthetics.  In fact, you might say that for any of them, aesthetics, rightly conceived, is the most fundamental category.  Aesthetics is a sort of post-existentialist version of morality; what else is left as a means of judgement when you dispense with morality and accept that no one formation of the world is any more fundamental than another?  This radical leveling returns aesthetics to the center of philosophy, and perhaps that is why all of these philosophers (with the exception o Whitehead) are such brilliant writers and stylists, such poets.  Philosophy is for life and if it doesn't move you to see the ever-unfolding beauty of the world -- if it doesn't, in fact, do its part to unfurl a new bit of beautiful existence -- then it is not doing its job. 

A flat ontology of immanence, a deep belief that philosophy is more than an academic discipline, and the centrality of aesthetics as a means of judging philosophy's effects on life.  That's how I'd sum up this line of thinkers.  You can immediately see how it's a line of bastard rebels who could never become the establishment.  It's every man for the universe.

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