Whitehead on Causality and Perception

December 6th, 2014

Here’s my talk from the Whitehead Research Project’s conference on Rethinking Symbolism.

Whitehead discusses symbolism – among other reasons – in order to get a handle on the problem of error. This, of course, is something that has preoccupied Western philosophy for a long time. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy begins with his worries about "how numerous were the false opinions that in my youth I had taken to be true, and how doubtful were all those that I had subsequently built upon them." Whitehead’s erstwhile collaborator Bertrand Russell similarly opens his own volume on The Problems of Philosophy with the question: "Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?" Modern Western philosophy – from Descartes through Kant, and on to today – generally privileges epistemology over ontology. We cannot claim to know the way things are, without first giving an account of how it is that we know. We cannot consider the consequences of a proposition, until we have first assured ourselves that it is free from error.

Whitehead gives his own deceptively bland statement of the problem of truth and error towards the beginning of Symbolism:

An adequate account of human mentality requires an explanation of (i) how we can know truly, (ii) how we can err, and (iii) how we can critically distinguish truth from error. (S 7)

Despite this unexceptionable goal, however, Whitehead does not seem to think that the problem of error is of great importance. Indeed, he takes what most philosophers would consider a cavalier, and indeed irresponsible, attitude towards the whole question. For he holds that "in the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true" (PR 259). A scientific observation, a common-sense hypothesis, or even a rigorous philosophical formulation may have relevent and important consequences, despite the fact that it is erroneous. For this reason, Whitehead is less concerned with eliminating error than in experimenting with it, and seeing what might arise from it. Error is not an evil to be exterminated, but a frequently useful "lure for feeling" (PR 25 and passim). It is a productive detour in the pathways of mental life: "We must not, however, judge too severely of error. In the initial stages of mental progress, error in symbolic reference is the discipline which promotes imaginative freedom" (S 19).

It is worth underlining how rare this position is in Western philosophy. It may well be a cliché of educational method (a subject in which Whitehead himself was deeply interested) that making mistakes is a necessary part of learning. But most philosophers overlook this. They are more concerned with the nature and content of truth, than they are with the question of how we may learn to attain it. Deleuze is the only other major philosopher I know who joins Whitehead in regarding the problem of error as in itself merely trivial (Difference and Repetition 148-151).

Western philosophy in general is so preoccupied with the question of error, because it is deeply concerned with the unreliability of immediate experience – or of the body and the senses. From Plato’s allegory of the cave, through Descartes’ radical doubt about the evidence provided by his physical organs, right on up to Thomas Metzinger’s claim that experience is nothing but an internal, virtual-reality simulation, philosophers have been haunted by the idea that sense perception is delusional – and that, as a result, our beliefs about the world might well be radically wrong.

Even if we trust the evidence of our senses, however, we may still be severely limited in the extent of what we can actually know. Hume is sceptical, not so much of the deliverances of the senses themselves, as of what we can legitimately infer from them. For Hume, "all events seem entirely loose and separate. One event follows another; but we never can observe any tie between them. They seem conjoined but never connected" (Enquiry 47). It is true that we often observe the "constant conjunction" of certain events. But correlation is not causation, and we cannot legitimately infer from the former to the latter. Hume concludes that the "idea of a necessary connexion among events" arises only because "the mind is carried by habit" to expect a second, associated event when it encounters the first.

Kant, of course, endeavors to overcome Hume’s scepticism by means of a transcendental argument. We cannot do without causality. If relations of cause and effect cannot be found in sense data themselves, as Hume maintains, then it must inhere in "our ways of thought about the data" (S 37). For Kant, causality is rescued as an a priori category of the understanding. If we were not able to organize the sense data we receive according to the laws of cause and effect, Kant says, then we would scarcely be able to have subjective experience at all.

Recent philosophy most often treats causality in a Humean spirit, rather than a Kantian one. Thus the late analytic philosopher David K. Lewis maintains that "all there is to the world is a vast mosaic of local matters of particular fact, just one little thing and then another" (Philosophical Papers, Volume II, ix). Relations of cause and effect may be observed to supervene upon these particular facts; but Lewis argues, following Hume, that we cannot make any inference from such observations to a deeper sort of necessity. For we can always imagine, without logical contradiction, counterfactual possible worlds in which events could have turned out differently. Analytic philosophers love to float scenarios in which, for instance, water is not composed of H~2~O (Putnam, "Meaning and Reference"), or people devoid of sentience nonetheless act in ways that are indisinguishable from everyone else (Chalmers, The Conscious Mind, 93-122). Indeed, Lewis’s "modal realism" asserts that we must accept the reality of all these alternative possible worlds.

As Jeff Bell has noted, there is a certain similarity between Lewis’s doctrine of Humean Supervenience and the revivial, by the speculative realist philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, of what he calls "Hume’s Problem" (AF 82-111). For Meillassoux, Hume establishes once and for all that neither experience (which only pertains to the past and present, never to the future) nor a priori reasoning (which can only exclude logical contradictions) is able to guarantee the necessity of causal relations. For "there is nothing contradictory in thinking that the same causes could produce different effects tomorrow" (AF 87). If the prospect of arbitrary change is not impossible, Meillassoux argues, then it cannot be excluded from the world as it is. Where Lewis affirms the reality of all possible worlds, Meillassoux argues for "the absolute necessity of contingency," or of sheer ungrounded possibility, in our own world (AF 65).

Hume and Kant alike, as well as their followers, share what Whitehead calls the "naive presupposition of ‘simple occurrence’ for the mere data" – or better, of "simple location," since it applies "to space as well as to time" (S 38). It little matters for Whitehead, therefore, whether "causal efficacy" is defined with Hume as "a habit of thought" or with Kant as "a category of thought" (S 39-40). In both cases, relations and forms of organization are abstracted away from the matrix of things themselves, and attributed only to the mind that observes these things. "Both schools find ‘causal efficacy’ to be the importation, into the data, of a way of thinking or judging about those data" (S 39).

Whitehead, however, rejects the presuppositions that underlie this whole history of argument. For Whitehead denies that events in themselves are ever merely "loose and separate," or that the world can be reduced to "local matters of particular fact." In the actual world, he says, "there is nothing which ‘simply happens’" (S 38). There are no isolated data, because in every act of experience "the datum includes its own interconnections" already (PR 113). In order to explain how this works, Whitehead distinguishes between two separate modes of perceptive experience: presentational immediacy and causal efficacy. These two modes, together with the ways that they are fused in symbolic reference, form the main subject of Symbolism. The distinction between these two modes is further elaborated in Process and Reality.

Presentational immediacy roughly corresponds to Descartes’ "clear and distinct perceptions," to Hume’s "impressions," and to Kant’s "sensible intuitions." Whitehead defines it as "our immediate perception of the contemporary external world," an appearance "effected by the mediation of qualities, such as colours, sounds, tastes, etc." (S 21). Presentational immediacy is the great source of sensuous richness. But it only provides us with clearly demarcated representations; and it is confined to the present moment, without any thickness of duration. For these reasons, presentational immediacy is severely limited in what it reveals of the world. As Whitehead says, presentational immediacy is "vivid, precise, and barren" (S 23). It "displays a world concealed under an adventitious show, a show of our own bodily production" (S 44). But for this very reason, it leaves us with a hollow sense of depthless mere appearances. This is the root of philosophical scepticism, in Hume and throughout modernity.

According to Whitehead, the problem with standard philosophical accounts of perception is that these accounts are only concerned with presentational immediacy. They entirely ignore other modes of experience. They take it for granted that our empirical experience is limited to individual sense impressions, or to the "local matters of particular fact" that correspond to these impressions. This assumption is what allows Hume to argue that objects are nothing more than hypothetical bundles of qualities. It is also what drives Kant to conclude that only the mind can bring order to what would otherwise be a chaos of unrelated impressions.

Whitehead, however, suggests that Hume and Kant do not even give presentational immediacy its proper due. For he insists that, even if we restrict ourselves to just this mode of perception, "the world discloses itself to be a community of actual things, which are actual in the same sense as we are" (S 21). When we are looking at a wall, for instance, "our perception is not confined to universal characters; we do not perceive disembodied colour or disembodied extensiveness: we perceive the wall‘s colour and extensiveness" (S 15). Contrary to the empiricist assumption of separate, atomistic qualia, in fact "there are no bare sensations which are first experienced and then ‘projected’ into our feet as their feelings, or onto the opposite wall as its colour" (S 14). The supposedly atomistic, qualitative sense-data are not initially isolated from one another. Rather, Whitehead says, such qualities "can be thus isolated only by abstracting them from their implication in the scheme of spatial relatedness of the perceived things to each other and to the perceiving subject… the sense-data are generic abstractions" (S 22).

It is worth noting that Graham Harman, with his object-oriented ontology, also opposes what he describes as "the widespread empiricist view that the supposed objects of experience are nothing but bundles of qualities." Harman rather insists that qualities are never isolable, but always "bonded to the thing to which they belong" (The Quadruple Object 11). Harman attributes this point to Husserl, for whom an "intentional object" is not the sum of its adumbrations, but always more than its multiple aspects or qualities (24-25). "According to Husserl we encounter the intentional object directly in experience from the start"; it does not have to be "built up as a bundle of perceptually discrete shapes and colors, or even from tiny pixels of sense experience woven together by habit" (25).

My reason for mentioning this is that Whitehead makes the same distinction as Husserl does – at least according to Harman’s reading of Husserl. Whitehead most likely makes this point without having encountered it in Husserl. It is true that Whitehead had students – most notably Charles Hartshorne – who had also studied with Husserl and were familiar with his writings. But I don’t see any evidence for Husserl’s influence upon Whitehead, even when – as here – they come to parallel conclusions. The comparison between phenomenology and Whitehead’s thought is too vast a subject for me to go over here in any detail. I will only state, quite flatly and perhaps unfairly, that, for me, one great advantage of Whitehead’s formulations is precisely that they come without the philosophical baggage of intentionality and the epoche. Such basic notions of phenomenology are still centered upon a transcendental subject. I would even argue – though I am well aware how controversial this is – that, despite Husserl’s theory of retention and protention, the phenomenological accounts of perception still don’t give a full enough account of the thickness of what William James called the "specious present." Phenomenologists are aware of the defects what Whitehead calls "the naive assumption of time as pure succession" (S ?). But the theory of intentionality does not allow them to break radically enough with the default assumption that presentational immediacy is the primary form of perceptual experience.

Be that as it may, for Whitehead the major defect in mainstream philosophical accounts of perception is that they leave out any consideration of causal efficacy. The physical sciences, on the other hand, are predominantly concerned with causal efficacy, but they treat it only as an objectified process, comprehended by a "view from nowhere." In this way, the split between presentational immediacy and causal efficacy is a prime instance of what Whitehead calls the bifurcation of nature. The scientists, no less than the philosophers, neglect causal efficacy as a form of perception, or as a mode of experience. It is only by treating causal efficacy experientially, and understanding how it becomes entwined with presentational immediacy in the operations of symbolic reference, that we can overcome the opposition between phenomenology and natural science, or between "the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness" (CN 31).

Whitehead goes to great lengths in Symbolism to argue, not only that causal efficacy is a mode of perception, but also that it is the most primordial mode of perception, far deeper than presentational immediacy. The latter "is only of importance in high-grade organisms" (S 16). But "the direct perception of causal efficacy" (S 39) operates everywhere. For it involves "the overwhelming conformation of fact, in present action, to antecedent settled fact" (S 41). Indeed, Whitehead says,

the perception of conformation to realities in the environment is the primitive element in our external experience. We conform to our bodily organs and to the vague world which lies beyond them. (S 43)

Without this conformation of the present to the past, this physical experience of causal efficacy, the clarities and intensities of presentational immediacy could not even arise for us in the first place. Even our most clear and distinct perceptions are grounded in a deeper sense that is "vague, haunting, unmanagable" (S 43). Our very awareness of sharp and delicious sensations, and our ability to make subtle discriminations among them – what Whitehead describes as our "self-enjoyment derived from the immediacy of the show of things" – is underwritten and made possible by "the perception of the pressure from a world of things with characters in their own right, characters mysteriously moulding our own natures" (S 44). A heavy otherness insinuates itself into even our clearest and most distinct perceptions, which is why there can be no "solipsism of the present moment" (S 29).

This massive underlying pressure of causal efficacy is also what produces and accounts for our apprehension of things as more than just bundles of qualities:

These primitive emotions are accompanied by the clearest recognition of other actual things reacting upon ourselves. The vulgar obviousness of such recognition is equal to the vulgar obviousness produced by the functioning of any one of our five senses. When we hate, it is a man that we hate and not a collection of sense-data – a causal, efficacious man. (S 45)

The vagueness of the emotional experience of causal efficacy does not prevent, but rather actually calls forth, an awareness that things actually do exist outside us and apart from us. In other words, "we encounter the… object directly in experience from the start," as Harman insists, rather than building up a representation of the object from a bundle of separate sense impressions. My direct experience of the object in the mode of causal efficacy subtends my identification of it in the mode of presentational immediacy. And it is only by abstracting away from causal efficacy, with its "overwhelming conformation of fact, in present action, to antecedent settled fact" (S 41) that we can enjoy the subtle and disinterested aesthetic pleasures of presentational immediacy.

This is why, following Whitehead, I dissent from Harman’s insistence that "real objects cannot touch" (The Quadruple Object 73), and that causation can only be "vicarious" (128). For this is only the case from the viewpoint of presentational immediacy. In causal efficacy, objects do literally touch one another. This immediacy of touch follows directly from "the principle of conformation, whereby what is already made becomes a determinant of what is in the making… The present fact is luminously the outcome from its predecessors, one quarter of a second ago" (S 46). The principle of conformation applies equally to my own continuity with who I was a quarter of a second ago, and to my contact with things that have impinged upon me in the past quarter second.

Harman worries that all distinction would be lost if actual contact were possible. He argues that the idea "of indirect-but-partial contact cannot work… Direct contact could only be all or nothing" (Bells and Whistles 34). Harman’s problem is to maintain separation at the same time that he accounts for causal influence. As Harman puts it, even when fire burns cotton, there is no direct contact between these two entities. The fire may well obliterate the cotton with no remainder. But even then, Harman says, "fire does not interact at all" with such qualities as "the cotton’s odor or color" (The Quadruple Object 44). Therefore fire and cotton remain ontologically separate, in accordance with Harman’s dictum that "the object is a dark crystal veiled in a private vacuum" (47).

Now, Isabelle Stengers insists that Whitehead always works as a mathematician, even when he is engaged in philosophical speculation. Whitehead does not posit absolute principles; rather, he always confronts specific problems, by producing a construction that observes all "the constraints that the solution will have to satisfy" (Thinking With Whitehead 33). In this sense, Whitehead’s distinction between presentational immediacy and causal efficacy is itself constructed as a way to resolve the problem of error, and scepticism about causality, that are found in the Humean and Kantian traditions.

I would like to suggest that, in this way, Whitehead offers a construction that resolves what I have just called Harman’s problem. He argues that, at one and the same time, "actual things are objectively in our experience and formally existing in their own completeness… no actual thing is ‘objectified’ in its ‘formal’ completeness" (S 25-26). This allows him to assert both:

  1. that things actually do enter into direct contact with other things, as they partially determine the composition of those other things; and
  2. that no particular thing is entirely subsumed, either by the other things that entered into it and helped to determine its own composition, nor by the other things into which it subsequently enters.

In this way, Whitehead’s construction satisfies – ahead of time – all the conditions of Harman’s problem, without accepting Harman’s vision of objects as inviolable substances. I will note as well that Whitehead’s reappropriation of the old scholastic distinction between "formal" and "objective" existence has an affinity with Tristan Garcia’s version of object-oriented philosophy, according to which a thing is defined as the difference between "that which is in a thing and that in which a thing is, or that which it comprehends and that which comprehends it" (Form and Object 11). Garcia, like Whitehead, refuses to explain away causal efficacy, while at the same time recognizing what Whitehead calls "the vast causal independence of contemporary occasions" which "is the preservative of elbow-room within the Universe. It provides each actuality with a welcome environment for irresponsibility" (AI 195).

The larger point here is that causal efficacy is at one and the same time a mode of perception and an actual physical process. It encompasses both "the perceived redness and warmth of the fire" and "the agitated molecules of carbon and oxygen… the radiant energy from them, and… the various functionings of the material body" (CN 32). In this double functioning, causal efficacy is irreducible to rigid determinism, but also impregnable to philosophical scepticism.

Whitehead notes, for instance, that Hume’s own presuppositions contradict his assertion that causal efficacy cannot be directly perceived:

Hume with the clarity of genius states the fundamental point, that sense-data functioning in an act of experience demonstrate that they are given by the causal efficacy of actual bodily organs. He refers to this causal efficacy as a component in direct perception. (S 51)

That is to say, by Hume’s own prior admission we get direct acquaintance with the world through the actions of the body. "In asserting the lack of perception of causality, [Hume] implicitly presupposes it.. His argument presupposes that sense-data, functioning in presentational immediacy, are ‘given’ by reason of ‘eyes,’ ‘ears,’ ‘palates’ functioning in causal efficacy" (S 51).

More generally, Whitehead says,

We see the picture, and we see it with our eyes; we touch the wood, and we touch it with our hands; we smell the rose, and we smell it with our nose; we hear the bell, and we hear it with our ears; we taste the sugar, and we taste it with our palate. (S 50)

The functioning here of experience in the mode of causal efficacy is antecedent to, and necessary for, the very experience in the mode of presentational immediacy within which, Hume says, no causation can be discerned.

Whitehead recapitulates and expands this critique of Hume in Process and Reality. Hume argues that our expectation that a certain effect will follow a cause is merely a product of habit. But Whitehead notes that

it is difficult to understand why Hume exempts ‘habit’ from the same criticism as that applied to the notion of ’cause.’ We have no ‘impression’ of ‘habit,’ just as we have no ‘impression’ of ’cause.’ Cause, repetition, habit are all in the same boat. (PR 140)

Once again, Hume presupposes the power of causal efficacy in his very attempt to explain it away. I am tempted to describe Whitehead’s mode of argument here as a precise inversion of Kant’s. Kant opposes Hume by insisting that we cannot, in principle, escape causality, because it must be imposed transcendentally from above. Whitehead instead opposes Hume by observing that, in point of fact, we do not escape causality because it is always already at work empirically, from below. Whitehead turns Kant around and puts him on his feet, in the same way that Marx put Hegel on his feet.

Whitehead shows that causal efficacy is always already at work in our perception, as a physical functioning of the bodily organs. This would remain the case even if we were brains in vats, getting delusive sense impressions by means of direct stimulation of the neurons. The actual physical functioning of causal efficacy must still be presupposed, even if the picture presented through presentational immediacy does not correspond to an actual state of affairs in the world.

This is why Whitehead says that "direct experience" in itself "is infallible." This assertion is in fact a tautology: "what you have experienced, you have experienced" (S 6). The delusion of a brain in vats, like the delusion exhibited in "Aesop’s fable of the dog who dropped a piece of meat to grasp at its reflection in the water" (S 19), is a failure of symbolic reference, rather than of direct experience in itself. It results, not from any defect of perception per se, but from the way in which "the various actualities disclosed respectively by the two modes are either identified, or are at least correlated together as interrelated elements in our environment" (S 18).

In other words, the dog’s error is a mistake of interpretation, or a failure to respect the limits of abstraction. Whitehead tells us that we cannot live without making abstractions, even though we go wrong when we take our abstractions too seriously, or push them beyond the limits within which they are useful. This is what Whitehead famously calls "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness" (S 39); we find it at work not just in a dog’s misjudgement, but also in the most refined examples of philosophical reasoning. It is not the perception of meat in the water that is at fault, but rather the dog’s failure to understand that this meat – which he truly perceived – is a reflection rather than an edible substance. This is why Whitehead remains so relaxed in his treatment of error: "Aesop’s dog lost his meat, but he gained a step on the road towards a free imagination" (S 19).

We experience causal efficacy not only because we are bodies, but also because we feel, and subsist within, the passage of time. Whitehead argues that Hume’s sceptical conclusions "rest upon an extraordinary naive assumption of time as pure succession" (S 34). This notion of "pure succession," or time as an empty form, "is an abstraction from the irreversible relationship of settled past to derivative present" (S 35). In actual concrete experience, we feel time as "the derivation of state from state, with the later state exhibiting conformity to the antecedent… The past consists of the community of settled acts which, through their objectifications in the present act, establish the conditions to which that act must conform." (S 35).

In other words, experience does not only happen in the present moment, in the Now. It also comprehends the past, and projects toward the future. Even the most "primitive living organisms… have a sense for the fate from which they have emerged, and for the fate towards which they go" (S 44). Time is not so much the measure of change, as it is the force of "conformation"; and it is only against the background of this force of conformation that change is even possible:

The present fact is luminously the outcome from its predecessors, one quarter of a second ago. Unsuspected factors may have intervened; dynamite may have exploded. But, however that may be, the present event issues subject to the limitations laid upon it by the actual nature of the immediate past. If dynamite explodes, then present fact is that issue from the past which is consistent with dynamite exploding. (S 46)

In this way, perception and judgment are themselves temporal instances. They are nested within the broad span of "conformation" or causal influence. To perceive something is to be affected or influenced by that something. And willed action – or more generally, what Whitehead in Process and Reality calls decision – can itself only take place within a given framework of causal efficacy. This is the source of Whitehead’s distinction, in Symbolism, between "pure potentiality" and "natural potentiality" (S 36-37) – which is recast in Process and Reality as a distinction between "general potentiality" and "real potentiality" (PR 65). Pure or general potentiality is mere logical possibility; while natural or real potentiality takes account of "stubborn fact," or of the actual "components which are given for experience" (S 36).

From a Whiteheadian point of view, Lewis’ modal realism and Meillassoux’s principle of contingency both fail because they ignore this distinction. Since they only recognize presentational immediacy, they abstract "the mere lapse of time" from "the more concrete relatedness of ‘conformation’" (S 36). In consequence, they regard sheer logical possibility as if it were real potential. "According to Hume," Whitehead says, "there are no stubborn facts" (S 37); and the same must be said for Lewis and Meillassoux. The error of these great thinkers, we might say, results precisely from their endeavor to eliminate error on grounds of epistemological consistency.

For the mainstream of modern Western philosophy, causality is an example of a relation that must be put into doubt, because it is supposedly not given in perception. Whitehead counters this, by showing that causality is not just an abstract condition for perceptive experience (which Kant had argued already), but also an actually given component of experience. Causal efficacy is in fact directly experienced. But beyond this, experience of any sort materially depends upon the functioning of causal efficacy. In this way causality is more than just an example of something whose status in perception we may argue about. In fact it is central to the whole theory of perception. Perception is itself a sort of causal relation – rather than causal relations being instances that we may perceive or not.

In this way, Whitehead’s account of causal efficacy provides a bridge from epistemology to ontology, or to what Whitehead calls cosmology. For Hume, Kant, and their modern successors, we cannot talk about causality without first accounting for how we know that causal relations between ostensibly independent entities can exist. But Whitehead argues that even to raise the question of how we know is already to have accepted the operation of causal efficacy, in the form of the "conformation of present fact to immediate past" (S 41). Whitehead thus cuts the Gordian know of Kantian critique; he frees speculation from the grim Kantian alternative of either

  1. being subjected to critique, which is to say to prior epistemological legitimation, or
  2. being rejected as simply "dogmatic."

It should be noted that Quentin Meillassoux also seeks to escape this infernal alternative. He claims to establish the possibility of "non-dogmatic speculation" (After Finitude 79), as a way of stepping outside the Kantian "correlationist circle" (5) without thereby performing a "pre-critical… regression to the ‘naive’ stance of dogmatic metaphysics" (3). Whitehead describes his own speculative philosophy as "a recurrence to that phase of philosophic thought which began with Descartes and ended with Hume" (PR xi). Nonetheless, I do not think that Whitehead’s constructivist proposal for solving the riddles of perception and causality can be categorized as "dogmatic" in the pejorative Kantian sense. Rather, Whitehead’s speculative "flight in the thin air of
imaginative generalization," together with his subsequent return to the ground "for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation" (PR 5), allows him to perform what he describes, in another act of setting Kant on his feet, as "the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity" (PR 15). This is why I have sought to establish a dialogue between Whitehead, on the one hand, and recent speculative realist thinkers like Meillassoux and Harman, on the other. It seems to me that Whitehead anticipates many of the goals of the speculative realists. At the same time, Whitehead offers an alternative both to Meillassoux’s excessive rationalism, and to Harman’s grounding in phenomenology.

I will conclude by mentioning some further consequences of my discussion, even though I lack the time to fully explore them here. Whitehead argues both that causal efficacy is directly perceived, and that the causal conformation of the present to the immediate past is a general process, of which direct perception in either mode is just an example. There is therefore a curious chiasmus between perception and causality, which intersect in something like a feedback loop. This also implies, among other things, that there is no clear dividing line between perception proper, and causal influence more generally. I "perceive" something whenever I am affected by that something – even in cases where this does not happen consciously. For instance, Whitehead notes that

the human body is causally affected by the ultra-violet rays of the solar spectrum in ways which do not issue in any sensation of colour. Nevertheless such rays produce a decided emotional effect (S 85).

This "emotional effect" may well be a modulation of my mood: I always feel better when I am outdoors on a sunny day. But it may also consist in my getting sun tanned, or sunburnt, or even developing skin cancer. Any physical response of this sort is in some sense an "emotional" response as well. Even below the threshold of consciousness, a physical change is also a change of some sort in affective tone. This is not only the case for human experience, but also for organisms that Whitehead c calls "low grade": as when "a flower turns to the light," or even when "a stone conforms to the conditions set by its external environment" (S 42).

A lot of this has been covered in recent writings on Whitehead under the rubric of what he calls, in Adventures of Ideas, "nonsensuous perception" (AI 180ff). "In human experience," Whitehead writes, "the most compelling example of non-sensuous perception is our knowledge of our own immediate past" (181). All this is consistent with what Whitehead says in Symbolism about perception in the mode of causal efficacy. But Mark B. N. Hansen, in his forthcoming book Feed Forward, argues that such an understanding of Whitehead’s expanded field of perception sells him short. Hansen urges us to consider the causal efficacy of "nonperceptual sensibility" beyond the confines of personal memory, referring to the ways in which causal efficacy extends "beyond perception" to a domain that "does not and cannot appear through (human perception)," but that human beings are now for the first time able to access "indirectly… through the technical supplement afforded by biometric and environmental computational sensing." Whitehead’s expanded theory of perception is thus crucial, Hansen says, for grasping our emerging 21st-century media environment. I have serious disagreements with Hansen’s particular interpretation of Whitehead, but I think his overall point is enormously important, and it can be grasped in the terms that I am working through here: the chiasmic relation between perception and physical causality.

On my reading of Whitehead, perception is a subset of causal processes more generally, while at the same time causal processes are themselves "felt," even unconsciously, as they are fed back into direct perceptual experience. This is the basis for what David Ray Griffin calls Whitehead’s panexperientialism – though I prefer to use the more provocative word panpsychism. This means that differences in mentality, or in levels of what Whitehead calls "feeling" (using this word as "a mere technical term" – PR 164), are always differences of degree, rather than of kind. There is no clear boundary line between the different modes of feeling or sentience, just as "there is no absolute gap between ‘living’ and ‘non-living’ societies" (PR 102).

But I think that we can go further than this. Whitehead says that "life lurks in the interstices of each living cell, and in the interstices of the brain (PR 105-106). But feeling – or perception as conformation – doesn’t need to lurk in the interstices; it happens everywhere. This is why I do not think that Whitehead is really a vitalist. Whitehead’s conflation of perception with causal efficacy also implies the priority of sentience over vitality. In other words, perception and feeling are among the necessary conditions of possibility for life, rather than life being a necessary condition of possibility for sentience.

Why is this important? As Eugene Thacker has demonstrated at length in his great book After Life, all our attempts to reinvent vitalism, to explore the possibilities of what Deleuze and Guattari call "inorganic life," and in general to theorize "Life" in general, come up against a series of crippling antinomies. In the actual practices of contemporary biotechnology, as well as in philosophical argumentation, Thacker says, "thought and life approach a horizon of absolute incommensurability; the thought of life becomes increasingly disjunctive with the vague set of phenomena we call ‘life itself’" (After Life ix-x). There are contradictions both between particular instances of life and "life" as an essence or overall concept, and between all these iterations of life and the thought, itself alive, which tries to grasp and conceptualize it. I suspect – though it is only a hunch at this point – that approaching life from the point of view of sentience or feeling, rather than taking sentience as an attribute of life, might help to offer us a way out from these confusions.

Art/Money

November 4th, 2014

Here is a short piece I wrote for the art group FLAME, who are having a show that opens this weekend (576 Morgan Ave Apt 3L Gallery, Brooklyn, New York — Opening Saturday November 8, 7-10 PM).

The invitation has a shortened version, but here is the full text:

In the early 1960s, alongside Campbell Soup cans and portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol also did paintings of dollar bills. As Warhol recounts:

It was on one of those evenings when I’d asked around ten or fifteen people for suggestions that finally one lady friend of mine asked me the right question: ‘Well what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money.

Warhol elsewhere expresses his admiration for Pablo Picasso, on the basis of the quantity rather than the quality of the modernist master’s work. Warhol read that Picasso had created 4,000 masterpieces; he decided to do the same. He reasoned that, given his silkscreening technique, he could make 4,000 paintings in just a single day; “and they’d all be masterpieces because they’d all be the same painting.” But Warhol was quickly disillusioned. He discovered that, in an entire month, he was only able to make 500 paintings. At this rate, it would have taken him a whole 8 months to match Picasso’s lifetime output. This was too boring to contemplate, and so he moved on to something else.

As for Picasso, it’s been recorded that he was a cheapskate, who didn’t like to spend his money if he could avoid it. So what he did was, whenever he wrote a check, he would draw a small doodle on it as well. This way, he hoped, the recipient would choose to keep a signed Picasso drawing, rather than actually cashing the check. In this way, everyone benefited; Picasso got to keep his money, and the recipient was able to sell the check for more than its face value.

Alongside Warhol and Picasso, we may place the artist J. S. G. Boggs, who combines and improves on the practices of both. Boggs’ drawings and digital replications of paper money are far more meticulous and detailed than Warhol’s dollar paintings. And Boggs overtly pays his bills with his work, rather than just incidentally turning his means of payment into a work as Picasso did. When he owes money, Boggs makes a picture of currency with the same face value as the amount he owes. He trades this work to his creditor in lieu of cash payment. Boggs’ works do not proclaim themselves to be legal tender — which is what differentiates them from counterfeit bills. But they usually sell for more than the face value of the bills they depict.

Warhol, Picasso, and Boggs all successfully addressed the economics of the art market in the 20th century. But what does their work have to say in the 21st? Do their practices still have import for the art market today? The problem is that paper currency (Warhol and Boggs) and personal checks (Picasso) are on the verge of becoming obsolete. Only relatively poor people still use them. The middle class depends instead on credit cards and online banking. As for the One Percent (the class that accumulates the greatest share of wealth, and that also collects art), it no longer relies on paper money (bills and checks) at all. In the course of the past fifty years, we have moved from a cash economy to a credit economy — and beyond that, to an economy that is largely driven by transactions in arcane financial instruments.

The history of finance, like the history of Western painting, moves in the direction of ever-greater abstraction. The first coins were worth their weight in gold and other precious metals, because that is literally what they were made of. The figure of the king or president on the coin was only a guarantee that the one-ounce gold coin, for instance, really did weigh one ounce. Later on, coins were made from metals of lesser value, or else (in higher demoninations) were replaced by paper. The picture of the king or president now worked as a guarantee that the coin or bill could be exchanged for gold upon demand. But then, in 1971, Richard Nixon abolished the gold standard; now currency is only valuable because of government fiat (which means, in practice, that it is valuable as long as other people accept it, and the government itself accepts it for tax payments). Such is the legal tender that Warhol and Boggs simulated. And once we accept government paper, we are bound to accept paper checks as well — which is what Picasso relied on. And this development is likely irreversible, even though right-wing cranks like Rand Paul demand a return to the gold standard (and even though a Republican Congressman, some years ago, blocked the issuance of a Ronald Reagan coin because he felt it would demean the revered ex-President to have his image stamped on “scrap metal”).

Money has always been something of an abstraction, because it is exchangeable for goods and services without being of any other intrinsic use. But it became far more abstract with the abolition of the gold standard — and that was only the beginning. Starting in the 1970s, corporations realized that, instead of giving raises to their employees, they could simply give them credit cards. So now the vast majority of Americans can purchase all sorts of commodities without ever actually owning them. Corporations are able to sell goods to consumers, keep the money, and eventually get the goods back as well (or at least, collect their cash value a second time). Spending goes on as usual — but the bank can foreclose at any moment. More than a third of US adults are currently being pursued by debt collectors.

The One Percent, meanwhile, can revel in ever-greater powers of fiscal abstraction. From simple interest-collecting loans, they first moved on to commodity futures options: the ability to buy and sell, and collect a profit on, goods and services that don’t even exist yet. These subsequently developed into derivatives: collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and even more abstract financial instruments. These no longer physically “exist” in any conventional sense of the term; they are purely virtual, numbers calculated by supercomputers. They are joined by Bitcoin and other electronic currencies, which don’t have presidential images on them because they are not accepted by governments. But this is no longer considered a danger to the accumulation of value; instead, it is an opportunity, a way of evading taxes altogether.

The philosopher and derivatives trader Elie Ayache points out that advanced financial instruments are so fully abstract that they no longer refer back to any “underlying” whatsoever. They are blank forms, Ayache says, pure contingencies; traders may use them to literally “write the future.” Today the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” are quants, rather than poets and artists.

In such circumstances, it follows that the only art that makes sense is art that is as fully abstract and non-referential as financial instruments themselves. The painterly abstractions of the twentieth century — seen either as pure subjective expressions, or else as pure explorations of the artistic medium itself — are no longer abstract enough. Today abstract art needs to be purged of expression, and of Greenbergian self-reflection, as much as it has been purged of extrinsic representation. It no longer makes sense even to simulate currency, as in the post-representational practice of Picasso, Warhol, and Boggs. Rather, a work of art must actually be an abstract financial instrument, rather than merely mimicking it, or referring to it, or being exchangeable for it. Consider the statement of intent of artrank.com, which “identifies prime artist prospects based on known trajectory profiles… Our algorithm is intent on assessing the intrinsic value of an artwork, not its survival value. We do not judge any works’ aesthetic or emotional value.” This should be understood as implying that survival values, aesthetic values, and emotional values are entirely extrinsic. They are archaic and outdated in our current economic climate. Intrinsic value can only be defined in terms of a work’s functioning as a financial instrument, entirely divorced from any “underlying.” FLIP ART, as The New York Times has put it, “is just about the nearest thing in today’s fragmented global art scene that approximates to a coherent movement.” It’s only when the art is “flipped,” or sold by one collector to another, that it accretes intrinsic value.

If you are hungry, you can eat a burrito. Alternatively, you can speak the word “burrito”; in that case, something comes out of your mouth instead of going in. You can also take a photo of the burrito, before you eat it; and you can write the word “burrito” instead of speaking it. We like to think that these are ways of preserving the burrito; but in fact, you can’t have your burrito and eat it too. Doubtless, if Jacques Derrida were my dinner companion, he would elegantly prove to me that even my apparent act of nourishing myself with a burrito really comes down to a disavowed abstraction: a naive assertion of metaphysical presence. I can neither have a burrito, nor eat it; I will surely starve to death. But it’s yet a greater abstraction when I don’t even write the word “burrito,” but rather inscribe it on canvas as a meaningless, iterated sign. Now, “burrito” can neither be eaten, nor spoken, nor depicted, nor even read. It has been separated from any underlying. It has no survival value as food, and no aesthetic or emotional value as a sign of food. It can only be flipped, passed in a series of sales from hand to hand (or more properly, from wall to wall, or from bank vault to bank vault).

Labrinth, “Let It Be” and the third image

September 2nd, 2014

For the last several years, I have been trying to think about the ways that relations of time and space, and of sound and image, are altered as a result of new digital technologies. I have pondered this by looking at and listening to both recent movies and music videos. One big difference, of course, is that with music videos the soundtrack always comes first; while this is rarely the case in movies. But I think that both movies and music videos in recent years have given more weight to the sonic dimension than was the case before. I try to work through the issues of time/space and sound/image systematically, more or less, in my discussion of Eduoard Salier’s video for Massive Attack’s “Splitting the Atom.” And, in my discussion of Joseph Kahn’s film Detention, I consider how this rearticulation of space and time leads to the need for a new, third sort of image in Deleuze’s taxonomy, after the movement-image and the time-image. The Spanish film theorist Sergi Sanchez suggests calling this new kind of image, that results from digital technologies, the “no-time image.” Although it arises out of Deleuze’s time-image, in which “time in its pure state” is liberated from movement and made present in its own right, this third image treats time quite differently. Digital video is a medium of simultaneity, not only because it allows for instantaneous transmission, but also because (even when it is not broadcast and viewed instantaneously) it tends to replace montage (temporal juxtaposition) with compositing (allowing for disparate things or images to be placed together in the same frame). (Besides Sanchez, Lev Manovich has also written extensively about this). 

There is definitely a sort of temporality to the new digital-video image; space dominates time, in a way, but without being reducible either to the “spatialization” of time denounced by Bergson and Deleuze, or the durational time exalted by Bergson and Deleuze. The temporality of the new digital audiovisual image  is quite different from either the temporality that is measured by movement (Deleuze’s movement-image) or the temporality that frees itself from movement and presents itself as pure duration (Deleuze’s time-image). David Rodowick is not wrong to claim that the digital does not really involve duration; he is only wrong to condemn it for not doing so, instead of trying to work out what the digital audiovisual image does do. There’s a weird split, because it takes time to present, or to explore, the composited screen of the “no-time” image; and because, in this situation, modulations of sound (which is unavoidably temporal) take precedence over modulations of vision. Hence the curious time-of-no-time rhythms we find in “Splitting the Atom”, and in the 19-years-of-detention sequence of Detention

I think we find another, inventive instance of this in the beautiful new video for the song “Let It Be” by  Labrinth (Timothy McKenzie). (The song has no connection, as far as I can tell, with the classic Beatles song of the same title). The video is directed by the duo known as Us (Christopher Barrett and Luke Taylor). The video consists in an apparent single take, which moves through a single warehouse space. The camera glides and stops and zooms in and circles around and twists and turns and swoops, as it moves through this space. In different parts of the warehouse space, we have different groupings of fixtures and furniture, like the decors of various rooms in a home and in a recording studio, but all incomplete and without walls or ceiling — each setting is just a certain amount of furniture, surrounded by empty expanses of floor. In each of these spaces, we see Labrinth and his bandmates and friends engaged in various activities, ranging from composing the song, to recording it in multiple stages (singing, guitar, drumming, and horn section, all separately, to having a business pitch meeting, to buying a car, and then shooting a music video that features the singer getting out of the car, to people just hanging in the living room. There is even a scene of a postman delivering mail by putting it through a slot in the front door (but the front door stands by itself in one section of the warehouse); and another of Labrinth standing alone in his kitchen drinking coffee, with the sink filled to the brim with dirty cups.

All these events must have been dispersed in time and space when they “really” happened; but in the video they are all happening at once in the same location, with the secondary temporality of the camera exploring them. Usually the camera just contemplates one of these scenarios at a time, but sometimes (and especially when the camera is gliding between them) we see several scenes on the screen at once, or other scenes in the background when one is in the foreground. A whole history — the singer’s life, on the one hand, and his specific experience of composing, pitching, recording, producing, and making a video for the song, on the other — is compressed (or better, composited) within the confines of the warehouse (which provides, as it were, bare-bones simulacra of all the locations), and within the confines of the video itself, as we watch it unfold in its single camera movement. The camera never holds still for very long; it is usually gliding, but it is always steady and never jerky or agitated. (Presumably, the videomakers used motion control to shoot all of the parts of the video separately, but make sure they could be composited together seamlessly — as is suggested here).

The song itself is a beautiful, heartfelt and expressive neo-soul number. It starts plaintively, but builds to a dramatic conclusion. The lyrics suggest a mix of struggle and fatalism — the singer has done his best, but he doesn’t have total control and reaches a point where he just needs to “let it be” and have whatever happens, happen. At the end of the video, lights go out and then flash on and off — all the other scenes have disappeared, and the camera zooms in on Labrinth, standing alone, in a circle of spotlights in the otherwise dark space. We are left with just the performer, performing — after having seen all the layers of work, preparation and construction, and subjective experience that made the performance possible. Everything is framed within the temporality and rhythms of the song, with its repetitions (verse and chorus) as well as its build-up to a crescendo of culmination; though the video begins before the song does (the camera glides across the floor before the music starts), and continues to zoom in and then hold on the image of Labyrinth lit up in the otherwise darkness for a few seconds after the music ends.

There’s a whole nexus of feeling and experiencing here — but (as Rodowick might well say) it cannot be characterized as duration in the Bergsonian and Proustian and Deleuzian and Antonioniesque sense. It’s a quite different mode of temporalization, or of “experience” — though one for which I don’t have the right words yet. It’s implosive rather than expansive, not “a bit of time in its pure state” (Deleuze paraphrasing Proust) so much as a concatenation of things and processes that don’t really fit together or “harmonize” (literally or metaphorically? I’m not sure) with one another, and yet somehow coexist nonetheless. I would want to resist a phenomenological vocabulary here as well as a Deleuzian one — there is none of the “commutative reversibility” between spectator and screen described by Vivan Sobchack, or “attunment” evoked so powerfully by my colleage Scott Richmond. It’s rather something both more abstract, and yet less reflexive, than any of that. I’d want to think of it, rather, in terms of the (often non-human) affordances of new digital technologies, in the ways that (for instance) Mark B. N. Hansen has been looking at — but I don’t quite see the way of working this out yet. In any case, I think that “Let It Be”, like “Splitting the Atom” and Detention, is a harbinger of a new sort of techno-social sensibility — one that (to paraphrase what Deleuze wrote in a different but analogous context) we may at least hope will not prove worse than the previous ones.

Twenty-two theses on nature

September 2nd, 2014

I have a new short article out, “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature.” This appears as part of a special section on “Protocols for a New Nature” in the Yearbook of Comparative Literature, volume 58 (2012). Despite the official year of the publication, it is just out now.

The whole issue looks interesting: you can find the contents at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/yearbookofcomparativeandgeneral_literature/toc/cgl.58.html .

But it is firewalled, and you can only access it if your university subscribes. If you are not in a university, or if your university doesn’t carry it (as is the case with mine) then you are SOL.

So obviously I haven’t been able to read anyone else’s contribution. (I am supposed to get a hardcopy eventually, but I don’t know when; and in any case, that doesn’t substitute for online access).

So I decided that the least I could do would be to post the text of my own contribution here.

TWENTY-TWO THESES ON NATURE

  1. We can no longer think of Nature as one side of a binary opposition. In an age of anthropogenic global warming and genetically modified organisms, not to mention Big Data and world-encompassing computing and communications networks, it makes no sense to oppose nature to culture, or a “state of nature” to human society, or the natural to the artificial. Human beings and their productions are not separate from Nature; they are just as much, or as little, “natural” as everything else.
  2. We must think Nature without any residual anthropocentrism: that is to say, without exempting ourselves from it, and also without remaking it in our own image. Human beings are part of Nature, but Nature is not human, and is not centered upon human beings or upon anything human.
  3. Above all, we must avoid thinking that Nature is simply “given,” and therefore always the same — as opposed to a social realm that would be historical and constructed. Rather, we must recognize that Nature itself is always in movement, in process, and under construction. We need to revive the great 19th century discipline of natural history, practiced by Darwin, Wallace, and many others. Evolution (phylogeny) and development (ontogeny) are both historical processes; they cannot be reduced to the study of genomes as synchronic structures.
  4. Nature is all-encompassing, but it is not a Whole. It is radically open. However far we go in space, we will never find an edge or a boundary. There is no way of adding everything up, and coming up with Nature as a fixed sum. There is also no way of subordinating Nature to some Theory of Everything.
  5. Nature is radically open in terms of time, as well as space. The future is always contingent and unpredictable. It cannot be reduced to any calculus of probabilities. As Keynes and Meillassoux have both shown us, the future is intrinsically unknowable. It exceeds any closed list of possibilities. The radical unknowability of Nature is not an epistemological constraint; it is a basic, and positive, ontological feature of Nature itself.
  6. In the 19th century, thinkers as different as Schelling (with his Naturphilosophie) and Engels (with his Dialectics of Nature) tried to define an overall “logic” of Nature that included — but that was not reducible to — human developments and concerns. In the 20th century, such projects were abandoned. Instead, humanity was either given a special, transcendental status (phenomenology); or else reduced to its non-organic presuppositions (scientism). Today, in the 21st century, both of these alternatives are bankrupt. We need to return to a project of thinking Nature directly — even if we reject the particular, antiquated terms that thinkers like Schelling and Engels used for their own attempts.
  7. Schelling and Engels both tried to conceive Nature in ways that were grounded in, but not reducible to, the best natural science of their own times. Our task today is, similarly, to conceive Nature in ways that are grounded in, but not reducible to, the best contemporary science.
  8. Nature is neither a plenum nor a void. Rather, conditions or states of affairs within Nature may tend either towards plenitude or towards vacancy. Usually, though, neither of these tendential extremes is reached. Things generally fluctuate in an intermediate range, between fullness and emptiness.
  9. However, we are still on safer ground if we consider that Nature comprises something rather than nothing. We know from modern physics that quantum fluctuations happen even in a vacuum. In this sense, Nature is better understood in terms of more rather than less, or surplus rather than deficiency. Nature will never be finished, never be shaped and structured once and for all; but it has also never been “without form and void.”
  10. Nature is not formless, and not simply homogeneous, It is rather metastable, in the sense defined by Gilbert Simondon. All-encompassing Nature is traversed by potentials and powers, or by energy gradients and inherent tendencies. At any moment, these may be activated and actualized. The most minute imbalance, or the most fleeting encounter, can be enough to set things into motion. And there is generally more to the effect than there is to the cause. The consequences of these imbalances and encounters tend to be orders of magnitude larger than the incidents that set them into motion.
  11. The result of any disruption of Nature’s metastability is what Simondon calls individuation: the emergence and structuration of an individual, together with those of its associated milieu. Examples of this process include the precipitation of a crystal out of a solution, and the emergence and growth of distinct tissues, organs, and parts from an initially undifferentiated embryo.
  12. Nature thus comprises multiple processes of individuation. These must all be understood in two distinct ways: in terms of energetics, and in terms of informatics.
  13. Nature involves continual flows of energy. Energy (or, more precisely mass-energy) can never be created or destroyed, but only transformed from one state to another (the First Law of Thermodynamics). And yet this also means that energy is continually being expended or dissipated, as gradients are reduced, and entropy is maximized (the Second Law of Thermodynamics). As Eric Schneider argues, complex organized systems (from hurricanes to organisms) tend to form, because they can dissipate energy more efficiently, and on a vaster scale, than would otherwise be possible. Such “dissipative systems” are internally negentropic; but this is precisely what allows them to discharge so much energy into their environments, thus increasing entropy and reducing energy gradients overall.
  14. Today, thanks to our computing technologies, we tend to think more commonly in informational terms than in energetic ones. Physicists propose that the universe is ultimately composed of information; cognitive scientists tend to see biological organisms as information processing systems. I fear that our excessive concern with informatics has gotten in the way of a proper understanding of the importance of energetics.
  15. Information, unlike energy, has no “in itself”; for information only exists insofar as it is for some entity (someone or something) that parses it in some way. This might make it seem as if information were inessential. But nothing is altogether devoid of information; for nothing exists altogether on its own, outside of all-encompassing Nature, entirely self-subsistent and without ever being affected by anything else. The transmission and parsing of information, no less than the transfer and dissipation of energy, is an essential process of Nature.
  16. We might link information to perception, on the one hand, and to action on the other. Perception is how we obtain bits of information; and the parsing or processing of information issues forth in the possibility of action. A living organism gathers information by perceiving its environment; and it uses this information in order to respond flexibly and appropriately to whatever conditions it encounters. This is not just the case for animals, or entities with brains. A tree discerns water in the soil, which it draws in with its roots; it discovers insects feeding on its leaves, and releases a noxious chemical to repel them. Information processing thus mediates between perception and action.
  17. Information processing involves — and indeed requires — at least a minimal degree of sentience. But we should not confuse sentience with consciousness; for the former is a far broader category than the latter. Organisms like trees, bacteria, and slime molds are probably not conscious; but they are demonstrably sentient, as they process information and respond to it in ways that are not stereotypically determined in advance. Even when it comes to ourselves, most of the information processing in our brains goes on unconsciously, and without any possibility of ever becoming conscious. Most likely, consciousness is only sparsely present in Nature. But sentience is far more widely distributed.
  18. Perception is only a particular sort of causality. When I perceive something, this means that the thing in question has affected me in some way, whether through light, sound, touch, or some other medium. But if I am affected by something, then that something has had an effect upon me. It has altered me (however minimally) in some manner or other. And this process cannot be confined just to perception. I am often affected by things without overtly perceiving them. I feel the symptoms of a cold, but I do not sense the virus that actually causes me to fall ill. I feel an impulse to buy something, because my mind has been subliminally primed in some way. I lose my balance and fall from a height, pulled by the Earth’s gravitational field even before becoming aware of it. I turn over in my sleep, responding to some change in the ambient temperature. In all these cases, something has caused a change in me; it has given rise to an effect. Information has been processed in some manner, by my body if not my mind.
  19. Nature involves a continual web of causes producing effects, which in turn become the causes of further effects, ad infinitum. This need not imply linearity or monocausality: there are many causes for every effect, and many effects arising from every cause; and potential causes may interfere with and block one another. But just as energy is continually being transformed, so information is continually being processed — even on what we might consider a purely physical level. This is why information, no less than energy, is a basic category of Nature.
  20. Within all-encompassing Nature, the difference between the “physical” and the “mental” is only a matter of degree, and not of kind. A thermostat is, to a modest extent, an information processor; and therefore we should agree that it is, at least minimally sentient — if not, as David Chalmers suggests, actually conscious. That is to say, the thermostat feels — although it does not know anything, and it is not capable of self-reflection. We can make a similar claim for a stone which falls off a cliff, or even for one which lies motionless on the ground. Gravity pulls the stone to the Earth, and the information associated with this process is what the stone feels.
  21. Nature is not itself a particular thing or a particular process; although it is the never-completed sum, as well as the framework, of all the multitudinous things and processes — transformations of energy and accumulations of information — that take place within it. How, finally, can we characterize it? All-encompassing Nature stands apart from every particular instance. And yet it is not anything like a Kantian transcendental condition of possibility for all these instances, since it stands on the same level, within the same immanent plane, as they. Nature is neither outside history, nor the totality of history, nor a particular datum of natural or social history. It is rather what all these particular instances, all these transformations and accumulations, have in common; it is what places them all in a common world.
  22. I will conclude by taking a hint from Alfred North Whitehead, who articulates this commonness more rigorously than I can. Whitehead translates the ancient Greek physis not just as Nature (as is customary), but also as Process. And he equates this physis with the narrower technical term (from Plato’s Timaeus) hypodoche, the Receptacle. Nature, or the Receptacle, Whitehead says, “imposes a common relationship on all that happens, but does not impose what that relationship shall be…. [It] may be conceived as the necessary community within which the course of history is set, in abstraction from all the particular historical facts.”

Echopraxia

August 26th, 2014

My review of Peter Watts’ great new SF novel Echopraxia is now up at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Willow Creek

August 12th, 2014

Bobcat Goldthwaite has been one of the most interesting low-budget-independent directors of the past decade, in between his comedy appearances and his frequent television directing work. Sleeping Dogs Lie  (2006) and World’s Greatest Dad (2009) both ride their sleazy, cringeworthy premises to conclusions that milk embarrassment for all its worth, and yet also suggest a humane, anti-cynical point of view. God Bless America (2011) is brilliantly on-target political satire, a comedic left-wing detournement of those white-male-rage films that Michael Douglas specialized in in the 1990s. His most recent film, Willow Creek (currently available for streaming, coming out on disc in a month or two) is more straightforward. It’s a “found-footage” horror film in the tradition that started with Blair Witch Project, and has become ubiquitous in recent years. A “creative class” couple, neither particularly sympathetic nor particularly obnoxious, but actually fairly bland, go into the woods of Northern California in search of Bigfoot (of course, they are making a documentary, which motivates the handheld-video-camera footage). It is a slow burn; a lot of mildly diverting banter leads up to a confrontation in the woods, from which (of course) our protagonists do not emerge intact. There is nothing here that departs from what we’d expect from the genre — except that it is so beautifully done. Goldthwaite knows that the true basis of horror filmmaking (or at least of one type of horror filmmaking) lies in two of the most essential properties of the moving-image medium: duration and offscreen sound. There’s a gorgeous formalism here, in the way that so much of the experience of the movie depends on empty time — waiting for something to happen — and on things that can be heard but not seen (the ambiguity of sounds that we more or less recognize, but whose source we cannot quite identify).  Most astonishing of all in Willow Creek is a 19-minute-long single take with motionless camera: a shot of the two main characters, sitting up in their sleeping bags inside their tent, listening to and reacting to things that go bump in the night. It’s great horror filmmaking, building a sense of slowly accelerating dread. But I will go further and say that it is at the same time a superior example of, and a brilliant riposte to, all that international-art-house-style “slow cinema” people have been pontificating about in recent years. 

“They don’t like spam.”

May 30th, 2014

The talk I am preparing for next month’s science fiction workshop in Berlin (where I will be speaking together with Iain Hamilton Grant) (event listing here) is really an extended meditation (or consideration, if “meditation” is too pretentious a word) on the several passages from recent science fiction novels.

The first passage comes from Peter Watts’ First Contact novel Blindsight. It explains why the aliens from another solar system — who are immensely more intelligent and more technologically advanced than we are, but who seem not to be conscious in any sense we would recognize — have turned their attention to Earth, and why they judge us as a menace to them:

Imagine that you encounter a signal. It is structured, and dense with information. It meets all the criteria of an intelligent transmission. Evolution and experience offer a variety of paths to follow, branch-points in the flowcharts that handle such input. Sometimes these signals come from conspecifics who have useful information to share, whose lives you’ll defend according to the rules of kin selection. Sometimes they come from competitors or predators or other inimical entities that must be avoided or destroyed; in those cases, the information may prove of significant tactical value. Some signals may even arise from entities which, while not kin, can still serve as allies or symbionts in mutually beneficial pursuits. You can derive appropriate responses for any of these eventualities, and many others.

You decode the signals, and stumble:

I had a great time. I really enjoyed him. Even if he cost twice as much as any other hooker in the dome–

To fully appreciate Kesey’s Quartet–

They hate us for our freedom–

Pay attention, now–

Understand.

There are no meaningful translations for these terms. They are needlessly recursive. They contain no usable intelligence, yet they are structured intelligently; there is no chance they could have arisen by chance.

The only explanation is that something has coded nonsense in a way that poses as a useful message; only after wasting time and effort does the deception becomes apparent. The signal functions to consume the resources of a recipient for zero payoff and reduced fitness. The signal is a viruss

Viruses do not arise from kin, symbionts, or other allies.

The signal is an attack.

And it’s coming from right about there.

The second passage comes from Ken MacLeod’s Cosmonaut Keep. It describes the dominant intelligent lifeform of the Galaxy: superintelligent asteroids, each of which is, in effect, a silicon computer of immense processing power. These beings are described as being like Lucretian gods, calmly pursuing their own interests, and most of the time not concerned with what human beings and other sentient species do. Except there is one exception to their lack of interest in us:

‘The truth is there are billions of the fuckers. There are more … communities … like this around the solar system, in the asteroid belt and the Kuiper and the Oort, than there are people on Earth. And each of them contains more separate minds than, than—’

‘A Galactic Empire,’ said Lemieux.

‘Yes! Yes! Exactly!’ Avakian beamed.

‘How do you know this?’ Camila asked.

Avakian handwaved behind his shoulder.

‘The aliens told us, and told us where to look for their communications. Their EM emissions are very faint, but they’re there all right, and the sources fill the sky like the cosmic microwave background, the echo of the Big Bang.’

‘Sure it ain’t just part of that?’

‘Nah, it’s comms all right.’ Avakian sucked at his lower lip. ‘The point to bear in mind is that our cometary cloud’s outer shells intersect those of the Centauran system, and, well—’

‘They’re everywhere?’

He shrugged. ‘Around a lot of stars, yeah, quite possibly. Trafficking, communicating, maybe even travelling. They have conscious control over their own outgassings, they have computing power to die for, and it only takes a nudge to change their orbits. It might take millions of years between stars, sure, but these guys have a long attention span.’

‘And what do they actually do?’

‘From the point of view of us busy little primates, they don’t do much. Hang out and take in the view. Travel around the sun every few million years. Maybe travel to another sun and go around that a few times. Bo-ring.’ He put on a whining, childish voice. ‘Are we there yet? He’s shitting me. I want to go the toilet.’

He laughed, a genuine and humorous laugh this time, and continued briskly: ‘But from their point of view, they are having fun. Endless, absorbing, ecstatic and for all I know,orgasmic fun. Discourse, intercourse – at their level it’s probably the same fucking thing.’ He underlined the obvious with a giggle. ‘They’re like gods, man, and they’re literally in heaven. And in all their infinite – well, OK,unbounded– diversity they have, we understand, a pretty much unanimous view on one thing. They don’t like spam.’

‘Spam is, um, sort of mindlessly repeated advertisements and shit. Junk mail. Some of it comes from start-ups and scams, some of it’s generated by programs called spambots, which got loose in the system about fifty years ago and which have been beavering away ever since. You hardly notice it, because so little gets through that you might think it’s just a legit advertisement. But that’s because way down at the bottom level, we have programs to clean out the junk, and they work away at it too.’ I shrugged. ‘Spam and antispam waste resources, it’s the ultimate zero-sum game, but what can you do? You gotta live with it. Anti-spam’s like an immune system. You don’t have to know about it, but you’d die without it. There’s a whole war going on that’s totally irrelevant to what you really want to do.’

‘Exactamundo,’ said Avakian. ‘That’s how the ETs feel about it, too. And as far as they’re concerned, we are great lumbering spambots, corrupted servers, liable at any moment or any megayear to start turning out millions of pointless, slightly varied replicas of ourselves. Most of what we’re likely to want to do if we expanded seriously into space is spam. Space industries – spam. Moravec uploads – spam on a plate. Von Neumann machines – spam and chips. Space settlements – spam, spam, spam, eggs and spam.’

There is something similar in a third novel, David Brin’s Existence. Here, Earth receives alien artifacts, which also turn out to be spam. These artifacts contain messages from civilizations on other planets, whose sole content is an invitation to add our own voices, and send more of these artifacts out through the galaxy. Entire planetary civilizations are exhorted to devote all their material resources on proliferating these viral artifacts.

All three novels suggest something similar. Spam is communication without (Shannon) information, or a message that is nothing beyond its medium (McLuhan). Spam has no utility, and no cognitive point, for its only aim is self-proliferation. This is why Watts’ and MacLeod’s aliens hate it, and seek to destroy it (or destroy its source). 

Watts again:

Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains–cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes ever-more computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I

In other words, spam is purposiveness without purpose: in Kantian terms, it is aesthetic. Watts’ and MacLeod’s aliens would agree with Ray Brassier, who says: “I am very wary of ‘aesthetics': the term is contaminated by notions of ‘experience’ that I find deeply problematic.” Computational systems don’t need any sort of aesthetic sensibility; this means that they don’t need “experience” or “consciousness.” Indeed, they function all the more efficiently without these things. Big Blue never could have defeated Kasparov if it were weighted down, like he is, with recursive self-consciousness. Brassier understands this dynamic, where most other similarly reductionist philosophers don’t. While cognitivists insist that “consciousness cannot be separated from function” (to cite the title of an article by Daniel Dennett and Michael Cohen), Watts (and to a lesser extent MacLeod and Brin) rather suggest that in fact consciousness cannot be separated from dysfunction. 

This can be restated in Darwinian terms. Spam or aesthetics may have initially been a useful adaptation: this is the only way that it could have arisen in the first place (see Darwin on sexual selection, and Elizabeth Grosz’s recent gloss on this). But spam or art quickly outgrew this purpose; it has now become parasitic, and replicates itself even at its host’s expense (cf: peacock’s tails). It serves no further purpose any more. Spam or art is a virus; and, insofar as we have aesthetic sensibilities (including self-consciousness and dwelling just in the present moment), we are that virus. Our thoughts and bodies, our lives, are “needlessly recursive” and wasteful. Our lives are pointless luxuries in a Darwinian “war universe” (Burroughs). If we are the dominant species on Earth at the moment, this may only be — as Watts suggests — because we are in the situation of flightless birds and marsupials, in areas where the placental mammals have not yet arrived (cf. the biological histories of Mauritius, South America, and Australia).

Watts also suggests that, even on Earth, corporate culture is in process of “weeding out” anything like self-consciousness or nonfunctional recursion. (Evidently, this is why — for instance — humanities programs in universities are being whittled away or destroyed; even the supporters of such programs only dare to justify them in terms of economic utility). At the end of Blindsight, the narrator, off in deep space, but observing from a distance the way that a vampiric (both literally and metaphorically) corporate culture has taken control of everything, speculates that “by the time I get home, I could be the only sentient being in the universe.” And in fact, he is not even sure about himself; he knows that zombies are “pretty good at faking it.”

The logic of spam tells us that sensibility, awareness, and aesthetic enjoyment are all costly luxuries. From a political and economic point of view, they can only be promoted — and they should be promoted — on this basis.

Welcome to New York — first impressions

May 26th, 2014

WELCOME TO NEW YORK is stupendous, and it leaves me nearly speechless — I really won’t be able to say anything coherent about it until I have thought about it for a while, and seen it a few more times.

But I will try to make a few scattered observations. The film isn’t really a descent into the depths of depravity in the way BAD LIEUTENANT is; but then, there is no sense of redemption for Depardieu in the way that perhaps there is for Harvey Keitel. The film shifts register several times. The first half hour is basically an orgy sequence. Then it becomes a kind of procedural, with DSK’s arrest and confinement. Then, after he is remanded to house arrest in a $60,000/month Manhattan townhouse, it becomes a venemous melodrama-cum-dark night of the soul (except that latter phrase is not quite right, since Depardieu’s character (called “Devereaux” to avoid the legal problems that might ensue by literally naming him “Dominique Strauss-Kahn”) doesn’t seem to really have a soul.

The orgy sequences struck me as more pathetic than lurid. There’s no sense of condemnation of Devereaux’s antics, but no sense of spectatorial pleasure either (not even pleasure in sleaze). It’s really just Depardieu’s grunting and bellowing, not to mention his evident relish in slapping various hookers’ behinds. When we get to The Incident, we clearly feel the maid’s terror at being assaulted, but Devereaux doesn’t even seem to notice that there is any difference between consensual sex, paid-for sex, and violently imposed sex. It’s all over in a minute, and Ferrara clearly conveys how it scarcely even registers in Devereaux’s mind that anything of any consequence has happened. (Later on, he will indignantly tell his wife that he is absolutely innocent of rape, because “all he did” was rub his penis against the maid’s mouth — which is more or less true of what we previously saw happening, except that, as Devereuax fails to add, this happens as he is pushing her against the wall and grabbing her head, and shei s desperately begging him to stop).

The arrest and confinement are given a documentary or procedural feel. We definitely get a sense of how the prison system is systematically demeaning and humiliating to anyone unfortunate enough to fall into its clutches. At the same time, we remain aware of the difference between the powerful and privileged Devereaux, who is brought down in the world just for a moment, and everyone else (mostly black people) who is caught in this system without Devereaux’s resources for getting out again. The highlight of this part of the movie is undoubtably the scene in which Devereaux is strip searched, which means that Depardieu displays his aging, bloated, no-longer-beautiful nude body to the camera.

The real emotional payoff of the film is in the second hour, in which Devereaux mopes in his expensive town house. There are several terrific scenes of arguments between Devereaux and his wife (played by Jacqueline Bisset), in which he reveals his absolute lack of self-insight, and utter inability to change. Devereaux has no passion, desire, or even self-will, but only a monstrous and utterly compulsive appetite, together with a defensive need for self-justification. We see this in his arguments with his wife, in his voiceover meditation (where he recounts turning from idealism to utter cynicism about the possibilities of justice and alleviating poverty, as he ascended the rungs of power) in his (court-mandated, I think? — but I wasn’t sure) conversation with a shrink, and in flashbacks to past incidents (one of consensual sex, and one of the near-rape of a young woman journalist — this came up in the press at the time — which again reveals how, Devereaux, in his mind, seems incapable of distinguishing between seduction and rape). Even at the very end of the movie, Devereaux is up to his old tricks with the housemaid.

The film leaves us with this sterility of its central character; there is no spiritual struggle like that (as I already mentioned) of Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT, or for that matter Forest Whitaker in MARY. Instead, Depardieu gives us an entirely implosive performance (and, as other critics have noted, the film is certainly in the Godardian sense a documentary about Depardieu as much as it is a dramatization of DSK). Around this absent center, the wheels of power and privilege turn in their accustomed way, so that the case is dropped and Devereaux is left free — all off camera (though we are given brief documentary footage, just as a sort of reminder, of protests against the dismissal of the case).

In a way, the film is all over the place, even though at the same time it is galvanized throughout by Depardieu’s performance. I think that Ferrara wanted to leave the film messy, because reality itself is. The film gets its emotional power by being organized around a banality: specifically, we might say (though Ferrara does not, as he resists any sort of moralism) the banality of evil — or maybe better, the inability of the powerful to see the pain they inflict upon those without power as anything more than a banal passing moment of no real import. In a way, DSK’s life was “ruined” by the incident — not only did he fail to become President of France, but his public respect suffered a blow (though, of course, he retained the privileges of wealth and freedom from imprisonment or official sanction; and the way the French press is reacting to the movie shows that he still has powerful support). WELCOME TO NEW YORK conveys, less what actually happened to DSK, than Depardieu-as-Devereaux’s baffled failure to comprehend why any of this should have happened to him, of all people — which perhaps makes the film more farce than tragedy, and none the less devastating for that.

Rethinking Modernism, Somewhat

May 25th, 2014

The new issue of Speculations (#5) is now out, dealing with speculative realism and aesthetics. It includes an article of mine, which is really a preview of a section of my forthcoming book, The Universe of Things. But the whole issue is interesting, with articles by, among others, Graham Harman, N. Katherine Hayles, Jon Cogburn and Mark Allan Ohm, Matija Jelaca, Miguel Penas López, and others.

But I wanted particularly to make a short comment on Robert Jackson‘s article “The Anxiousness of Objects and Artworks 2″ (part 1 appeared in a previous issue of Speculations) — or rather on one part of the article, since it is a rich, complex and long one. Jackson is interested in the ways that speculative realism is related to modernist aesthetics. Specifically, he writes about the art critic Michael Fried. In the 1960s, Fried (an inheritor and reviser of Clement Greenberg) famously wrote about art works and/as objects, and made a fundamental distinction between “absorption” and “theatricality.” Fried’s concern was to uphold the modernist tradition in painting and visual art that had previously been defined by Greenberg, and to defend this tradition against the new (at the time) avant-garde strategies of minimalism and conceptualism. Fried (allied in this with Stanley Cavell) gave an account in which great modernist artworks absorb us, and show forth as present to us, precisely by receding from our efforts to capture and contain them. Jackson notes that this is very close to Harman’s aesthetics of “allure,” in which objects attract us precisely by receding from all our efforts to contain and comprehend them — we can only allude to them, metaphorically and indirectly. (Harman’s love for Clement Greenberg’s media-specific self-reflexive formalism makes sense in terms of this aesthetic stance). The opposiing term of “theatricality,” which Fried disparages and sees as the aesthetic failure of minimalism in the 1960s, has to do with the way the literal presence of the object is completely blank and empty — so that the “art” happens exclusively in the mind of the observer. Self-referring modernist works force the contemplating spectator to go outside herself, as part of the impossible task of reaching the receding artwork; minimalist works are simply “there,” with a thereness that precludes any such movement.

Jackson notes that both sides in the dispute mapped by Fried are anti-anthropocentric, in the ways maintained today by speculative realism — they both concern the way that objects escape from correlation with our perceptual categories. He suggests that the two artistic movements are therefore analogous to the two major tendencies of speculative realism. Minimalism has a strategy of what Jackson calls Demonstration, the strategy of Meillassoux and Brassier: “a passive, inert material reality can be epistemologically demonstrated through the formal, inferential properties of thought and an extrinsic principle of the fact, so that thought becomes radically divorced from a non-anthropomorphic being.” The modernist works championed by Greenberg and Fried adopt a strategy much like that of what Jackson calls Description, operating in Harman and other OOO thinkers, and also in a different way in Grant’s neo-Schellingian version of speculative realism: “reality is composed of fundamental entities, objects, things, forces and powers which exist in their own right; the relations of which, in their specific limitations or groundings, are no different in kind from the epistemological limits of cognition. This is an intrinsic principle of the thing. The limitations of the correlation between thinking and being are radicalised and hypostatised such that they are turned into the characteristics of relationality in general.”

I found Jackson’s analysis to be powerful and useful, although my knowledge of art historical discourse, and in particular of the theories of Greenberg and Fried, is quite limited. (For which reason, I am not sure how accurate my brief summary of Jackson’s article is. My apologies to him for any misapprehensions). But what I wondered about is this. What happens when we consider other sorts of 20th & 21st century image production, which are not contained within high art traditions? Jackson notes how Fried has recently, and belatedly, turned his attention to contemporary multimedia and new media art works, thus extending his theoretical musings beyond just painting. But these are still High Art works that are mostly situated in galleries.

What I would like to think about is, how the tradition of aesthetics traced by Jackson through the theorizations of modernist (and even postmodernist) art historians relates to other forms of visual (and audiovisual) production? I am thinking here of cinema and post-cinema, but also of things like comic books. At one point, Jackson quotes Stanley Cavell’s distinction between painting on the one hand, and photography and cinema on the other: “To maintain conviction in our connection with reality, to maintain our presentness, painting accepts the recession of the world. Photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it. The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it…” Jackson goes on to speak at length about Cavell’s Friedian formula for painting, as an art in which we are present but the world recedes from us. I’d like to think, however, about the other half of Cavell’s formulation, which has become a crucial principle in film studies: the way in which cinema renders the presence of the world, but with ourselves being absent. How would this affect our discussion of speculative realism?

An even better example of what I have in mind is Burke Hilsabeck’s brilliant article “Accidental Specificity: Modernism from Clement Greenberg to Frank Tashlin.” Hilsabeck gives a bravura comparison between Clement Greenberg’s famous essay “Art and Kitsch,” and Frank Tashlin’s 1955 film, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Artists and Models. Hilsabeck notes that “Artists and Models begins by framing the same problem [as that posed by Greenberg], that of medium-specificity and the conflict between avant-garde and kitsch, while reaching a dramatically different set of conclusions.” Tashlin’s film, and even more the “painting” that Lewis accidentally makes within its storyline, is “widescreen, composed somehow of both depth and an overweening superficiality, aglow in garish Technicolor.” It systematically opposes all the aesthetic values championed by Greenberg: flatness, automony, purity of design, etc. (Again, I am oversimplifying a complex argument). But the point is, that Tashin’s shamelessly decorative, externally referential, and self-consciously obvious aesthetic is as big and important a part of what happened to images in the 20th century as either the works championed by Greenberg and Fried, and those they disparaged. This is part of a larger question — can we give an account of mid-20th century visual production that takes, say, Jackson Pollack and Jack Kirby equally seriously? What would it look like to theorize art in a way that had as much room for comic-book pictorialism as it had for abstract expressionism? What would happen if we then extended this history, and this theorization, to the present day? And how would this broader understanding of visual culture relate to the philosophical questions raised by speculative realism?

I have no answers here, only questions raised by Jackson’s brilliant — but to my mind incomplete — formulations.

Private Vices, Public Pleasures

May 14th, 2014

Miklos Jancso’s PRIVATE VICES, PUBLIC PLEASURES (this is how it is listed on IMDB, although “pleasures” doesn’t seem the right translation of the last word in the original Italian title “Vizi privati, pubbliche virtù”) is a severely underrated movie, and one that I need to watch again. Made in Italy in 1976 and spoken in Italian, it doesn’t quite have the formalist rigor of Jancso’s Hungarian works in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it is still powerful and provocative. There are some dazzlingly orchestrated long takes (which is Jancso’s arthouse trademark); but there are also sequences with more conventional editing. Also, the lavish outdoor scenery  (apparently the film was actually shot in what is now Croatia; there is a large Yugoslav presence in the supporting cast and in the crew) is very different from the stark Hungarian plains.

The film is more or less based on the Mayerling Incident, an 1889 scandal in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which the Crown Prince Rudolph, heir to the throne, and his lover Mary Vetsera apparently killed themselves, supposedly because they could not be married. At least that was the official version, though conspiracy theories abounded; the movie proposes that Rudolph and Mary were murdered by order of Rudolph’s father, the Emperor Franz Joseph. Through this, the movie works as a kind of 1960s/70s counter-culture allegory. Rudolph and his friends Sophie and Franco, a brother-sister couple whose mother was at one point Franz Joseph’s mistress, form a cheerfully incestuous menage a trois; they are mostly interested in sex and drugs, and in overthrowing the puritanical older generation represented by their parents, and by the uniforms and stuffy rituals of Austro-Hungarian official culture. Most of the film takes place during an orgy that they organize, inviting as their guests the young aristocrats of their own generation, who dance around nude, make love in various combinations (there is some sort of sexual activity involving lturkeys as well), and humiliate the various Austro Hungarian soldiers and bureaucrats who show up. It’s during the orgy that Mary Vetsera appears, and the menage a trois quickly becomes a menage a quatre. The film’s version of Mary (apparently this is not the case in the actual historical record) is a hermaphrodite, with fully formed both female and male genital organs, which allows for an expansion of the erotic possibilites.

In terms of actually depicted sex, it isn’t all that explicit; the film is barely even soft-core. But there are lots of nude, cavorting bodies, of all genders and genitalia. The soundtrack has music almost continually; much of it is diegetic, as Rudolph continually has bands playing both indoors and out. The moving camera often circles around these fully clothed musicians, in contrast to the partially-clothed or altogether nude aristocrats. The overall effect is rather hysterical (if I can use this word in a descriptive but non-pejorative sense) as we have long sequences where the frame is filled with continually dancing undressed bodies, with a restless camera either roving through the shrubbery or from room to room, but sometimes simply tracking back-and-forth, all overlaid with the sonic  bombardment of everything from brass band military marches to Eastern European traditional dances to “God protect the Kaiser” (often sung mockingly) to an English-language rendition of “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” With the dialogue in Italian, at times I was reminded of Fellini; there’s even a circus that shows up at one point, but alas not much is made of it (there are a few quick shots of a circus lady cavorting with two chimpanzees, but we never get to see the troupe of Hungarian dwarfs who are much talked about). But overall, Jancso’s vision of excess and exhaustion is very different from Fellini’s — I’m not sure how to phrase this — Jancso is far less surreal than Fellini, but also more aggressively carnal.

There’s a ten-minute-or-so sex sequence near the end of the film, which removes the huge supporting cast and only gives us various combinations or subsets of the foursome. Disappointingly, and in contrast to everything else in the movie, this is shot more or less in cliched Eurotrash style, with lots of upper-body and head-and-lips closeups, and nondiegetic, conventionally “romantic” music — instead of the roving camera and incessant brass bands. Despite the conventionality of this sequence (is it meant to be ironic? or was it forced upon Jancso by the Italian financiers of the film?) it does look (as far as I could tell, given the lack of explicit pornographic detail) like first Rudolph penetrates Mary, and then she penetrates him.

After that, there’s nothing left but the fairly quiet murder of Rudolph, Mary, and their friends, and the official coverup, so that order can be restored. There’s a lot of emphasis throughout the film on photography, as the mass medium of the day: Rudolph and his friends take orgy photos which they hope to release to the press to create scandal; and official photographs are taken of the dead bodies in order to support the fake narrative of a lovers’ suicide pact.

So the film can definitely be taken as an allegory of the affirmations and the ultimate failure of the 1960s counterculture, back projected onto the Austro Hungarian Empire and 19th-century decadent aestheticism. However, though the film shows no liking or nostalgia for the Imperial bureaucracy and hierarchy, its attitude towards its young libertine protagonists is decidedly ambivalent. The delirious orgies are at the same time sufficiently dry and acerbic that we get some of the same distanciation as we do with the horrors of war (in, e.g. The Red and the Black) and with the revolutionary dances (e.g. in Red Psalm) in Jancso’s earlier films. The result is that Rudolph and his friends come off seeming a bit too self-satisfied and self-congratulatory in their rebellion. It becomes hard to forget that they can only get away with all this because of their own aristocratic power and privilege (not to mention seemingly infinite supplies of money). Rudolph rightly imagines that his father will not dare to arrest him or cut off his allowance or anything like that; his position as Crown Prince puts him above the law. (Though he fails to conceive that the patriarchal order he is rebelling against can simply murder him and then cover it up). So the flaw of Rudolph’s ambisexual hedonism, appealing as it is, is that its enabling condition of possibility is the very order that it claims it wishes to destroy. Aristocracy will not be overthrown by the children of that very aristocracy using their class freedom to have an orgy. And carpe diem, by its very nature, cannot overthrow an enduring-through-time order, let alone produce its own counter-order. (This is driven home in a great sequence, during the orgy, where Rudolph proclaims his father dead, himself the new Emperor, Mary his Empress, and mock-appoints his party guests to various ministries. It’s all good fun, rooted in the carnivalesque suspension of the ruling order; but for this very reason, all it does is point up the post-carnivalesque restoration of the oppressive ruling order).

I mentioned Fellini earlier. But where Fellini is aesthetically haunted by the ultimate sterility of the seemingly bounteous carnivalesque, Jancso has a more socio-political take on this paradox. PRIVATE VICES, PUBLIC PLEASURES is the equally alienating flip side of the earlier Hungarian epics. Jancso has none of Fellini’s humanistic warmth, but rather (and to my mind, more impressively artistically) he casts the same cold eye on spectacles of liberation as he does on spectacles of slaughter and oppression.