Sunday, 16 January 2011

Neroplatonism 14.01.11

Text for the paper given at Speculative Medievalisms, Anatomy Theatre, 14 January 2011.

‘Perception is purely a matter of phantoms. Only now and then does this situation break down and lead to two real objects indirectly affecting one another by means of a third. And this is one form of what I call “allure”’. Graham Harman, ‘Offshore Drilling Rig’, Circus Philosophicus.

I Preamble: Bataille and AJ Ayer

I should begin with an apology that I am neither a medievalist nor a speculative realist; I have no authority here. I was invited to participate by Nicola Masciandaro on the basis of my interest in Georges Bataille (who was indeed a medievalist), and whom Nicola suggested might have something to contribute in this area.

But at the same time it is important to note that Bataille is also taken to represent the worst excesses of correlationism not least because of a now notorious conversation with AJ Ayer, in which were also present Merleau Ponty and the physicist (and co-author of The Accursed Share) Giorgio Ambrosini. This conversation, which went on until 3am, involved a (no doubt increasingly drunken) argument as to whether or not you could say that the ‘sun existed before man’. This conversation is cited for example by Simon Critchley in his review in the TLS of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, the founding text of Speculative Materialism.

The anecdote is recounted by Bataille himself in a short lecture called ‘The Consequences of Nonknowledge’. The reason for the anecdote is not, however, to ridicule Ayer or English philosophy, but on the contrary to disclose the limits of Hegel and Absolute Knowledge. While, on the one hand, there is no question that the statement ‘the sun existed before man’ ‘indicates the perfect non-sense that a reasonable proposition can assume’ since there cannot be an object without a subject, on the other hand this very non-sense makes us uneasy. We should also note what the sun means for Bataille in relation to ‘man’. ‘Man’ has worshiped the sun, bathed in it, sacrificed for it, organized all its ‘heliocentric’ philosophical metaphors around it, turned it into the Apollonian symbol of order, reason, form, illumination, enlightenment and so on; ‘Man’ is inconceivable without the sun and vice versa.

Bataille writes, ‘Honestly, it seems to me that insofar as we remain within discursive considerations, we might indefinitely say that there could not have been a sun before man; however, this also might make us uneasy: a proposition that isn’t logically doubtful, but that makes the mind uneasy, induces in us an imbalance: an object independent of any subject’ (Syst. Nonkn). It is this latter idea of an object independent of any subject that fascinates Bataille, as indeed it does Graham Harman, of course. The failure of language to convey that which isn’t logically doubtful in a form that is both perfect and yet non-sense opens up an abyss not just between French and English philosophy but between himself and the world: ‘I myself am in a world I recognise as profoundly inaccessible to me’.

[BTW. It is perfectly possible to posit that language itself pre-exists both man and the sun, logically, scientifically and speculatively in the sense that 1) language produces the very categories of subject and object, man and sun, that makes such differentiations possible, 2) in the sense that modern humans are an evolutionary product of the invention of language and other systems of signification and symbolization and that 3) there may well have been and currently may be very many cosmic languages out there.]

However, as we know, for Meillassoux the cosmos is ultimately only accessible through mathematics (the meaningless formulae through which God speaks to us in his own language, as Lacan would say). Only mathematics, perhaps, can grasp the laws and forms of the cosmos that are inaccessible to discourse (narrowly conceived) and pre-exist both ‘man’ and the sun. Since we must therefore also say that mathematics pre-exists man, what of that sonic form of maths known as music? Certainly, I would suggest, if we regard music as an open system with the minimal yet quite conventional definition of ‘organized sound’ where, of course, the principle of organization – form – does not originate in human culture. Again this idea is far from unknown; figures as diverse as Stockhausen and Steven Spielberg have speculated that aliens communicate through music.

II Base Idealism
The point I wish to make in this paper, speculatively and playfully titled ‘Neroplatonism’, is that it is the heteronomy of form itself that produces the ‘unease’ through which we do not not know the heterogeneity of objects and the world(s) they inhabit.

And here, for the purposes of this paper, I part company with Bataille even as I draw your attention to two short pieces by him. The first one, ‘Base Materialism and Gnosticism’, points to Bataille’s affinities with the Gnostics, close rivals with the Neoplatonists, but hostile, it is assumed, in part because the former regard base matter as an ‘active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness', a conception that perhaps could be said to currently have cosmic correlates in the mathematical intuition of dark matter and dark energy etc.

In contrast, it is often suggested that for the Neoplatonists matter is quite different and merely a passive receptacle or a question of simple privation. But on closer inspection this is not always the case. Plotinus states quite clearly that to call matter a receptacle or simply privation would be to define it, and matter is [under erasure] pure indeterminacy, formlessness; it is absolutely alien, other, a darkness within all perceptible darkness; matter lies beyond even the apprehension of shapelessness, colourlessness, sizelessness and so on. It is the Void, but the Void as a manner of being [under erasure] that is absolute difference as relationality.

Thus also for Bataille, the 20thC Gnostic taking up arms against latter day Platonists, base matter is bound up with formlessness: ‘All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.’ (Georges Bataille, ‘Formless’).

An easy objection can be made to this, of course, whether or not one wears a mathematical frock coat. To say that the universe is something like a spider or spit is precisely to give it a form, the form of a spider or spit, of course. But here Bataille is ironically moving from the Gnostic tautology of ‘base matter’ to the more Neoplationic (or at least Petrarchan) realm of affect that can only be conveyed in oxymoron. Spit and spiders are formless forms in the sense that they are phobic objects whose powers of horror reduce many people to a state of abjection beyond all rational control or determination. This is the formlessness of the universe for Bataille, a formlessness that arises as an effect of a form that it is impossible to grasp, an impossibility precisely missed through mathematical formularization. A spider or a gob of spit is not its mathematical form even though it does indeed have a form and this form, beyond the threshold of sense, reduces us (or some of us) to formlessness.

Oxymoron, as the Petrarchan conceit par excellence, is a striking hyperbolic comparison in which, for example, the beloved’s black eyes are the formless forms of delightful agony; incomparably compared to the sun, the icy fire of the ‘bel nero’ of Laura’s eyes are the unfathomable source of the Petrarachan conception of love – a Neoplatonism that as such is always also a Neroplatonism: a Platonism that finds its truth in the black eyes of its beloved.

Neroplatonic love involves, to quote Rime 37 of Petrarch’s Canzionere, that ‘Strange pleasure that in human minds is often found, to love whatever strange thing brings the thickest cloud of sighs!’
[Novo piacer che ne gli ingegni / Spesse volte si trova, / D’amar qual cosa nova / Più folta schiera di sospiri accoglia!] Francesco Petrarch, Rime 37,

Now, as I understand it, speculative realism requires that one’s speculations be grounded in scientific realism, however elaborate they may become, such that, for example, allowing the realist contention that God does not exist does not preclude the possibility that he may come to be in the future. Following suit, then, and drawing on the medieval and renaissance convention of the ‘elaborate conceit’ that allows one to toy with the devices of science, I am going to suggest that Petrarchan Neroplatonism shows that love is not just a form of madness or folly (this is after all highly conventional), not just an affliction caused by an external nonhuman force (again this is a totally conventional idea), but that it is a neurological (or perhaps better, a ‘nerological’) condition that allows us to explore the heteronomy between form and perception. In this sense nerological love is a form of agnosia like amusia or prosopagnosia. These afflictions can be placed under the sign of oxymoron because the former denotes musical noise while the latter concerns faceless faces.

Amusia never concerns simply a case of tone deafness or indifference to music; it does not describe a world of silence so much as the perception of often agonizing noise where there is music. For Vladimir Nabokov, for example, listening to a string quartet felt like being ‘flayed alive’. While the experience is one of formlessness, what produces the experience is a specific form. It is not the nonperception of music, but the perception of music as painful noise. The notion of amusia also therefore presupposes that music can disclose a fissure in the brain’s model of external reality that frames phenomenal experience, hinting at a reality outside that model: the unknown impulse that generates painful ‘amusic’. The ‘malfunction’ of the system of perception and aural object recognition, the disjunction between the brain and its reality, is betrayed by the a-musical repetition of noise, then. Similarly, for prosopagnosia, the non-recognition of faces remains predicated upon an abstract model of the face. Confusion, distress, meaninglessness is predicated upon the perception of an abstract face-shape.

In its positing of a highly generic face comprised of a blazon of conventional features (golden hair, black eyes, ruby lips etc.), there could be said to be something prosopagnosic about the poetry of courtly love even though the praise of the beloved’s face is both the condition and the means of the production of poetic subjectivity. Further, it closely delineates love as an effect of a relation between form and perception, enhanced to a large degree by the influence of Neoplatonism that corresponds to the process whereby ‘object recognition is accomplished by repeatedly transforming the retinal imput into stimulus representations with increasingly greater abstraction’ (3). To quote Petrarchan scholar Isabella Bertoletti, ‘Petrarch relies on the enumeration of a limited number of formularized discrete physical attributes that he re-iterates hypnotically, attributes which never come together as a portrait’ (Bertoletti, ‘Mourning Laura’) This is exactly how people with prosopagnosia seek to recognise people in the absence of an ability to perceive the face as a whole.

In Neroplatonic love, then, we have the experience of agony, distress, catastrophe predicated not just on the general, abstract form of a beautiful face, but in particular, the piercing ‘bel nero’ of its gaze, to which the lover returns hypnotically. These eyes, the paradoxical light of the Ideal that emerges from impenetrable blackness only to reduce its object to formless agony, are both the cause and effect of the prosopagnosia of neroplatonic love.

Both amusia and prosopagnosia are examples of associative agnosia ‘in which perception seems adequate to allow recognition, and yet recognition cannot take place’ (Farah). In Tauber’s phrase, it involves ‘a normal percept stripped of its meaning’. Agnosias like amusia are useful for neuroscience in ascertaining the contingent and modular (evolutionary) nature of perceptual apparatuses and neural ‘knowledge’ systems that abstract and pattern the object-‘stuff’ of perception. At the limit, the loss of certain phenomenal ‘qualities’ may imply the emergence of new forms, and indeed new forms of knowledge (Metzinger).

Neuroscience, then, in its general discussion of the agnosias (and there are many different kinds) seems to be operating with quasi- if not neo-platonic categories that involve a clear distinction between form and matter or, in their words, between neuro-computational forms that give shape to the base ‘stuff’ of perception that lacks form. To quote Farah,

Early vision has been characterised as representing ‘stuff’ rather than ‘things’, meaning that the visual system initially extracts information about local visual properties before computing the larger scale structure of the image. In many ways, visual form agnosia can be described as preserved stuff vision in the absence of thing vision. What is striking about visual form agnosia is the complex nature of the stuff that can be represented in the absence of things. The perception of depth, velocity, acuity, and especially color (as opposed to wavelength), which are at least roughly intact in many visual form agnostics, requires considerable cortical computation. These computations yield a kind of rich but formless (my emphasis) goo, which requires some additional and separately lesionable grouping process to represent objects. (Farah, Visual Agnosia).

It is this other neural grouping, or faculty of the mind, rather than perception per se, that has the facility of apprehending the form of things supposed to shape the base matter of perception. The question, therefore, concerns the formal relation between inside and outside. While apprehension of the order of things seems to be primarily a process of intellection, it would not be scientifically realist to presume that form is solely an effect or trick of the mind in contradistinction to the formless gooey stuff perceptible by our senses out there in the great outdoors. The dark matter of perceptible reality requires considerable computational power even before it can be rendered into the ‘formless goo’ out of which the faculty of the mind is able to perceive or apprehend or intuit the ‘platonic’ or mathematizable ideas that inhabit it, no doubt as an effect of evolutionary adaptation.
In this new neoplatonic neuroscience, then, reality is only perceptible as an Idea recognized by certain neural groupings in the brain out of the goo of spurious perceptions computed by other areas of the brain crunched from the mass of data introduced by the senses. The brain can only reconstruct or represent the Idea out of a mass of spurious computations of matter. Ironically, this structure is similar to the way Plotinus suggests we can intuit the existence of matter itself divest of any Idea or heterogeneous to any particular form.

In Plotinus’s account matter escapes all rational apprehension and can only be intuited, as Plato himself suggests, through ‘spurious reasoning’. In his account he relies on the metaphor of darkness:

The eye is aware of darkness as a base capable of receiving any colour not yet seen against it: so the Mind, putting aside all attributes perceptible to sense – all that corresponds to light – comes upon a residuum which it cannot bring under determination: it is thus the state of the eye which, when directed towards darkness, has in some way become identical with the object of its spurious vision (Plotinus, Enneads).

For matter to be intuited, therefore, both the eye and the Mind have to construct a (spurious) vision of darkness (or formless goo, let’s say) in order to sense something within it, the ‘darker’ darkness of matter itself. ‘With what is perceptible to it’, that is, the eye/mind, says Plotinus, ‘there is presented something else: what it can directly apprehend it sets on one side as its own; but the something else which Reason rejects, this, the dim, it knows dimly, this, the dark, it knows darkly, this it knows in a sort of non-knowing’ (Plotinus: 100).
What is interesting, then, about this new neoplatonic science with regard to agnosias like amusia and prosopagnosia is that it is the very form itself that produces the effect of formlessness or radical indetermination. Indetermination is determined, somehow, on the very basis of form; a deeper formlessness is determined by the very indetermination immanent to form: that is, impossibly, form is formlessness, music is noise, a face is a faceless void, and sovereign beauty the terror of indeterminate chaos.

III The Specious Vision of Death
At this point, if there were time, I would conclude with a commentary on Petrarch’s Rime 323 in the above terms. This is one of the most beautiful poems in the sequence, a Visions of Ruin poem that re-iterates Ovidian themes and images from Rime 23 but also laments the trauma of love in a fuller development of the lines from Rime 37 I quoted earlier where love’s strange pleasure is ‘to love whatever strange thing brings the thickest cloud of sighs!’ It is a poem, like all of them ultimately, about death and writing, [note Petrarch’s anticipation of Blanchot], it suggests, I could propose somewhat anachronistically, that poetry’s creation of a new or strange thing (cosa nova), that is to say new and strange thoughts and feelings in the formation of new neural circuits, arises as an effect of love’s trauma; the mental disorder or catastrophe that is love, and the death that it pre-figures and anticipates.

In Rime 323 the strange/new pleasure is elaborated in six emblematic visions of ruin and mourning traditionally associated with the death of Laura from the plague on 6 April 1348, the same date as his innamoramento, his falling in love, as he writes in Rime 211 (see also 336). [Note The convergence between the dates is also noted in 30, 50, 62, 79, 101, 107, 1 18, 122, 145, 212, 221, 266, 271, 278, 364, ranging from 1334 to 1358]. Six visions of ruinous beauty and the beauty of ruin offer complex forms of always reversible allegory. The hind, the ship, the laurel tree, the fountain, the phoenix and the Bella Donna are ‘all emblems for Laura [that] at sometime or other also stands for the lover, and vice versa’ (During). If Laura is the laurel, the lover turns into a laurel; if she is the beautiful deer he is hunting, he is an Acteaon (and, again, in 323 she is torn apart by dogs); if he becomes a fountain of tears, she is a fountain of inspiration (but is it Narcissus’ pool?) ... the myths are constantly being transformed’ (During). Narcissus is certainly referenced in the final emblem. While the snake bite of course recalls Eurydice, she falls bowed like a flower when plucked.

It has often been noted that the myth of Narcissus, from Ovid to Freud, provides the classical pattern for the psychic structure of love and love poetry. As it is indeed also the structure of Neoplatonism assuming we recognise the Neoplatonic universe as the Empire of the One. Speaking of which, I am fond of Lacan’s wry remark on the Platonism of scientific reason when he affirms that yes, of course, ‘we proceed on the basis of the One ... The One engenders science’, but not, he quickly adds, in the sense of measurement, that is not what is important. Rather, ‘what distinguishes modern science … is precisely the function of the One, the One in so far as it is only there, we can assume, to represent solitude – the fact that the One doesn’t truly knot itself with anything that resembles the sexual Other’ (1999: 128). The insistence of the Other which, as we know from Lacan, does not exist, is an effect of the ‘One-missing’ (1999: 129). It is for this very reason that the One can be said to be both transcendent and immanent to the many, the worlds of objects which exist but with which there is no relation. Or rather, there are only indirect relations by means of a third, the principle of the many (see also Lacan on Tao The Ching], the obscure form(s), both alluring and dissonant, that articulates the two and denotes the impossibility of their complementarity, harmony or synthesis.

‘Perception is purely a matter of [alluring] phantoms’ writes Graham Harman, by means of which two real objects indirectly affect one another in the absence of any direct relation or recognition (see also Harman, 51): a face, for example, and some water. Less often noted than its function as the paradigm of romance, the myth of Narcissus is the first recorded instance of prosopagnosia. Narcissisus’s love for his own reflection must be predicated on the fact that he fails to recognise the face as his own. And this is indeed how the myth is sometimes translated. Dryden for example writes,

For as his own bright image he survey'd,
He fell in love with the fantastick shade;
And o'er the fair resemblance hung unmov'd,
Nor knew, fond youth! it was himself he lov'd.
Ovid, Metamorphoses (trans. Garth, Dryden et al)

But after all, what kind of sublime idiot would pine away at an image if he knew it to be his own? At the heart of the myth of Narcissus, hidden it seems from view, is the tale of a profound alienation predicated upon a disjunction, a radical heteronomy between perception and form, eye and brain, subject and object. Yet Narcissisus looks upon himself as something strange and new, someone or something utterly not himself that he cannot not love even though it brings the thickest cloud of sighs (not least from the amusiac song of Echo’s echo of Narcissus’s amorous dissonance). Each of Petrarch’s reversible emblems in rime 323 take this Narcissistic structure but disclose the radical heteronomy at the heart of the myth.

The key to this is perhaps the emblem of the phoenix which, here, does not rise again from the ashes of death. Classical symbol of re-birth and resurrection, the phoenix is described in explicitly Neoplatonic form as the celestial immortality of Form itself, the Idea that breathes new life into dead matter. But here it commits suicide, destroys itself in the face of the preceding visions of ruin. ‘All things’, it seems, ‘fly towards their end’ even the Ideas that animate them. There is a darker principle that determines the fate even of form, the indeterminacy that is represented by the Idea of death. Death is only ever an Idea, of course (see Weslati); it is not something that we can actually experience. Death is the essential Idea through which we speaking beings console ourselves that this doesn't go on for ever. Death doesn’t mean anything to science; it is just the transformation of matter. The Idea of death is a spurious vision, but through it one ‘comes across a residuum which it cannot bring under determination’. Looking deep into the beautiful black, ‘bel nero’, eyes of death one becomes ‘somehow identical with the strange new thing [cose nove] behind it, the force of absolute exteriority that transforms the psyche: the indeterminate determination of all indeterminacy. ...

Given this radical indetermination, even death is not the end, as Petrarch writes in the final lines of Rime 328, in which the dead black eyes of Laura address his own eyes and speak to him, ‘Her beautiful eyes ... with chaste, strange shining said to my eyes: ‘Peace be with You, dear friends; never again here, no, but we shall see each other again elsewhere’
[Li occhi belli ... Dicean lor con faville oneste et nove: / “Rimanetevi in pace, o cari amici: Qui mai più, no, rivedremne altrove’ (328: 9, 12-14.)]

IV Coda
All kinds of speculative possibilities of the new and the strange glint in the bel nero eyes of death’s spurious vision, even eyes that speak, though whether they are speaking only of madness in grief, mourning and melancholy is another question. Throughout its history, of course, from the Troubadours to Andre Breton’s Amor fou, love has been regarded as a mental disturbance, madness, folly. One of the symptoms of love’s psychosis can be a numerological obsession with dates and numbers. April 6, the date of Petrarch’s innamoramento and Laura’s death from the plague in 1348, lies at the heart of the Canzoniere’s elaborate numerological system based around the number 6. For example in Rime 323, the six emblematic visions of Laura’s death are conveyed in 12 lines each (3+3x2); the whole sequence itself comprises of 366 poems, that’s 6x60+6. As my metal chums will know, that’s the Sign of the Beast. Appropriately, then, I shall round off my talk with a song, from Black Metal band 1349, named after the date the plague which killed Laura de Noves reached Norway, and which ‘welcomes the darkness that fills my soul / and is blessed by the madness of the Chaos star’ (1349, ‘Manifest’).