Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Can the World be Thought?

Common sense tells us that of course the world can be thought. In the phenomenology of Renaud Barbaras, however, the question of whether the world can be thought is not so simply settled. To begin with, let's take a look at the conclusions Barbaras draws from his chapter on "living movement," which includes an incisive consideration of Bergson's Matter and Memory:

One cannot reintroduce in the subject a specific dimension by which it would relate to the totality as such, an ability to dominate the world and to determine it adequately–in short, something like a thought; on the contrary, it is with regard to such an approach (which is still Husserl's) that Bergson's analysis demonstrates its value. Insofar as it all-encompassing, the world is essentially what can neither be dominated nor adequately given, which is why it disappears from everything that manifests it. The negative character of manifestation is the correlative of the unpresentability of the world. It is therefore through living movement that we must grasp in a unitary way the possibility of the manifestation and that of the comanifestation of the world it negates; we can account for perception that is based on movement only on the condition of elucidating a sense of being proper to the motor subject in which are constituted conjointly the manifestation and the totality of which the manifestation is the negation. Moreover, to the degree that, as motor, the subject can circumscribe its object only within the phenomenal field and to the degree that the manifestation of the phenomenal totality as such cannot rely on a nonvital (extraworldly) dimension, we must conclude from this that the movement from which perception proceeds constitutes totality in the act by which it negates it and therefore that there is a positing of totality only as its own negation. We are not asserting here the view that totality is given only in forms in which it is negated, but rather that it is in its negation that the totality as such is posited, as if the part were to give rise to the whole of which it is a part. The perceiving subject is defined by the fact that the movement it unfolds opens onto the totality in the very act by which it negates it by determining it in the form of a concrete manifestation. We find ourselves here midway between Husserl's and Bergson's positions: if perception is indeed a condition of the world, this condition cannot be based on an autonomous psychic order, and it must therefore proceed from vital activity itself, so that it is indeed in movement itself that the world must be constituted, a world that movement considers as the field against the background of which its negating power unfolds.

(Desire and Distance, pp. 105-106)

Thus while the world can be thought, it does not originally appear because it is thought; the world is originally posited as such as the negative pole of a movement toward manifestation, toward something that is percieved. In this view, negation, (perhaps) metonomy, and intentionality are not psychic operations but rather qualities of living movement, actions of the body. Barbaras says that perception is intentional because of its motility, i.e., not because of the intervention of a consciousness that is itself necessarily intentional (p. 101). In no uncertain terms he claims that "perceptual manifestation ultimately arises from the strict relation between a movement and a phenomenal field, and it is by no means necesssary to introduce any psychic reality whatsoever; the properly active moment of perception in which the autonomy of a subjectivity is confirmed resides in motility, which is why perception as such is indifferent to the division between the psychic and the corporeal" (p. 97).

Barbaras makes the case that movement forms part of the essence of perception (p. 89). That's not so difficult to grasp. However, to make his case against the introduction of a psychic reality, his argument depends on the reverse holding true, the idea that perception forms part of the essence of movement. (We've already looked at the problem of linking worldhood directly to motility; Barbaras and Jonas are on similar ground here, both dealing with the philosophy of the living organism and, ultimately, the relationship between movement and desire; and both seem to have a view of living movement that doesn't adequately explain the existence of the amoeba– it could be accounted for by a theory of semovience, but there is this problem of determining what is and what isn't psychic.) Barbaras' characterizes (living) movement thusly:

[M]ovement itself refers to the object on the basis of a mode that is irreducible to an objective and mechanical displacement; it is familiar with the object–there is perception within movement. It does not involve a perception distinct from it that would guide it or subsist in it in an implicit or unconcsious way. Such an interpretation is rooted in an inability to conceive of experience other than on the basis of psychic contents, foreign to the order of exteriority (in other words, in an inability to recognize the autonomy of appearance.) In truth, it is movement itself that perceives in the sense that the object exists for it, in which movement has its meaning, as its oriented nature attests, inspired and clairvoyant with regard to the living movement that often demonstrates an intimacy with its objective, an intimacy that runs deeper than that which knowledge exhibits. In an by movement the object appears, though without its manifestation being separated from its brute presence, according to the indistinctness between its essence and its existence. Here the grasp of the object is not distinguished from the gesture made toward it; perception takes place in the world and not in me, and the object is therefore perceived where it is. We are confronted with a strictly motor perception that unfolds exclusively in exteriority and rejoins rather than represents the object.

(pp. 91-92, Barbaras' emphases)

"Paradoxically," Barbaras says, following Bergson, "to say that image is for me is to say that it is itself, that it is distinguished from the totality" (p. 101). Are we therefore being asked to conceive of the world on the basis of a paradox? These two questions are not unrelated: Is the world as it originally appears the product of a thought, and can the world be thought at all? But if common sense continues to insist that the world can be thought, even on the basis of a paradox, are we not still left with the question of whether or not the world itself is thought? That is, of course, if Barbaras is simply wrong.

Barbaras points to the inexhaustability of perception (an idea we have briefly encountered before), and he links this to movement, to an "excess beyond the self" and to the "infinite excess of ability beyond action" (p. 95). I still maintain a healthy skepticism of the concept of excess (Dyadic Excess), and in this case I am much more inclined to regard movement as prone to exhaustion than thought, if those are indeed the alternatives. I have had experiences of being totally exhausted by thought, and of my thinking being exhausted. Along with the nightmarish prospect that thinking never rests (The Rhythm of Thinking), I must now consider the possibility that the living subject never sleeps nor rests, that it is constantly in movement. Can this really be the meaning of semovience? Well, if it is, then it just may follow that the world is unthinkable in its original form, because it is always at every conceivable moment of experience present before it can be thought. Hmm.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 12:12 PM.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Can this really be the meaning of semovience?'

I don't think so - semovience is the ability to move at will - not to endlessly move???
Deleuze gives an account of Bergson's theory in 'Cinema 1: the movement image.'
B. places an 'interval' btwn sensor and motor reflexes to allow for 'memory' or recollection images...

June 28, 2007 12:16 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Is Deleuze drawing on Bergson? I ask because Barbaras covers this very idea in his review of Matter and Memory.

Movement at will. Barbaras distinguishes living movement from mechanical movement. I think it's fair to talk about his approach to living movement as semovience. He doesn't seem to believe that living movement is distinguished by an act of will that would originate in or belong to a psychic entity. He does make passing reference (in his endnotes) to Maine de Biran, but he does not elaborate on the idea of movement as effort. What is endless in his mind appears not to be movement itself, but ability, and the capacity for self-transcendence. So I have been a little hasty in my critique because there is this intermediate step between infinite powers and movement. On the other hand, perhaps Barbaras has been a little hasty in his philosophy. He offers no caveats about exhaustion, and he does not develop any thinking around the idea of movement as effort.

June 28, 2007 8:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Deleuze is certainly v. influenced by Bergson. He wrote a bk on him (one of the many monographs on indiv. philosophers - incl. Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Foucault,Spinoza....). The first cinema bk is based on Bergson approach to 'images'.
(Mario is, inevitably, well aware of B's work). I'm not a disciple but I am impressed!

For the AGNT semovience ('living movement'?) must originate with something that can initiate causal series rather than continue or react to them. To call the origin a 'psychic entity' may indicate a presumption and prejudice. Persons are not 'psychic entities' - they are, amongst other things, causal powers!???

June 30, 2007 2:36 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

It may well be that I'm presuming something I shouldn't. I have read the AGNT on empsychement as saying something like there is a psychic entity in a certain class of organisms. I will try to keep an open mind about that until I can read some more documents on the issue. In any case, I wanted to clearly present Barbaras' argument. He is emphatic about there not being any psychic entity necessary to explain living movement. This is an idea that he takes from Bergson, though he does not adopt Bergson wholesale.

July 02, 2007 10:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you're right - the agnt does say that....
However, I suppose that for many people 'psychic entities' sound pretty airy fairy/nebulous...

Certainly semovience requires a 'psychic entity' (or mind).

Presumably Barbaras would say that a starfish, has living we can't equate it with the meaning of semovience.

It would be useful to know how Barbaras distinguishes btwn living and mechanical movement....

We do lots of mechanical movements - like growing fingernails!

July 02, 2007 1:40 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

It would be useful to know how Barbaras distinguishes btwn living and mechanical movement....

I think if we pressed him on it he would say that living movement is familiar with its object; mechanical movement is a mere displacement. I'm going to email him about growth of the fingernails. I hope he speaks English, but I will ask in German too just in case.

July 02, 2007 10:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was checking out Barbaras on the web - prof. of of Contemporary phil paris-sorbonne.

He actually wrote a journal article on Varela a few years ago.

I wonder if he has any place for a 'mind/psychic entity'.

I have a suspicion he doesn't! Maybe connected with his contemp. phil! which often wants to shed itself of such baggage.
Also he's trying to go beyond a certain subjectivism in heidegger? But i'm rambling...

His concerns around 'life' are v. interesting. He also wrote something on the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon who deleuze took up from time to time.

no doubt he is becoming the subject of some theses (smile).

And how is living movement 'familiar with its object' Is it perchance 'aware' of it? Like the mouse for the crumbs on the table..

July 03, 2007 12:31 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I think being familiar with object is very much like an awareness. Barbaras links this familiarity to perception and not to consciousness, which he seems to regard with suspicion. He doesn't really address Heidegger at all. His critique of consciousness is focused on Husserl. His book on Merleau-Ponty perhaps covers some of this territory. I'll see when I read it.

I emailed Barbaras again at a different addy to ask about the fingernails.

July 08, 2007 9:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well I suppose he'll say nail growing is mechanical!

the challenge is whether he can make any distinction btwn the movement of a snail and your decision to not pick up a guitar and then change your mind and pick it up......
also I have a suspicion that only semovient persons have any awareness at all. A fact of nature.

July 09, 2007 1:15 AM  

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