Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Hilariously Simple Idea About Gilles Deleuze

I was reading some philosophy this evening, as is my wont and my job, when I had one of those moments when several disparate threads of philosphical reading and reflection came together into what I considered a pretty wild revelation. The past two winters, my PhD supervisor has been teaching a graduate level seminar on the thought of Gilles Deleuze, a notoriously difficult French writer of philosophy. One of the concepts that has been most puzzling in that seminar, and in Deleuze’s writing generally, is the virtual.

I’m not going to go into what we speculated about the nature of the virtual, because I don’t have time this evening to write out all that speculation. We talked about Henri Bergson’s metaphysics, the mathematics of differential equations represented in phase space, the nature of possibility. We tried to figure out how something could be real but not actual. I could go on, but I won’t. I have lunch plans in fourteen hours, and I may run out of time. Also, I want to qualify this post with the fact that I’m not yet familiar enough with the French language secondary material on Deleuze to know whether this idea has been articulated there already. But I think I have figured out exactly what this concept is.

The virtual existence of any body is a complete set of all that a body can do. Here’s how I figured it out:

1) A body’s mathematical representation as a phase space is a representation on an n-dimensional map of every possible state of that body. We talked in the seminar about the virtual being ‘something like, but not quite’ phase space.

2) A possible state of a body is something that body can do. I can run, eat, sing (poorly), impersonate the voice of internationally acclaimed film director Werner Herzog. But I am not doing any of that right now. None of these actions are actually being done as I write this, but I can do them.

3) Understand the possible states of a body as contained within the structure of that body itself. This could sound weird, but all you’re doing is considering the capacities of a body to be part of that body. A capacity is a real part of a body, even while that body is not acting with that capacity at the moment.

4) A capacity not enacted right now is a real part of a body, but not actual because it isn’t enacted. A body can do this capacity, but doesn’t all the time, or maybe even ever. I can develop my voice into a deeply rich baritone and embark on an eccentric music career. But I won’t. That’s a real capacity I have, so is really part of the structure of my body. But it will never be actualized.

All that a body can do (keep your eyes open, Spinoza fans, Deleuze was one of you too) is the virtual aspects of that body. That’s Deleuze’s language for discussing a body’s capacities, what a structure is capable of, even if that body never develops that capacity. The capacity is always part of that body, even if it is never actualized. Deleuze calls that virtual.

Friday, July 23, 2010

In Search of the Irrefutable

I’ve come across several philosophers in my experience who consider our discipline as a kind of science of arguments. Philosophers are seeking, according to these folks (none of whom are made of very much straw), the truth through argument. So when a philosopher formulates an argument that cannot be refuted, he (and they have all been he’s) will have discovered a truth upon which philosophy may rest content. But a curious idea occurred to me a few days ago that I realized would make an excellent philosophy article, and stick solidly in the craws of all those truth seekers who would deign to take me seriously.

It started when I read Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, about men who synthesize every occult conspiracy theory for the past eight hundred years into a single, perfectly consistent history of the secret and hidden. The aficionados of ancient conspiracies (Masons, Templars, Rosicrucians, et al) then hunt down our heroes, killing them for their evidence, even though their synthetic history was entirely fictional.

Periodically, I’ll have a conversation about the 9/11 Truth conspiracies, the beliefs that some blend of the United States government, conservative establishment, intelligence agencies, and business elite carried out the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, and that al Qaeda had nothing to do with it. Not all the conspiracy theorists are quite this extreme, but all the 9/11 Truth theories have some of these elements mixed and matched together. Even if you can point to an established fact of the case that disproves some aspect of their conspiracy theory, the theorist will not respond to modifying his beliefs. He will instead denounce this fact as an elaborate fakery of the conspirators.

Nothing in the arguments of the 9/11 Truth conspiracy theorist, or indeed any committed conspiracy theorist, can ever be refuted. The very nature of conspiracy thinking maintains the integrity of the theory above all else - even facts. Some conspiracy theories are more consistent than others, and an intelligent theorist will modify their theory when shown some internal inconsistency. But this amounts to a strengthening of the conspiracy theory, not its refutation. Refutation would involve the dismissal of the argument itself, admitting that the USA government did not, in fact, cause 9/11.

This puts the definition of philosophy as seeking truth through articulating an irrefutable argument in quite some bother. The arguments most durable to attack, most invulnerable to critique, most flexible in maintaining their validity, are the most outlandish conspiracy theories. Of course, I’m not troubled, because I don’t think philosophy is about seeking truth at all. But if you’re sympathetic to this idea, I think I have something that could trouble you.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Patience of Cellular Owners and the Strangeness of Time

I had a curious realization the other day, as my phone rang about twelve times before I managed to answer it. Before cellular phones were as widespread as they are today, most people gave up on a call after five or six rings at the most. Now that people tend to call from and to cellular phones, we actually tend to be a lot more patient than we used to about waiting for an answer on the phone.

It probably has to do with the phone no longer being in a fixed location. On a land line, when the phone rings, you know exactly where to go to answer it. A cellular phone can be anywhere, or underneath, anything within earshot of its ringer. So a caller now anticipates having to wait around for the phone to be found in some absurd location like the pocket of an old pair of pants, underneath a pile of unpaid phone bills, or in the fridge. I find it amusing because the cliché of technology is that it makes us harried and impatient, yet we’re willing to wait for twelve or fifteen rings before concluding that no one is answering the phone.
I’ve also been planning a future philosophy project about time. Basically, English language philosophy of time remains dominated by the McTaggart argument that time is unreal. In 1908, John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart wrote a paper that showed the logical inconsistency, and therefore impossibility, of the concepts of past, present, and future. An event X has to be the same event before it occurs as when it’s occurring and when it has occurred. So all its properties have to be the same, including its properties of pastness, presentness, or futurity.

But these properties all change as the event moves from future to present to past, so it can’t be the same event. But we can still talk about event X no matter when it’s occurring relative to us. So the properties of any event must not include its being past, present or future. Since these properties constitute time, no event can have time properties, therefore time is unreal.

This differs radically from the approach to time of Antonio Negri, an Italian philosopher whose ideas have come to dominate European philosophy of time. In his books and articles throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Negri considers time as it is experienced in life, and all of the social, political, and economic factors that shape our experience and understanding of time. For every mode of production and labouring, there is a kind of experience of time, each conditioning a different way of life and way of understanding existence.

So which is most important? McTaggart’s abstract understanding of time as a set of ordered events? Negri’s understanding of living time shaped by a societal apparatus of production? Those who know me well might assume I’m leaning towards an answer of both. However, I do think Negri’s approach to time is more philosophically productive, because it includes a concept of becoming: production. McTaggart’s doesn’t.

Actually, McTaggart’s argument forcibly prevents a concept of becoming from interacting with the concept of event. All events always exist in a particular order, along which our subjective consciousness moves. But a concept of production requires that events be made by some ongoing activity. So this looks like the one philosophical project where I actually choose sides, argue for one camp against another. Mark this in your calendars; it may never happen again.

Monday, July 5, 2010

He's Still My Hero, Man

Because not every post can be on the epic scale of a major political demonstration shutting down Canada’s largest city, I’ve decided to talk about Doctor Who. It’s been a long time since I’ve done so. Tom Baker once said that fan love is superior to human love. Because Tom's friends and family will tell him that he's gained weight, that it's silly to dye your hair white, and to stop being so strange. But Tom's fans will introduce themselves saying, "You're my hero, man!" Well, Matt Smith can definitely count me as a fan.

First, I want to make clear that I love what new producer Steven Moffatt has done with the show. I’m glad that Russell T Davies revived the show in the first place, and he often made some fine adventures, and wrote some good scripts. “Midnight” is still a brilliant suspence vehicle, and wonderful character piece for the Tenth Doctor. But I always found Russell’s aesthetic a little too pop for me, along with the Tenth Doctor generally.

If there’s any feeling that I get from Moffatt’s production and Matt Smith’s performance as the Eleventh Doctor, it’s nerdiness. The Eleventh Doctor himself is a fantastically strange man. You’re entertained watching him because of the fundamental, unpredictable weirdness of his personality. He’s a man who is always a bit odd everywhere he goes, but far from being alienating, this oddness is charming, ingratiating. He doesn’t fit in, but he fits around others. Russell’s Doctors were very much lost men looking for a home, an anxiety that shaped their personalities. I got the feeling at times that the Tenth Doctor wouldn’t have minded settling down in a stable, if unconventional, home. But Moffatt’s Doctor is at home wherever he goes, because he’s so comfortable with himself. The Eleventh Doctor is a true traveller.

A Moffatt story isn’t afraid to become complicated, never assumes that the audience won’t be able to follow a clear, if complex, story. His season finale, “The Big Bang,” involved a lot of time travel shenanigans that were played for laughs in the moment, but intricately constructed the plot. And ultimately, it became a very personal story about the relation between the Doctor and his main companion Amy.

A couple of the reviews I’ve read of Matt Smith’s first season as a whole, I’ve found miss the point of having a new production team and new Doctor, which is a new articulation of what Doctor Who is. I’ve read that this year’s finale missed the epic dimensions of previous season enders. Even though the universe itself was at risk of being wiped from existence, there were no grand battles or sci-fi vistas, but puzzle in an empty museum for the Doctor to solve. The drama was contained within the four cast members of that story, the Doctor, Amy Pond, Rory Williams, and River Song.

Yet the biggest complaints about Russell’s season finales were that his epic battles became cartoonish, solved with technobabble and deus ex machinas with little attachment to the drama of the characters. But the resolution of this season, the return of the Doctor from oblivion through an anchor in Amy’s time-cracking memories of him, was hinted at throughout the season. Growing up next to a crack in time had altered Amy’s memory, so that she could remember timelines that never existed.

The metaphysics of how the Doctor could return to reality through a memory, and rebuild one timeline with a sample of it in another, was actually seeded in Russell and the Tenth Doctor’s swan song, “The End of Time.” All that’s needed to bring Gallifrey and the whole universe of the Time War back from oblivion was a single Gallifreyan diamond. Likewise, all that’s needed to restore the original universe is a sample within the Pandorica box, and all that’s needed to restore the Doctor to the universe is a sample of his existence in Amy’s brain, her memories of the never-was.

I also don’t understand why consensus seems to be that Rory is dead weight. It’s been a long time since televised Doctor Who had more than two main cast members for an entire season: classic season 21 in 1984. The 2011 season crew of the Doctor, Amy, and Rory will be the first crew. Maybe we’re just not used to stories with enough activity for three people that don’t devolve into the clutters of Russell’s mass reunion episodes.

I think people still consider Rory a white Mickey, the boyfriend overshadowed by Rose’s relationship with the Doctor. But Amy and Rory do onscreen what Rose and Mickey never actually did: make out. Rory fits into the same ‘main companion’s boyfriend’ slot, but the relationships among the three leads (and they are three leads) are completely different in 2010 than in 2005-6.

Mickey started out scared and incompetent, not knowing what to do in an alien invasion in “Rose.” In “The Eleventh Hour,” Rory’s actions and suspicions about his supposedly walking coma patients give the Doctor the information he needs to track down the villain. And he’s just as fast as Amy at evacuating the hospital. By the time he was travelling regularly in the TARDIS, he was on a level with the Doctor setting traps for Silurian warriors. At the end of the season, he was defending Amy from Dalek and Cyberman attacks. Rory was on his feet the fastest of any second-billing companion who wasn’t already a Time Agent.

And I’ll have no disrespect to the mopey nice guy who scored the hot bossy redhead.