Patchwork Epistemologies (Part 5): Philosophers Without Borders, Without Boundaries

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To return to the “Patchwork is Not a Model” debate, discussed in Part 3, I came to understand that my initial mistake was in associating the word “model” with a blanket reductivism rather than seeing modelling more generally as a distinct methodology that could be of use to our discussions.

My complaint, in line with the discussion had in Part 4, was that the word had become meaningless in this most generic of uses, because the system it was being deployed in orbit of was purposefully under-defined. And yet, as Reza went on to demonstrate, its usage in scientific fields is far more useful than the vague way it was deployed by passing Twitter interlocutors. Reza writes:

Yes, the word “model” is often used in quite general terms. For me, a “model” is an essentially theoretical entity with a definitive structure, description and scope constraints.

In a way, when I say “model”, I absolutely mean the science of modelling, and [particularly] modelling in science and engineering where the concept of “model” is a systematic and explicitly formulated idealization of an interpreted structure of either an actual phenomenon (target system) or another model.

In the latter case, models are more like hypotheticals or counterfactuals which we can use to talk about possibilities which might not be found in nature. Like, for example, three sex biology or Arthur Eddington‘s idea of the model as what can possibly expand the scope of what is considered to be the actual.

I think what you are describing [with patchwork] is more like big toy models where the main theoretical assumptions are suspended in favour of tinkering and hypothetical manipulations (thought experiments). 

This, again, provided a further opening through which to discuss patchwork with Reza on his own terms. Patchwork is less an attempt at imposing a system but rather a provocative remodelling for tinkering with and manipulating that which is — or, put another way, confronting with the building blocks that constitute what is contemporaneously seen as essential and not contingent; as “given”.

To reconsider our “territories” on these terms and to use this configuration as a basis for geopolitical reorganisation has the potential (I believe) to be hugely productive in a modern world where state consolidation as a process is faltering everywhere we look and the revision and rejection of the historic results of imperialism and colonialism are increasingly commonplace in politics both on the left and the right.

This rejection of centuries of state consolidation has generally been championed around these parts as a symptom of a wider process of entropic fragmentation where those who have ruled over us continue to lose their grip. As traumatic as such a process may be, it is one that we must stay attentive and vigilant to, and particularly to the ways in which it shapes our senses of ourselves.

As Reza put it, we must strive for a better understanding of “how changes in our self-conception necessarily lead to the transformation of our collective modes of acting”. This has already happened for the worse, with the growth of neoliberalism dismantling our collective politics.

Here, the enunciation of a shared project that I hoped was on our horizon began to feel ever closer.

For me, this interest in the relationship between self-conception and collective modes of acting comes from Mark Fisher’s declaration in Capitalist Realism that the “required subject is a collective subject” — and the more I read of Intelligence & Spirit, the more I begin to see Reza’s conception of “intelligence” to be one way of formulating such a required “subject” far beyond the limits of that term as it is typically understood.

I’ve written on other conceptions of “collective subjectivity” frequently on this blog, particularly in orbit of the discussions of communism that can be found in the works of Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot. These are, perhaps, my relative areas of “expertise” but, in their shared poeticism, these thinkers remain difficult to map onto a thinking such as Reza’s. (At least his current thinking — his Bataillean earlier texts remain a treat in this regard and a further conversation on this would be more enlightening as to how much he sees being carried forwards.)

What is particularly curious about Reza’s trajectory in this regard is that he has turned to those philosophers that many of his most infamous influences openly derided. Bataille famously wrote about Hegel on a number of occasions and even believed that his philosophy would “recommence and undo Hegel’s Phenomenology“. His distaste is perhaps an inherited bias of his time, however — his direct knowledge of Hegel’s philosophy is regularly contested.

Reza’s work, however, rather than doing away with one in favour of the other, seems to draw insight from both. Take, for example, that great philosophical watershed moment: the death of God. Towards the end of Intelligence & Spirit, Reza describes this event in terms that seem equally Bataillean (that is, sur-Nietzschean) and Hegelian:

There is an oft-repeated objection that all that enlightened humanism accomplished was to overthrow God only to replace it with humans. But … this is not a matter of exchanging one tyrant for another, but of taking the first step in an ongoing struggle to unseat the conditions of servitude. The singularity of geistig intelligence lies in its plastic and protean form — that is, its ability to recognise itself both as that which currently is and that which it currently is not. It is by orienting itself towards that which it is not … that the human acquires the capacity to see beyond its temporal image of itself and the world, and thus becomes capable of reassembling itself from nowhere and nowhere through the ramifying objective — an exploratory purpose — inconceivable even by God’s intellectual intuition.

We undoubtedly have a general conception of what we are not — our answers to such a question define so much of our popular culture — but do we even understand who we are? Especially today? There’s something almost Deleuzian here in this description of the “singularity of geistig intelligence” and the reality of our present situation, of inconsistency and confusion, reminds me of Deleuze reading of Alice in Wonderland.

‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I — I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.’

In Lewis Carroll’s story, Alice’s journey into Wonderland completely dissolves her sense of who she is. She knows she began her day as Alice but the events of the day play with her head to such an extent that she wonders if she might now instead be someone else that she knows. She changes her size so much that she forgets what her body is actually supposed to look like, but what seems to confuse her most is that she doesn’t know things like she used to. She recites poems but they come out wrong. She can’t remember facts that she did before. She wonders if she might now be a school friend instead of herself. She becomes utterly adrift in her own multiplicity.

For Deleuze, in The Logic of Sense, Alice’s predicament — her disorienting experience of his own multiplicity, contrasted to her prior identity as “Alice” which she woke up with that morning — is emblematic of a Platonic dualism: two conflicting dimensions — “that of limited thing and measured things, of fixed qualities” and “a pure becoming without measure, a veritable becoming-mad, which never rests” — which together govern our sense of reality.

Again, we return to the issue of modelling. “Pure becoming,” says Deleuze, “contests both model and copy at once”. It contests the fixed identity of “Alice” as fixed representation of self and likewise the paradoxically multiplicitous nature of being-singular.

The paradox of “infinite identity”, as Deleuze calls it, is important here. But what is most clear in Reza’s work is that — if we attempt to insert Alice into Intelligence & Spirit for a moment — she, as a child, is largely disconnected from a geistig intelligence. In some ways, her story comes to resemble the pure becoming of a geistig intelligence after the death of God — she is a child anew orphaned by a Holy Father.

This experience of acknowledging what one is and what one is not likewise seems to echo Bataille’s evaluation of the death of God and its affect on a social self-knowledge in The Accursed Share. He writes:

The same God that preserved unity in its unshakable self-identity — which is no longer identical to itself and is now changeable — had to disperse the human race the same way that it had once held it together. The same way that it was the cause of its own unity in its identity, it is now the cause of its fragmentation in its multiplicity.

What I read in common here is this paradox of an “infinite identity”. Now that God — the holy One and All — has perished, we see ourselves in his image. As Reza says, this does not mean that we are God but rather that we see this nature once jettisoned into the divine as being an inherent part of ourselves and, most important, our sense of ourselves as selves.

There is a lot more to be said here regarding the relationship between Bataille and Hegel’s thought — another thread that is far too extensive for right now and which I’d like to pick up another time. (I’m currently reading Rodolphe Gasché’s book Georges Bataille: Phenomenology & Phantasmatology which explores their relationship in great detail.) First, though, we might interrogate the problems that Reza raises with a project of absolute fragmentation. There remains a disconnect between fragmentations of self and state.

Nick Land reemerges here as a notable inspiration and foundation when considering the (previous) influence of Bataille on Reza’s work. And, in orbit of the patchwork debate, much emphasis has been put on the role of fragmentation in Nick’s thinking in this regard. (That is, fragmentation seen — as Land puts it — as “a selective sorting process that mobilizes the Outside.”) However, Reza responded with an explicitly Hegelian challenge to previous articulations of such a process:

There was a discussion with Robin [had privately in NYC] that the patchwork toy model shouldn’t be all about fragmentation (ie. bringing out differences). We don’t know the scope of these particularities and differences yet.

Integration or unification is also important because not only can it actually re-orient some of these differences but, more significantly, it can shed light on new differences hitherto hidden from the perspective of current particularities. So, to me, patchwork should be bimodal — meaning going through fragmentation, integration, more fragmentation, more integration. But then isn’t this a kind of Hegelian account of the process of concretization which is, of course, tainted by Hegel’s less interesting and wholesome theological commitments?

In my opinion, what we need is an account of the process of concretization, plus all of its methodological richness, yet minus all the junk about the whig progressivist account of history, teleology and inflated political prescriptions.

Another issue in my mind, [regarding] the political mobilization of patchwork, is [how effective can it be]? In other words, such experimentations are still done within the current world climate. But, as long as the world climate is like it is, any form of experimentation can be parasitic on the current world logic and end up being yet another fundamentally failed experimentation in the vein of communization theory.

To that extent, I genuinely don’t know whether it is possible to perform such experimentations as long as we are living in this world paradigm. 

I confessed an ignorance here — I may know my Bataille but not so much my Hegel — but, whilst at first I skirm under the suggestion, it makes sense, and this has long been the elephant in the room in which many of us have been discussing patchwork.

Of course, I would argue the UK presents an interesting potential case study for this, but such is the problem with the current Brexit vote (for many on both the left and the right, despite the nature of the populist debate around the issue): Should we stay and remain a part of a well-established world paradigm, continuing to try and shape it from within? Or should we leave on the off-chance that we might somehow be able to challenge this paradigm and forge it anew for ourselves? Both options remain a pipe dream to the vast majority.

Considering this persistent vision of a dystopian utopia (potentially) beyond the confines of our presently self-destructive neoliberalism, this dialectical process that Reza put forward is certainly much more attractive a methodology to carry forwards, at the interscalar level of state-subject, when you remove Hegel’s penchant for a nationalising teleology. But I remain somewhat skeptical — such is the current global mindset regarding any potential future outside.

Nevertheless, Reza went on to clarify:

The point of a so-called speculative dialectics is […] you begin with a set of very abstract universalities (like, we are all humans), then you fragment it, then you begin to determine what the fault lines are, then you integrate these fragmentations on a higher level, then you arrive at new differences and so on. However, the problem with Hegel as I see it is that this process seems to be already determined by a finality (historical telos). 

This is the crux of a next stage in patchwork thinking, and geopolitical thinking more generally, I think — at least my own as I have been trying to apply it to the UK.

A major part of my research over the last year has been concerned with just such a problem and a central text for thinking this through has been Tom Nairn’s rich and dense book The Break-Up of Britain, as well as his essay “The Twilight of the British State“, both of which are ostensibly for the dissolution of the United Kingdom and also for a project of European integration. It seems to precisely argue for what Reza is suggesting here: a two-fold process of fragmentation-integration that may help forge a new way forwards.

Now, this book was written in the 1970s, before the EU as we know it today had fully consolidated itself into a neoliberal institution, but in trying to see how Nairn’s argument of fragmentation and integration works, I see a vision of another and very different Europe to the one we have today, which is notably devoid of the mythical finality of homogenous equilibrium and where the differences that emerge through processes of free market and international entropy are not dealt with so appallingly as they have been in the decades since it was written.

Part of the challenge of reading the text today is trying to imagine the Europe that Nairn has in mind considering the Europe that we have. As such, much patchwork thinking goes much further backwards, rejecting our once-fragmented-but-now-consolidated wholes that we have, ie. Europe and the United States. It is Ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy that are instead taken as historical case studies. Reza picked up on this himself, writing:

I think the prototype of this patchwork model in the way we are talking about it is not the contemporary Europe. Cyrus the Second, for the first time, managed to integrate a massive amount of land under precisely a similar paradigm. The central government only played the role of a soft referee and protectorate only when it was absolutely necessary.

Cyrus and the Persian empire are very interesting examples to invoke here, especially considering the history of the Greco-Persian War, which offers a counter often left unmentioned when the Greek city-states are invoked as patchwork antecedents. (Another potential tangent, which will be left unexplored, presents itself here.)

Reza goes on to note that these apparent antecedents were largely founded “on cultural and religious discontinuities.” He makes this point to counter my suggestion, explored in numerous posts on this blog, that a future patchwork Britain will likely flourish along the lines of class conflict. He continued:

There is a long tradition of patchwork systems in history. However, the majority of these patchworks are not based on any sort of class conflict and almost none of them see the patchwork system as a scientific-political enterprise that should be taken seriously in its own terms. To them, patchwork is only a utilitarian means for an optimal state-governance.

This is, in part, a rebuttal to my English parochialism — class conflict being the fault line that, historically, binds us as a discordant nation. This remains very much the heart of an English neuroticism but I have likewise been interested in the ways this neuroticism has been exported to the rest of the world, shapeshifting as it goes.

Class conflict is often discussed, in innumerable Marxist studies, as the heart of the industrialised nation-state and England is likewise taken to be the “grandfather” of the modern nation-state as we know it today — for better and for worse, depending on where your politics lie. It feels fitting to me, then, that England (and the UK more generally) should be the first to experiment with its form in a way that will — I believe — actually improve relations amongst different peoples rather than embolden a UK historical project of divide and conquer.

Fragment the UK along the lines of historical class conflict, integrate a new social consciousness, rinse and repeat, etc. (for as long as it is productive).

This is where my interest in the Gothic comes to the fore, as an aesthetic movement largely enacted along the lines of cultural and religious differences which holds class unconsciousness and class antagonisms at its heart. Such is the plot of Wuthering Heights, for instance, or a dozen other Gothic novels. Class appears as the bedrock for all that floats above it in the toy model structure of the Gothic subject.

Reza went on to acknowledge science fiction as playing a similar role:

I see sci-fi as another form of this convergent ramification. For example, Robert Heinlein in America, whose works are picked up by both the left and the new right, even though Heinlein’s work is distinctly libertarian in nature, and in many ways anti-right and anti-left. For example, see [Heinlein’s short story] The Man Who Sold The Moon — it’s like communism’s vision of cosmism put into motion by rabid capitalist — even Ponzi scheme-like — methods.  

I wondered if this tendency was something explored more explicitly in Kristen Alvanson’s work. Together, Kristen and Reza have collaborated on numerous occasions, most infamously perhaps in Cyclonopedia wherein Kristen makes an appearance as the discoverer of the book’s manuscript in its Lovecraftian introductory chapter.

Her own book, XYZT, forthcoming on Urbanomic, seems to dramatise much of this conversation, albeit how it may play out between the US and Iran rather than between the UK’s internally fragmented subjects. It is summarised on the Urbanomic website as follows:

‘We’ve been told that there’s no difference between us and them.’ On this premise the protagonists of XYZT contrive a device capable of shuttling volunteers back and forth between the US and Iran, hidden from the watchful eyes of immigration police and state bureaucracies. Each volunteer will have a single opportunity to be received by a local host and to have a brief authentic experience of what it means to live as “them” before being transported back home.

Set against the backdrop of escalating hostilities between Iran and the US, and based on her experiences living in Iran at the end of the first decade of 2000s, Kristen Alvanson’s XYZT builds on the idea of a ‘dialogue between civilizations’ only to demonstrate the potentially outlandish ramifications that might follow from such a seemingly innocuous idea. An audacious cross-genre experiment, a firsthand memoir of what it means to see what ‘they’ see, and a science-fictional, non-standard engagement with anthropology, XYZT reveals fissures and cracks in what the media calls reality, but which in fact is liable to take on all the unpredictable features of a contemporary fairy tale.

I’d love to hear how Kristen herself would respond to some of these questions — another post for another time? — but this is what Reza himself had to say:

Kristen’s work is a kind of weird debunking of this whole idea of Dialogue or Communication as some sort of vector for universal harmony.

Even though I consider myself a universalist, the Habermasian paradigm of rational dialogue is not going to work. The same thing can be said about Brandom but at least he has a far better grasp of reason and universality.

I think both of these two figures really confound the universality of reason which is abstract with concrete universality or collectivity. The former never warrants the latter. Concrete collectivity requires something more — new techniques, new understandings of complexity, particularities of the human experience, etc.

However, with that said, I think reason is an absolutely necessary component (even though it’s not sufficient). We just don’t know what these differences are. To actually do the hard work is to conceptualize about these differences, to make them known and highlighted. And to conceptualize these differences we have to take the idea of reason seriously, to study and renegotiate it so that we don’t get trapped in metaphysical and speculative flights of fancy re: the concept of reason and/or difference. 

Habermas and Brandom remain totally alien to me at present as well — I am continuing, very slowly, in my attempts to rectify this persistent unfamiliarity with many of Reza’s references — as Robin often jokes, you chat to Reza and you don’t come away with an answer but a reading list. However, this was still very interesting to me as this misguided reliance on “Communication” as the bringer of peace has largely been my starting point as well. (See, for instance, “Egress” or my series on COUM Transmissions.) This is not to say that communication cannot help matters of disagreement but rather it is as much a tool of warfare and harm as it is peace and harmony.

I have been heavily influenced by Bataille’s writings on communication and community in this regard — which regular readers may be well aware of already — particularly his writings on communication as something inherent to human experience which is based on a “principle of insufficiency” — a conception that would feed into his Literature & Evil period.

In the second chapter of On Nietzsche, for instance, Bataille writes:

[Human beings] must “communicate” (as much with indefinite existence as among themselves): the absence of “communication” (the egoist folded back on himself) is obviously the most condemnable. But “communication” cannot take place without wounding or defiling the beings, is itself guilty. The good, in whatever way one envisions it, is the good of beings, but in wanting to attain it, we must ourselves question — in the night, through evil — the very beings in relation to which we want it.

A fundamental principle is expressed as follows:

“Communication” cannot take place between one full and intact being and another: it wants beings who question being in themselves, who place their being at the limit of death, of nothingness.

Bataille’s limit here is not necessarily indicative of a nihilism. His “nothingness” is perhaps proto-Sartrean in being a symbol for “the transcendence of being” in itself, in its illusionary wholeness. This nothingness is, then, as palpable as existence itself — an immanent outside that being strikes in negative and which supports the very structures of being in itself.

To communicate, then, is to seek to transcend oneself, interacting with the other, with an otherness, that may possibly kill us. It is to put oneself at risk — in whatever sense we may want to understand such a risk, whether that be a risk to life or a risk to ego. We open ourselves up to the challenge of another(‘s) existence.

This is not to rest too much on Bataille’s violent melodrama — no matter how much I enjoy it — but to see in his work the acknowledgement that communication can be very difficult and fraught whilst it is nonetheless necessary and worth striving for. Communication is, in this sense, a necessary evil — and this brings us back to the discussion around “education” with which I opened this series properly.

I feel like, underneath his melodramatic prose, Bataille is also a thinker of this “hard work” that Reza is talking about, and it is this hard work that, in my mind, is associated explicitly with any striving for a future communism — a topic which would be drawn out more explicitly in the Bataille-inspired writings of Maurice Blanchot and Jean-Luc Nancy.

There seems to be a sense in which Reza is using these “analytic” voices — if we might preserve the distinction just for a little longer, for a momentary clarity — that are largely unpopular in the circles in which his reputation has grown out from, but he nonetheless seems to be wrestling with a problem that is as Bataillean as it is, say, Carnapian — albeit having done away with the stylistics of the former’s kind of thinking. It is an investigation, perhaps, of the ways that the irrational productively intrudes on reason in reason’s insufficiency. We might even understand “reason” to be that which helps us “deal with” the irrational, the unconscious, the unruly flows of the earth.

For Bataille, throughout his writings, and those associated with the College of Sociology in particular, it seems like this irrationality is something that must necessarily be held aloft in tandem with reason if we are to strive for a new form of collective subject that sees the present (reductive) sense of being cast into the void.

This is the most striking thread that I will leave unexplored here and I intend to pick this up elsewhere at another time. Far more research and argumentation is required on my part to better construct a linkage here, between the Bataillean undercurrents of past and present Reza, but I’ve held your attention on this point for long enough for the time being.

In the next post — and the final post of this rambling and mixed-up series — we will end with a discussion during which came the moment where I found myself agreeing with Reza wholeheartedly: our discussion on the nature (and future) of Communism.

To be continued…


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