Thursday, June 15, 2017

a short essay on Humboldt's Ansichten der Natur

I turned this in as a seminar paper for a course on Naturphilosophie. I'm not invested in redeeming Humboldt per se, but I present this as an attempt to reveal how he conducts philosophy 'by other means'.
____________________________________________________________________________________


The Mediate Role of Nature in Humboldt's Views



This paper offers a speculative analysis of a conceptual, philosophical problem that arises in Alexander von Humboldt's View of Nature—the problem of intellectually accessing the Absolute through Nature. A working heuristic assumption of this paper is that for Humboldt there is, in the first place, a kind of Absolute which is found by turning away from human affairs and looking into Nature. I acknowledge that in the text the concept of Nature is vague, while the Absolute is not explicitly named at all. Part of what makes Views of Nature such a rare kind of work is that it is both an account of a material, topographical exploration as well as an abstract scientific inquiry. One upshot of this is an inherent ambiguity in the use of much of the terminology. However, Humboldt is clear at times about the promise he supposes Nature to hold, especially contrasted with the banality of human affairs. For example:
Thus does man, at the lowest level of animal brutality or in the vainglory of his elevated civilization alike, ever make for himself a wearisome life. … He who seeks spiritual peace amidst the unresolved strife between peoples therefore gladly lowers his gaze to the quiet life of plants and into the inner workings of the sacred force of Nature, or, surrendering to the instinctive drive that has glowed for millennia in the breast of humanity, he looks upward with awe to the high celestial bodies, which, in undisturbed harmony, complete their ancient, eternal course.1
This is not the only overture to a primordial serendipity attainable through investigations into Nature. While that passage suggests a kind of metaphysical oneness, a passage just preceding it, describing the bio-electric capacity of eels, contains a more genealogical gesture towards unity:
This is the wondrous struggle of the horses and fish. That which, invisible, is the living weapon of this denizen of the water; which, awakened by the contact of moist and dissimilar parts, races through all organs of animals and plants; which thunderingly inflames the broad roof of the heavens, binds iron to iron, and steers the silent, returning motion of the guiding needle—all, like the colors of the refracted beam of light, flow forth from One Source; all melt together in an eternal, all-encompassing power.2
It is language like this that makes me confident from the outset that Humboldt has some notion of Nature as an Absolute, at least in the sense of a total unity. One of two tasks of this paper is to bolster that judgment. I claim that Humboldt's Nature functions as a mediate term for a fundamentally empiricist idea of the Absolute, insofar as accessing the Absolute depends on the modern scientific investigation of Nature. Nature affords the intellect sole access to the Absolute by making manifest the “flow” of life.
It is necessary to acknowledge that Humboldt's method is neither a traditional nor standard modern philosophical approach. Rather than elide or diminish that fact, I'd like to use this paper as an opportunity to embrace its idiosyncrasy. His method has roughly four elements, as I see it—empirical observation, namely the 1799 expedition of which the book is partly an account; encyclopedia, especially in the aggregation of diverse cultural and scientific geographies; classification, as in the chapter on the physiognomy of plants; and what I will call speculative meditation, or meditative speculation, in those instances when he sketches historiographical connections or makes philosophical claims. Because this is a philosophical analysis, the basis of my investigation will be the comparison of two parts of the text that fit the latter category—his speculation about the colonization of California by Buddhist sailors, and his meditation on the Rhodian Genius. But I do not intend to neglect the other three aspects, and hope to draw attention to the way they help define the Absolute for Humboldt, so that the pursuit of Nature becomes a holistic—even embodied, material—endeavor, and not a mere theoretical inquest. I aim to show that, rather than presenting a scattershot text, Views of Nature coheres around a method that works to reveal Nature as a means to the Absolute without naming it as such. The speculation about the lost Buddhist pilgrims and the meditation on the Genius are not departures from his investigation, but integral to its exposition of Nature in this role. The second task of this paper, aside from securing the notion that there is an Absolute for Humboldt, is then to reveal how his work subtly but surely pursues it through the study of Nature.

  1. From the jungle to the heath
Before taking up Humboldt's speculative meditations, I'd like to bring attention to two pairs of images conjured by Humboldt, including that contained in the passage I partially quoted above. In these pairs, an impulse to turn away from human affairs and toward the reality of the cosmos that might make sense of his naturalism can be found. For even presuming my ascription to Humboldt of a yearning for the Absolute is granted, the question would remain: What need would there be for Nature? Why would the Absolute be mediated, and why specifically by something called Nature? Humboldt seems to take an approach which is both universalist and empiricist when it comes to the desire to seek “spiritual peace”—a concept which merits its own explication, but which here is assumed to be an experiential counterpart to reaching the Absolute, or at least its possibility—by looking to either the plants or the stars. It is universalist in the sense that this desire is shared by all people, civilized or not. It is empiricist in the sense that it advocates a turn to the material, living, and observable world rather than a retreat into any kind of pure abstraction of ideas. Humboldt's Nature functions, therefore, as a mediate term for an empiricist idea of the Absolute.
To get a better sense of the impulse toward spiritual peace, I would highlight two examples given by Humboldt of the tragic condition of humanity in its confinement to its own engagement. The first comes at the end of the opening chapter, and describes a tribe in Guyana that erases its own footprints in the mud of the riverbank, so as to avoid pursuit by its bellicose neighbors:
Though tiger and crocodile battle horses and cattle in the steppe, we see on its forested bank, in the wildernesses of Guyana, man forever armed against man. With unnatural desire, some tribes here drink the blood drained from their enemies; others, seemingly unarmed and yet equipped for murder, strangle the enemy with a poisoned thumbnail. The weaker tribes, when they take to the sandy bank, carefully brush away the traces of their timid steps with their hands.3
So this passage leads directly into the one cited above, “Thus does man, at the lowest level...” This benighted tribe has to resort to erasing its own physical traces so as to avoid falling prey to other humans. I would compare this to a second textual example of a 'pitiful' condition, this one more civilized. While the tropical peoples, by Humboldt's reckoning, struggle with an overabundance of life, human and otherwise, northern peoples struggle with a dearth of it:
The sickly plants within our greenhouses provide but a weak image of the majesty of tropical vegetation. But in the refinement of our language, in the incandescent imagination of the poet, in the depictive art of the painter there open rich wellsprings of compensation. From this, the power of our imagination creates a living picture of exotic Nature. In the cold of the North, in the starkness of the heath, the lone individual can acquire for himself that which is being explored in the most distant latitudes, and thus create within himself a world that is the work of, and is as free and immortal as, his own spirit.4
Both the Native who erases his own footstep and the European who constructs shelter for his plants and himself do so not in struggle against Nature per se, but against its vicissitudes. There is nevertheless a stark difference in the way they approach these particular predicaments, one that I think, if put in context with the rest of the work, actually proves illustrative of the mediate role of Nature.
The difference is that while the Native does his best to erase his mark, the European relies on his mark, and continually develops it. Why is that? For Humboldt, this is not a question of racial difference, or any other supposed difference in kind on the level of humanity. All of humanity shares a basic condition of strife, along with a spiritual yearning for a loftier harmony. Rather, for Humboldt, the difference between peoples is determined by geography:
...the knowledge of the natural character of different parts of the world is connected in the most intimate way to the history of humanity and to that of its culture. For even if the beginning of a culture is not determined by physical influences alone, still a culture's very direction, the character of a people, the bleak or cheerful attitude of humanity depend to a great degree on climatic conditions...The influence of the physical world upon the moral, the mysterious interworking of the sensory and the extrasensory, bestows upon the study of Nature, when lifted to higher considerations, a charm that belongs to it alone, and that remains too little acknowledged.5
The difference in behavior between the Native who erases his mark and the European who develops his is not, for Humboldt, indicative of a difference in kind on the level of their humanity. Rather, it is a contingency of their environments. It is a difference in psychological tendencies, cultural practices, and even philosophical understanding, but one rooted solely in their contingent, environmental relationship to Nature.6
In fact, these behaviors, in their divergence, serve as evidence of the underlying sameness of their humanity. The two archetypes of humankind share the impulse to find spiritual peace in Nature. For the Native, whose jungle is superabundant, that means becoming invisible, so as to fold quietly into the Nature that is already established around him; for the European, whose heath is barren, that means first finding a way to access Nature. This is not some kind of benign or inverse Orientalism on Humboldt's part. He is neither fetishizing nor exceptionalizing the Native. Rather, it is the empirical fact of the proliferation of life-forms in the tropics that motivates his privileging of the jungle vis-à-vis Nature. The Native is simply a human who happens to take the jungle as his habitat.7
Between the jungle and the greenhouse, then, we can find the mediate place of Nature in one sense—that is, humanity can both exceed it, as in the native tribes who run amok in the tropical rainforests, and fall short of it, as in the northerners who must strain all of their creative faculties to wanly approximate it. So one human could be led to erase his mark, while another enhances it. But Nature's mediate place is not merely between extremes of human behavior, but between human affairs and spiritual peace. At least, that's how Humboldt himself characterizes it. I'll quote again the two alternatives he suggests for one who wishes to gaze away from human carnage: “He who seeks spiritual peace amidst the unresolved strife between peoples therefore gladly lowers his gaze to the quiet life of plants and into the inner workings of the sacred force of Nature, or...he looks upward with awe to the high celestial bodies, which, in undisturbed harmony, complete their ancient, eternal course.” Nature can be located not only between an excess of forms and a scarcity, but between the minute physiognomy of a single plant and the vast heavenly cycle.
Yet it is not there merely to exist in between. Whether one pursues the plant or the star, for Humboldt, that pursuit begins empirically. What peace is to be found—what Absolute—is accessed through the natural object, in a real, material way. Nature mediates the Absolute insofar as, in order to find respite from one's particular condition and attain a more fundamental communion with life, one must access the universal Nature through its particulars. This is ultimately what his method offers.
Why wish to 'arrive at' and 'inhabit purely' Nature at all? It seems that for Humboldt, there is a spiritual peace that only Nature can offer, which is itself the sense of unity with the cosmos. This inherent motivation, too, lends this “spiritual peace” the quality of the Absolute. But even in the now twice-quoted passage that presents the alternative of the plant or the stars, it is only the plant that is a living, natural thing. Why is Nature, with the specific connotation of biology, privileged over the lifeless motion of the stars, or of earthly geology for that matter?
The study of Nature, for Humboldt, as quoted above, has “a charm that belongs to it alone” when “lifted to higher considerations,” and I take this to be important for understanding the work done in Views of Nature. The figure of the northerner in the greenhouse is one who strives to achieve what the paucity of Nature in his environment has failed to deliver. I believe the difference between the pursuit of Nature and the study of it is that between the two axes I delineated above, namely, the 'horizontal' axis of human behaviors and the 'vertical' axis that runs from the soil to the sky.
Humboldt is doing work that has not yet been done, and his hybrid method reflects the innovative, exploratory quality of his task. He is neither the Native erasing his tracks on the sandy bank, nor the European exercising the imagination in a greenhouse—yet he incorporates aspects of both into his work. This rudimentary synthesis is not the product of a dialectic, but reflects his established belief that Nature is the universal determinant of human expression. The study of Nature, therefore, involves elements from the full diversity of human culture—thus the encyclopedic aspect of the text.
Two of his speculative meditations are especially illustrative of this underlying assumption of the text, and what its implications are for the study of Nature. Humboldt isn't neglecting to perform a standard philosophical exposition for lack of ability or opportunity, but rather because the study of Nature is not best suited simply by authoring a treatise. In the speculation about the Buddhist priests, or bōzu, reaching California and colonizing Mexico, and in the meditation on the Rhodian Genius, Humboldt suggests that the study of Nature exceeds the bounds of mere intellect. This should not be surprising, given his commitment to empirical researches.

  1. California dreamin'
Speculation about Japanese contact with native peoples on the western coast of North America has been around since at least as early as Humboldt. More recently, beginning in the late twentieth century, the anthropologist Nancy Yaw Davis has worked for a large part of her career to hypothesize about a connection between the Zuni and the Japanese of centuries past.8 This theory has not been widely accepted in the academic community, though it is commonly maintained that it is not inconceivable that a sailing ship blown off course off the east coast of Japan could wind up in California or the Pacific Northwest, carried by a fortuitous combination of currents and winds, with its crew still alive.9 However, mainstream anthropology today maintains that these contacts, if they occurred, would have been very rare, and almost certainly would have resulted in the enslavement, absorption, or even murder of the crew by native peoples—a far cry from the kind of organized cultural foundation that Humboldt imagines. Nonetheless, my interest in Humboldt's fantasy is not in its potential veracity, but rather in what it says about the study of Nature.
It's notable that Davis, in her work, which is the most recent major development of this speculative notion, makes much of the parallels of the Zuni and Japanese languages; Humboldt lacks a linguistic connection between American Natives and East Asia, but wants one:
Could it be, perhaps, that...civilized Asians passed over to the New Continent? If these newcomers had been inhabitants of the steppes, where agriculture was not pursued, then this bold hypothesis, which through language comparison has heretofore gained little favor, would at least explain the conspicuous absence of actual cereal grains in America. perhaps there landed on the coasts of New California, battered by storms, one of those Asiatic priest colonies whose mystic reveries induced them to venture on long sea voyages, and of whom the history of the populating of Japan at the time of Qin Shi Huang-ti provides a memorable example.10
There are a few important things to note about this. As I mentioned, Davis seems to have taken a cue, intentionally or not, from Humboldt. She asserts that linguistic connections between Zuni—an isolate—and ancient Japanese dialects are significantly strong.11 It's also important to note that Humboldt really does try to make empirical sense of this claim, linking it both to extant agricultural practices and the recorded history of Imperial China. But the most crucial, and ultimately philosophical feature of the claim—the one that, even if it were to prove thoroughly, empirically false would still be important—is the idea that these supposed Asian colonists were motivated by two things—escape from human conquest, and mystic reverie.
Humboldt expands significantly in the notes on this speculation, which is only fleetingly mentioned in the body of chapter one. There, he asserts the “probability” that the Natives of the western Americas were contacted and influenced by Asian civilization—he simply says “associated with”—has been demonstrated by comparison of calendars, architectural styles, and comparative mythology. Humboldt has written before about the cultures of Guatemala and the Yucatan, and it is in those regions that he believes Asian influence to show most strongly.12 But, most importantly for the purposes of this paper, he believes that the Asian contact was both intentional and mystically-inflected:
A small number of individuals from the educated caste of priests could have perhaps sufficed to bring about great changes in the social conditions in Western America. The yarns once spun about Chinese expeditions to the New Continent really refer merely to voyages to Fusang or Japan. On the other hand, it is possible that Japanese mariners or Sian Pi from Korea, battered by storms, may have landed on the American coast. We know historically that bonzes (Japanese bōzu, “Buddhist monk”) and other adventurers sailed the East China Sea in hopes of finding an elixir of immortality.13
In Humboldt's imagination, it is monks who take a meditative journey across the eastern ocean. The discovery of the Americas would then be the result of a kind of leap of faith. This would not put Humboldt far out of step with the common European idea of the New World as a place of providence. It also mirrors the legend of the Fountain of Youth, supposed to be found in Florida, that famously motivated Ponce de Leon.
The fantasy of the monks' journey is significant because it reveals what Humboldt wishes were fact. The tale would be poignant, if true, because the Americas would assume the role of a geological manifestation of the monks' reverie. The land of purest Nature would be the land of purest spirituality. Thus Humboldt implicitly identifies what the monks are seeking—he seems to think of it as some vague kind of divine enlightenment, but presumably falling under the broad category of “spiritual peace”—with what can be found in the Americas, that is, Nature. I do not know Buddhism; but neither, to my knowledge, did Humboldt. Regarding Nature, two things are important—that the monks were escaping human affairs to seek a higher peace, even if that meant setting off into an obscure ocean; and that their reverie was reified in the abundant Nature of the Americas. The Nature of the Americas is implied, in the fantasy, to offer the chance to “turn away” that the Old World simply might not, if this turning away is so deeply empirical, and not a merely religious gesture.
This land Humboldt explores, then, would become a kind of empiricist Zion for the likes of the bōzu. Nature would become a medium by which not merely to continue their meditations ad infinitum, but to attain divine heights that were simply impossible back in Japan. The trip outward into the unknown, escaping society, was a leap of faith, and carried the risk of fatality. It was an act that could have readily, even probably, resulted in death. Serendipitously, it did not, and the monks—so the story goes—were able to found entire cultures on the basis of mysticism, even though those societies later collapsed.
Thus Humboldt's fantasy binds spiritual yearning to the Americas, the place of purest earthly Nature. Moreover, his characterization of the Native as a human determined by such a vivacious environment—as all human cultures are determined by the character of their natural environment—is not jeopardized by the presence of indigenous urbanity, as in the cities of the Yucatan. With this story, these cities become not urban societies like those of the old world, but priestly cities whose foundation began in an escape from Asia. In that way, Nature's function as the medium of the Absolute is preserved in his account. Even urban civilization, the pinnacle of human social life, becomes, in the context of the Americas, subsumed under the monkish quest for spiritual peace. The turning-inward of society is transformed into a continuation of an originary turning-away.
The fantasy of the monks thus serves an important function in the text. It maintains both Humboldt's notion of environmental cultural determinism and the relationship between Nature and the extremes of human behavior. It does so by offering a genesis that frames Native urban civilization in the context of Asian monasticism.

  1. The Rhodian Genius
The seventh chapter of Views of Nature is more straightforwardly presented as a story—“The Life Force, or The Rhodian Genius: A Tale” is the title. In this tale, a mysterious picture, unclaimed by an unattributed to any of the numerous artists in the city, is hung in the Syracuse of antiquity. People of all classes are perplexed by it.
In the foreground of the painting, youths and maidens were to be seen, crowded together in a group. They were unclad and well formed, but not with the slender figures admired in the statues of Praxiteles and Alcamenes. The strong build of their limbs, which bore the signs of hard labors, and their human expressions of longing and sorrow—all seemed to strip them of anything heavenly or godlike and bind them to their earthly homeland. Their hair was adorned simply with leaves and flowers of the field. Imploringly they stretched their arms out to one another, but their solemn, mirthless gaze was directed to a Genius that, surrounded by a bright shimmer, floated in their midst. A butterfly sat upon the spirit's shoulder, and in his right hand he held aloft a blazing torch. The shape of his body was rounded like that of a child, his countenance divinely animated. Commandingly, he gazed down upon the youths and maidens at his feet. Further characteristic elements of the painting were not distinguishable...14
Following the speculation about the Japanese monks, it's fair to note the resemblance of this description of the Genius to certain traditional representations of both Jesus and the Buddha. This is merely, I think, an attempt to give the character the strongest possible spiritual connotation without reference to Christian theology or the doxa of any particular religion (which Humboldt avoids in this text). It's also important to note the naturalized description of the youths and maidens, who are said to be bound to the earth, and lack the effete slenderness of the contemporary urbane ideal. Their reaching to each other indicates the turning-inward of society, but the sad gaze toward the Genius indicates the desire for spiritual peace that has motivated so much of the text to this point. This painting, then, seems to portray what is attainable through the study of Nature—that is, a commanding position apart from and above brutish society. The people who are caught reaching out for each other yearn for this condition.
It is important to note that this “spirit” is described not as a god nor a prophet, nor even a priest or holy man, but rather as a genius—in other words, in a purely intellectual term. Given that Humboldt has spent the first six chapters of the book detailing an empirical path to spiritual peace, this isn't surprising. Eventually, the story goes, a companion piece arrives on a commercial vessel:
It was of the same size and similar coloring, though the hues were better preserved. Again the Genius stood in the middle, but without the butterfly and with his head bowed, the extinguished torch pointed earthward. The circle of youths and maidens were now almost falling over him in many an embrace; their glance was no longer solemn and obedient, but bespoke a condition of wild abandon, the fulfillment of a long-nurtured desire.15
Here, the Genius has been stripped of both the living representation of Nature—the butterfly—and the light of the intellect—the torch. I would compare the butterfly and the torch in this story to the plant and the star in the first chapter. The butterfly on his shoulder and torch in his hand allowed the Genius to bear with him the promise of both the plant and the star, that is, of the empirical involvement with Nature and the accession thereby of the Absolute. But in this second iteration of the painting, bereft of both, the Genius is wrangled back into society, not necessarily malevolently by the people, but animalistically at least.
None other than a philosopher, in the story, is tasked by the Tyrant with reinterpreting the Rhodian Genius in light of the new companion piece. Epicharmus, a Pythagorean, was a philosopher who skirted the city and even the house of the Dionysians, choosing to live in the suburb of Tyche. “He occupied himself constantly with the nature of things and the forces within them, with the development of plants and animals...before the broad ocean his eye, as he put it, was afforded a view of the unlimited, the infinite, after which the mind strives in vain.”16 Humboldt is not so subtle about this character; Epicharmus seems to be the ideal of a Humboldtian intellectual.
Yet the Rhodian Genius offers him something he has not been able to find on his own: “For sixty years I have pondered the hidden wheels that drive Nature onward, the differences in the forms of matter, and today at last, the Rhodian Genius lets me see more clearly that which, until now, I only suspected.”17 What is revealed? That inorganic matter seeks its own kind, while organic matter, under the sovereignty of the Life Force that “imperiously asserts its rights,” ignores the “friendship or enmity of atoms described by Democritus” as it unifies disparate materials. Life Force, then, is to Epicharmus what the Genius represents. The people in the painting are the 'like elements' he commands; when his torch goes out and the butterfly departs, they clump to him automatically, thoughtlessly. Epicharmus relays this truth to his students, then bids them take him one last time to the ocean vista, before which to die.
What the tale of the Rhodian Genius does for the larger project of Views of Nature is, then, to offer a unification of classical philosophy with the study of Nature. The empiricization of “Life Force” and its representation in the figure of an intellectual guru, along with the role Epicharmus plays in the tale, serve to provide a pseudo-historical grounding for the method Humboldt develops. The tale of the Rhodian Genius is both an origin story for the study of Nature and a raison d'etre for Humboldt's text.
What Epicharmus sought in death is something that the bōzu, in Humboldt's earlier story, actually found. Epicharmus gazed across the sea in his final moments. The promise of the Americas, then, is to actually venture out across the sea. What the northerners could only approximate in art has become, for Humboldt, empirically achievable in the New World.

Conclusion—After Epicharmus
Humboldt is continuing the philosopher's work in View of Nature, but not necessarily in the mode of what came to be called philosophy. The Genius of the painting and the Japanese monks both represent the promise of projects that exceed mere intellectualism or even meditation. Rather, they apply knowledge of Nature to a kind of governance. In the case of the monks, that entails, in Humboldt's imagination, the material escape from the Old World, and the foundation of fundamentally mystical civilizations in the Americas, among superabundant Nature. In the case of Epicharmus and the Rhodian Genius, it entails mastery of the Life Force and its sovereign reign over matter.
Both stories illustrate what Humboldt aims toward in his work: Views of Nature strives, in its idiosyncratic way, to further the pursuit of the Absolute—a spiritual peace identical with the “One Source” or the “Life Force” that animates all living matter in the world—by establishing its accessibility through Nature. Humboldt defines humanity in broadly universal terms as a way of establishing an idea of environmental determinism in relation to human culture. Anchoring the spectrum of diverse human behaviors around Nature in this way, he is able to elevate the role of Nature above the internal logic of any particular belief. With the exceptionalism of the study of Nature established, Humboldt is able to assert empirical, scientific investigation as the sole viable means towards the spiritual peace afforded by the Absolute. It offers this not because of some merely intellectual superiority. The northerner and the tropical human are equals, to Humboldt, as are their cultural practices, including European science—all is determined by the environmental relation to Nature. Rather, empirical study of Nature is unique in its ability to move its undertaker closer to the Life Force, which is only accessible through Nature.
Humboldt thus advocates for the study of Nature as a turning-away from human affairs not for its own sake, and not to permanently abandon the community of humankind, but to seek out that force which orders life, and without which life could not be. That this force is the very possibility of life lends it the air of spiritual peace. He treads neither the path of the northerner working in the greenhouse nor the tropical native erasing his own footprints, but through a syncretic effort follows the imagined wish of Epicharmus. The Americas, to Humboldt, realize the mystery that the philosopher of antiquity saw in the ocean horizon. He intends to develop a method that allows one to use the condition of Nature there to attain the spiritual peace that eludes us in the Old World.


Works Cited


Humboldt, Alexander Von. Views of Nature. Ed. Stephen T. Jackson and Laura Dassow Walls. Trans. Mark W. Person. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2016. Web.

1Views of Nature, 41-42
2ibid, 40
3ibid, 41
4ibid, 169
5ibid, 160-161
6One result of the method I am attempting to draw out of Humboldt's text is the diminution of philosophy, at least in the sense of metaphysics, relative to the study of Nature.
7Hence colonists lose much of their European quality as they dwell in the tropics, for him.
8She has published a book stating her case, called The Zuni Enigma: A Native American People's Possible Japanese Connection. An overview of her work and its reception can be find in a Chicago Tribune article from 2000, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2000-07-19/features/0007190071_1_buddhist-monks-zuni-william-davis.
9Debris carried from Japan to the Pacific Northwest by sea is relatively common, e.g. from the 2012 Japanese tsunami. Wind currents too are capable of carrying balloons from Japan to mainland North America, as they did the Second World War's “Fu-Go” balloon bombs, which killed at least one American civilian and started small forest fires. http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/index.ssf/2012/06/huge_dock_washed_ashore_on_ore.html; http://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/01/20/375820191/beware-of-japanese-balloon-bombs
10Views of Nature, 35-36
11Thus, in Zuni, she provides something Humboldt is actively looking for, granted she finds it in North and not South America: “Up to now we remain insufficiently familiar with American languages to be able to give up completely, in the face of their tremendous variety, the hope that a dialect might one day be discovered that, with certain modifications, might have been spoken simultaneously in the interiors of South America and Asia, or that at least indicates an old interrelation.” ibid, 104
12Note that this is an area and culture distinct from and located geographically further south than the Zuni of Davis' work, who lived mainly in what is now the southwestern United States.
13ibid, 103
14ibid, 261-262
15ibid, 262
16ibid, 263
17ibid

Saturday, April 29, 2017

thoughts on "Views of Nature"

Humboldtvision 2017

The Sun is evil; that is to say, it is good. To take the Heraclitean view of nature—the chaotic noise of the jungle at night, animals being eaten alive, shrieking in pain, fighting each other, is merely the sound of balance. The Sun is the Platonic idea of the good, and so, negatively, it defines evil. The plant or the stars might show us the sacred process of life's becoming; the landscape shows us the being of Nature. The Sun is good from a distance (though one cannot even look at it), but up close, it is hell, a nuclear inferno, a wall of sheer explosion that is destined to destroy the Earth.
Life has adapted to the Sun; it did not begin with the Sun. Life began in a dark heat, in vents at the bottom of the ocean. That heat did not emerge from any landscape, but from the Earth's core and mantle—what could never be a landscape. The Sun generates intense radiation that would eliminate any organism; the spinning of the molten rock at the center of the Earth generates the magnetic field that shields us from these death-rays. What is the relationship of life to light, if it is the light-source that is certain to end life? The Sun is neither our origin nor our redemption—it is, factually speaking, our doom. Our inclination towards spaceflight is an urge to find refuge from the Sun, to return to the dark and miraculously find heat there. There must always be a kind of balance between light and dark—but, if we are ever to find serenity, darkness must dominate.



The Moon is a bone; it is the skull of the Earth. Formed from ejecta after a gargantuan collision early in the geological history of our planet, the Moon is Earth-sans-life. It is the Earth's skeleton. The Sun drew in the culprit object with its obscene gravity, back then. Today we see the Sun; tonight we see the Moon—our murderer, and our fossil. Thus, the entire play of the sky is fundamentally macabre. This is the issue of Heraclitean justice—what appears to be strife is often resolution. There is neither mystery nor dynamism between the Sun and the Moon. The vault of night is a crime scene. One brilliant day, we know, the Sun will finish the job it started: It will morph, expand, and eventually envelop the Earth, having sterilized it long before. The Moon is a glimpse into the future. Before it is devoured by the engorging Sun, the Earth will be purified by fire, and all life will be burnt away. The Earth will be a charred companion to the Moon.



So let's cut to the chase: What kindness, what love, what kind of peace could there be under such conditions? Economies of scale betray us: We have enough of a world to inhabit, but not enough to inhabit fully. We were losing life before we fathomed we would lose it permanently. The matter of experiencing the process of becoming itself is complicated by what appears, empirically, to be the certain doom of that very process. We have never been good at living in peace and harmony; and that was before we knew of this real Armageddon. We worshiped the Sun, sometimes the Moon as well, regarding them as benign. We have been like babies who do not comprehend a present danger. The Sun that looms over us intends to kill us. The Moon is the image of our future demise. God, the true God, the ur-God, means to destroy humankind. He is not dead—but we are, if we don't get out of here.
The only possible kindness is to escape together. Now, love could only be the love of life. This is not a humanism; our humanity, so intimately bound to the ill-fated Earth, is null. Truthfully, we've been aware of this since last century at the latest. The greatest miracle we could perform would be to master the life process, then the stars, then the cosmos generally. If we are to survive, we have no other choice. The Tower of Babel is meant to launch us beyond heaven, into the terrible vacuum. We still have not grasped the horror of 'outer space'—the shock has not even begun.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

preview/draft of 'field notes' from WIP [collaborative 'underground' project]

Field Notes [2]




I departed from the central campsite after sharing a pot of food with three other initiates. We consume what manages to live down here—mostly fungi and blind fish. Those who've been here longer rarely eat at all, and some I've never seen ingest a single morsel of food. But I am still ravenous most of the time. It took me a couple days of starvation to muster the will to choke down the pungent gray stew that serves for daily nourishment. To me, it tastes like peat moss and cod liver, though the others seem to have grown to love the taste. With a stomach full of it, usually I find energy enough for a few hours' excursion beyond the perimeter of our dwelling area. This time the relief of finishing my bowl fed into my eagerness to learn more about this labyrinth—if, indeed, a labyrinth is what this ultimately is. My gut must be adjusting.
So I set off into one of the many channels in the bedrock that lead away from the depressed node in which we made our camp. There is a network of tunnels, caverns, and these dry canals down here. It is complex, and very easy to get lost. There are maps made long ago—by early initiates or some predecessors of theirs, I don't yet know—that one can consult by the cooking fire.1 For now, and for the foreseeable future, I need to study them very carefully before I venture out into the turbid area beyond camp, or I will be hopelessly lost. At times, I simply turn back and cancel the trip if I'm even slightly doubtful about my whereabouts. We do not travel with fire in hand when we explore our environs. We hate the light...although it is a peculiar type of hate. (I don't yet understand it.) Light is utilized, but never beyond its barest necessity. Shades of darkness become clearer after a while—one must be quite far from camp to experience the beginnings of true black. The slightest contamination from the campsite can tinge the hue of the air even far along the path of a channel. Perhaps my eyes have been adjusting; perhaps what I'm detecting isn't just a matter of photons. At any rate, I've taken to pausing once I notice I've entered the 'deep end' of darkness, before I really plunge ahead into my explorations. I perform a ritual copied from a moment in the long service performed by the most ancient priests still breathing here. (I'll describe the ceremony, and the ritual, in more detail in a different entry.) With my course committed to memory, and my focus honed by this brief practice, I am ready to step blindly into the manifold abyss.
I decided to follow one of the upward-inclined channels, recognizing in myself a raw urge, still strong, to return to the surface. The purpose of these trips is never to escape, and I don't imagine I'd simply stumble upon a passage that had been unnoticed prior. I also don't imagine one is known and being kept secret from me. People wind up here in all kinds of ways, but nobody has ever gotten out. Nor, ultimately, so I'm told, has anyone wanted to abandon this realm, or at least retained such an impulse long into their residence here—that, however, I find impossible to believe. Regardless, harboring my vain hope, I charted a course of relative ascent. I took with me a rucksack containing a lantern, some tinder, stones for striking a spark, a thin sheaf of parchment, and a pen.2 With these, I would be able to survey, record, and if necessary retrieve samples from whatever I might find. I've asked numerous times whether I should worry about my safety when I make these trips—so far I've been rebuffed with laughter. It's annoying, but reassuring, slightly. Nobody has been hurt since I've been down here.
My calves began to burn as I trekked up the steeper portions of this channel, which served as a main artery of our corner of what, as far as I understand, is a nearly infinite complex of passageways. The branches of this one have all been explored at least once—to our group, it is the most familiar of all channels, and our maps of it are quite detailed. I was urged by one older priest to begin by visiting a chamber a relatively short distance away, less than two miles, down a near branch accessible through a wide tunnel on the side of this inclined arterial thoroughfare. There, he said, I would find not only a wealth of artifacts—he did not elaborate more than that—but also a spring of potable water. I could set up there for a long while in comfort, and there would be plenty to do.
At a point along the incline a tunnel opened up to the left. I stepped through the entrance, and the echoes of my footsteps, which had before been faint or inaudible, grew loud in the close confines. The ceiling was high, maybe twenty feet, but the walls were narrower. It would be cramped for three people to walk side-by-side in the tunnel. My eyes were adjusting further to the dark, and I could make out the shapes of mineral formations. After walking for some time, with nothing on my mind, I arrived at my destination. The chamber opened up rapidly—it felt like entering a small stadium. The ceiling was maybe two hundred feet up, and the roughly circular chamber was around five hundred feet in diameter. There is no way I could account for everything in this room—I understood immediately why they sent me here first. Buried in this place are the remains of an entire ancient town. It seems to have sunk into a kind of cenote, itself now submerged, long ago—or it might have been placed in a pit from the start. Buildings, petrified marketplace stalls, pottery, old bones, metal instruments, and, in the center of it all, a marble obelisk, sat silently in this large, even cavern. There was more than enough material here to keep me occupied indefinitely, and not much sophisticated excavation would be required.
I lit my lantern and the flame seemed blindingly bright. Immediately I lost what range of vision I had developed as my eyes had acclimated to the purer, deeper black of the labyrinth. Truth be told, I'm still not sure what I'm actually meant to be doing on these trips. I know it involves taking notes and sketches of what is found, and only on rare occasion bringing back an item or two, but the higher priests have kept mum about the ends to which these efforts might serve. At any rate, they don't bother to collect my notes. When others go out on much longer excursions, deeper into the channels, they return with thick reams of observations and often spend hours on end reporting back to the priests, poring over the notes in huddled seclusion. Are we looking for something in particular? What motivates this? For now, I go along with it.
So I ducked into a three-story structure abutting the main street, skirting in between two ghostly, abandoned stalls, husks of maize still visible in one. Swinging the lantern above my eye level, I found myself in the entry hall of what must have been a domicile for multiple families. To my right was a staircase, and ahead of me a door. At the top of the staircase was a landing, beyond which another door rested intact, and more or less in place, on one hinge, and to the side of which the stairs continued up to the third floor. A pile of leather pieces, perhaps formerly constructed into shoes, lay in a jumble to my left. Metal hooks still protruded from the wall, one hanging upside down, swinging loose on a severely rusted screw. Starting from the bottom seemed prudent, and so I gingerly pushed on the first floor door. It tipped backwards, and I clumsily grabbed at its sides, my arms swinging widely as I found a shaky balance against the dense weight of the ancient door. I couldn't lift it back into position without crushing my own hands, and I was struggling to hold it, so I eased it as carefully as I could manage down onto the floor, dropping it onto the tile floor. A small cloud of dust was kicked up by the landing, and I coughed. Suddenly I became apprehensive. I'd made a racket, and I didn't really know whether I was safe here. (I still don't know whether I'm safe anywhere down here; but strangely, I've felt no true fear.)
I took a moment to study this apartment into which I'd barged. This must have been a medieval settlement, perhaps newer than I'd guessed—there was sophisticated metalwork, stained glass, and what even seemed to be a porcelain vase. A kitchen or galley area at one end of the room melded into a den, the floor covered in piles of thick rugs, or at least the remains of them. The domesticity of the scene struck me, and I really did feel as if I'd barged into someone's home. In fact, I began to feel generally ill at ease. I opened a tall cabinet in the kitchen, and found it fully stocked with ceramic wares. The doors felt ready to collapse; their hinges were brittle. As I sealed them, one simply fell off and clattered to the floor. The noise startled me—but what turned me cold and sent my stomach turning was what I heard next. From the upper floor, a bump sounded firmly. I froze in place and held my breath. For a long minute, nothing stirred in that building. I considered bolting for the door—but I couldn't decide what to do with my lantern. I fixated on it—I had set it on an island in the kitchen, and it lit the room up. I was starkly aware of the fact that, if there were any other living thing down here, it would know exactly where I was just by following the light. Sweat broke out across my brow. I decided to extinguish the light.
Delicately, I stepped over to the lantern and blew out the light with a quick huff. Blindness took me. For a long while, I stood there, hunched up, tensed, listening, until my eyes could adjust again to the pitch black. I should mention that I still don't understand how we manage to see at all down here. It feels different than normal vision, too—it's hard to explain, but the sense itself has changed. The line between smell and taste is relatively thin; the line between seeing as I did above and seeing as I do below is much thinner. The point being, it's still awkward to navigate down here even when I'm most relaxed—and now I was near panic. I gathered my things and roughly set them back into the rucksack, slung it over my shoulder, and paused again. All was still hushed—but for a moment I could barely discern a kind of shuffling, or skittering, coming from the floor above. My stomach sank dramatically, and I knew I was in no state to investigate. My legs were shaking slightly, and I wanted dearly to return to the campsite and the security of the fire. I paused in the empty frame at the entrance of the apartment, standing over the collapsed door. I saw a clear path down the hall to the front door. I took one step—and the door at the top of the stairs, above and slightly behind me, opened with a creak and swish of dust. I almost jumped—a surge of adrenaline fluttered my heart, and I felt dizzy for a moment. The thud of a step sounded on the landing. I couldn't see it from my vantage point—I would have to go further down the hall to peer up the stairwell. Meekly, I called out: “Who's there?” My voice cracked. No answer followed. I tried again, close to hysterics: “Who is it?” Suddenly heavy footsteps thudded quickly across the landing and sounded their way down the tall staircase. My eyes bugged out in terror, I clenched my fists, I realized I hadn't seen another way out of the building. The steps kept coming, stomping down the stairs. They grew louder and faster, and each moment I was sure their source would emerge in descent down to this first level. I yelled for an answer, freaking out entirely. The steps kept increasing in volume and speed. I was confused, and horrified—I began shouting incoherently. The steps were thunderous and rapid, it began to sound like a train was thundering through the building. In a state of absolute panic, I lost control and burst down the hallway, not daring to look back. I practically flew out of the building, crashing through the stalls out front, collapsing them.
The noise echoing in my ears, my heart pounding, I ran for my life back to the tunnel, losing my breath, growing faint, but not daring to stop. After a distance, I didn't hear anything behind me, and I was near exhaustion. I fell against the rocky wall and curled up, trying to catch my heaving breath as quietly as possible. But tranquility had returned to the labyrinth. I neither heard nor saw any pursuer. After a few minutes, I gathered myself and set out briskly for camp.
Upon arrival, no priest greeted me. I saw a crowd by the fire, but I retired to my bed. Now I have awoke—in the dark, as usual—and I record this entry, my first field notes, mostly in order to gather my recollections before I report back to these people. I have to admit that when I first opened my eyes and realized where I was, I nearly shrieked. The desire to return to the surface has never been stronger in me than it is at this moment; I don't know what to do.
1This fire being the only one kept burning down here, the source of ritual and lantern light, carefully confined to its zone between the alter and the sleeping quarters.
2I am keen to explain the industry that produces our tools—soon, in another entry, I will.

Friday, March 17, 2017

What could a Bactrian critique possibly be?

I'll post something soon, once I actually figure out what I want...

ashamed of my first attempt at a Bactrian critique

I'll leave it up--though I can feel in my gut that's the wrong decision--for contrast. My first attempt at a 'Bactrian' critique was a clumsy failure. Here's that paper, revised for final submission at the close of the seminar:


The Signal Sovereign



The Passions that most of all cause the differences of Wit, are principally, the more or lesse Desire of Power, of Riches, of Knowledge, and of Honour. … For the Thoughts, are to the Desires, as Scouts, and Spies, to range abroad, and find a way to the things Desired: All Stedinesse of the minds motion, and all quicknesse of the same, proceeding from thence. For as to have no Desire, is to be Dead...1



The famous frontispiece of Leviathan depicts people of the citizenry bound up in the body of the sovereign that looms large over the landscape and city. I begin with a simple question: What might we say a person in the left arm experiences of the right arm? To answer this, I have looked to Hobbes' descriptions of conatus as well as the relationship between the individual citizen and the sovereign whole. I find, over the course of this essay, that the distinction drawn by Hobbes in Leviathan between the natural and the artificial person—fundamental to the relationship of authority between subject and sovereign—has a direct analog in the distinction he draws in De corpore between the mark and the sign. A name, for Hobbes, is both mark and sign; a person, likewise, is both natural and artificial, two conditions united under one name. A name only has meaning, for Hobbes, when it is ordered in speech. Likewise, a person is only a subject when ordered in the sovereign body. Without the order of ratiocination manifest in speech, a name is nonsense to Hobbes—nothing of any meaning, what fails to represent sense in any effective way. In parallel, a person who withdraws from the sovereign body—by dissent or otherwise—reverts to the state of nature, and is swiftly (and, per Hobbes, justly) destroyed by the sovereign. This is, as I see it, the first principle of his nominalism. This nominalism, I argue, links to Hobbes' materialism through the vital impetus of motion, by which it is a purely rational necessity for one to remain under the sovereign, in the same exact way as it is necessary for names to be intelligible in speech. The main purpose of this essay is to argue for the analogy between the logic of the name as sign, in Hobbes' cognitive theory, and the logic of the name as person, in his political theory.


  1. Note on conatus

Only upon integration of the natural body into the sovereign body, in Hobbes' account of human life, does a person become a true subject. This is possible, as I understand it, because his theory of mind as elaborated in De corpore does not posit a cogito, but rather a conatus. Defined in physical terms as an infinitesimal unit of motion, in Hobbes' psychology the conatus serves as the impetus of a living being, its 'will' in the most primal sense. It is not reflexively or dialectically constituted, as a conception of cogito might entail, but rather is defined empirically by its place at the nexus of sensory inputs and its ratiocination, the ordering and calculating of data that relates to the natural body. Language, in this model, becomes a symbolic encoding of sense. The self, the conatus, is the center of this ordering process. It only achieves subjectivity in its relation with the sovereign. His conception of conatus enables his later conception of the citizen as a subject of the sovereign by defining human psychology in such a way that only through social constitution could a person become a subject, in the sense of a human, as opposed to a merely natural, being. When one dissents from the sovereign will, withdrawing one's conatus from the body politic, one returns to the state of nature—and the sovereign declares war. The “authorization” of which Hobbes speaks, which is meant to facilitate the subjectivizing integration of bodies under the sovereign, can be understood in terms of the conatus. Subjectivity as such, when the mind is conatus rather than cogito, can become strictly coextensive with political subjectivity through the process of authorization, which I will examine in the second section of this essay.


  1. Memory as the mode of calculation

Memory plays a crucial role in Hobbes' theory of cognition as elaborated in the opening chapters of De corpore. It serves the faculty of reason in the computation of sense data, working to prevent regress—“So that whatsoever a man has put together in his mind by ratiocination without such helps [as measures, patterns, etc.], will presently slip from him, and not be revocable but by beginning his ratiocination anew.”2 “Moniments” serve to reduce and register thoughts in an order, as a kind of mental data compression. “Marks” in turn are those moniments, “sensible things taken at pleasure,” which allow us to recall previously registered thoughts into our mind during ratiocination. Hobbes provides an epistemological basis for his definition of philosophy as an extension of ratiocination or computation. The chapter on names is concerned just as much with communication as it is with computation. A sign is defined as the antecedent of its consequent or vice-versa,3 and unlike a mark (which is private) a sign is intended “for the use of others.”4 Names are parts of speech—and speech is itself defined as the connection of words in such a way that they signal our thoughts. For Hobbes, the activity of ratiocination precedes language, which becomes one tool by means of which previously existing thoughts can be shared through a kind of consensus. Names serve as marks before they serve as signs.5 Only the ordering of speech allows a name to serve as a sign—order being one of the “helps” which prevent ratiocination from slipping. There are multiple processes of ordering going on in the world at once, each with their own category of information. Marks are for private processing, while signs serve the speech that connects people. Names are “taken at pleasure”6 in their service as marks, and it is not guaranteed that they be effectively communicable. To be taken at pleasure here indicates that at their origin names are “arbitrary,” a fact which Hobbes takes as both self-evident and Scripturally indicated in the story of Babel. It is the ordering which grants meaning to what would otherwise be a mark (and even a mark itself serves within a private ordering). Yet it is important to Hobbes that what is arbitrary still be understood as existent—“it is lawful for doctrine's sake to apply the word thing to whatsoever we name.”7 Because the order makes the meaning, the tension of contradictory positive and negative names is not one between existence and nonexistence. Hobbes dismisses any positing of an opposition between the being and not-being of a thing, so that it either is or is not; rather “of two contradictory names, one is the name of anything whatsoever, the other not.”8 That, he says, is the foundation of ratiocination. It is also, I would say, the essence of his nominalism. The contradiction is a computational relationship which can only be enacted in the order of language, as any two names, whatever their supposed relationship, are only signs in the order of speech.
Ratiocination's place at the center of thinking entails a privileging of the computational process in such a way that we can make the radical claim that contradictions are only contradictory when they are ordered. It is the naming of a thing—which can only take place, we have already been told, in the context of speech—which makes the contradiction. The being of a thing is not of evident concern to Hobbes. In fact, he seems to suggest later that words like essence, derived from the Latin esse (to be) are superfluous to true ratiocination. Doing away with a concern for the thing outside of speech seems to be a function of structuring a concept of language around the operations of a speech which only has meaning in its order, not in its component parts. We are told as well that a common or universal name can only indicate a a concept, and hence can be understood purely by the imagination. Hobbes moves quickly through the forms of four predicaments of names (body, quantity, quality, and relation), but he is cautious about advocating the classification of names—“we must take heed that we do not think, that as names, so the diversities of things themselves may be searched out and determined by such distinctions as these.”9 Again, as I understand it, this comes down to the matter of ratiocination. Things themselves need to be taken as they are configured in speech, not abstractly as names; the mark/sign distinction would preclude that.


  1. Authorship as subjectivation

The sovereign appropriates major functions of the conatus of the natural body. We know that the subjects authorize the sovereign to speak and act in their name:
Of Persons Artificiall, some have their words and actions Owned by those whom they represent. And then the Person is the Actor; and he that owneth his words and actions, is the AUTHOR: In which case the Actor acteth by Authority...so the Right of doing any Action, is called AUTHORITY and sometimes warrant. So that by Authority, is alwayes understood a Right of doing any act: and done by Authority, done by Commission, or License from him whose right it is.10
In Leviathan, the sovereign is the actor, while the subject is the author. Hobbes goes into detail, in chapter sixteen, about the ways that authorship and activity can play out. I see, in this chapter, the work of Leviathan reconnecting directly with the work of De corpore. Where De corpore establishes that a name is a mark before it's a sign, used as a coded representation of past experience, Leviathan picks up on the public employment of a name as a sign to describe the way subjectivation works in regard to authorship. Names, as signs, are attached to the actor, creating a link to the author. The name, as a sign, still carries its indication, but now moves attached to another. Subjectivation, in Hobbes, can be understood as the result of a person's name being carried by the sovereign actor in a relationship of authority. The dimension of space constituted by the gap between where the name travels (where the actor takes it) and where the name began (with the person) is the space of citizenship, and, for Hobbes, of rights. This is the meaning of his distinction, made at the outset of chapter sixteen, between the natural and the artificial person:
A Person, is he, whose words or actions are considered, either as his own, or as representing the words or actions of an other man, or of any other thing to whom they are attributed, whether Truly or by Fiction. … When they are considered as his owne, then is he called a Naturall Person: And when they are considered as representing the words and actions of an other, then is he a Feigned or Artificiall person.
The difference between a natural and an artificial person in Leviathan can be understood as a direct analog of the difference between mark and sign in De corpore. The rational ordering of language becomes the prerequisite for citizenship, hence for right. In fact, the mechanism—“Personation”—by which all that cannot employ reason can be authoritatively represented, must be applied for any thing in order for it to matter to the State. Personation, a form of legal guardianship, grants a person rights over either an inanimate object or a person deemed incapable of responsibility for themselves. This applies to “things,” including buildings; children and the mentally impaired; and any “Idol, or meer Figment of the brain,”11 which includes heathen gods (reduced to their heathen condition precisely by their loss of authorship under the State). In fact, everything that is not a human speaking rationally requires personation if it is to be protected in any way by the sovereign—even God is personated through the prophets, conceived of in this way as sovereigns themselves. Personation requires “Civill Government” organized in a “State Civill.”12 Without the State, there cannot be authority. Authority as such can be understood, then, as a function of the State; and personhood, as such, to be a function of the sovereign.
A Multitude of men, are made One Person, when they are by one man, or one Person, Represented; so that it be done with the consent of every one of that Multitude in particular. For it is the Unity of the Representer, not the Unity of the Represented, that maketh the Person One. And it is the Representer that beareth the Person, and but one Person: And Unity, cannot otherwise be understood in Multitude.13
The unity of the body politic is grounded in the unity of the sovereign, because it the “representer” that carries the authority acceded by all the subjects. This follows the logic of the sign, the meaning of which, according to Hobbes, is decided by its ordering in speech. This is how persons become a people under the sovereign—the sovereign signifies the name. Authority is the condition under which a sovereign carries the name of the people as a sign. If no sovereign bears it, it reverts from a sign to a mark. Hence, a unity is not constituted by any gathering of people—only under the sovereign does the name function as a sign. Hobbes' nominalism, building on his theory of cognition, comes to define the authority of the sovereign over the body politic. The coherence of that body rests on the transfer of authorship, and the assumption of the action of the sovereign as one's own. The constitution of the Leviathan follows the logic of the name.


  1. Passion as motion

If conatus is the embodied, rational ordering of sense data, and fundamentally a kind of motion, then in assuming the action of the sovereign as one's own, the subject must undergo a change on the level of conatus. What justifies the hostility and violence the sovereign holds towards bodies not integrated to it—both foreign enemies and internal dissenters—is not a metaphysical, moral principle of any kind, for Hobbes. Rather, in empirical terms, as authority has been defined as a function akin to reason (the supreme function, for Hobbes), conducting the ordering that assigns14 the name of the people, the threat of disintegration of the body is the threat of the end of reason. The conatus of the subject can be said to move with the action of the sovereign, as all cognition is defined by movement for Hobbes. In this way, the life of Leviathan is wholly material.
This can be seen most clearly in Hobbe's understanding of the passions. Defined as motion, passions have their root in the faculty of Imagination—“the imagination is the first internall beginning of all Voluntary Motion.”1516 Motions, for Hobbes, begin in the infinitesimal space within a nascent living being, and he uses the term “Endeavor” to refer to their origin. Endeavor becomes “Desire” when it has an external cause that draws it near, and “Aversion” when the external cause repulses it. “Love” is defined by Desire in the presence of what is desired. Hate is defined otherwise—“But Aversion wee have for things, not onely which we know have hurt us; but also that we do not know whether they will hurt us, or not.”17 A third option, Contempt, terms the immobility or resistance of the heart to an object whose influence fails to incite motion. Good is, then, linked to Desire, and Evil to Aversion.18 They are entirely relative terms, there being “nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common Rule of Good and Evil” proper to any object.19 It seems obvious, by this definition, that good and evil are fundamentally epistemological concepts for Hobbes; he says as much later in the sixth chapter. “Deliberation” names the sorting out of complicated, present situations of desire, aversion, and contempt; it ends when the situation ends.
In Deliberation, the last Appetite, or Aversion, immediately adhaering to the action, or to the omission thereof, is that wee call the WILL; the Act, (not the faculty,) of Willing. And Beast that have Deliberation, must necessarily also have Will. The Definition of the Will, given commonly by the Schooles, that it is a Rationall Appetite, is not good. For if it were, then could there be no Voluntary Act against Reason. … Will therefore is the last Appetite in Deliberating.
The passions, defined as forms of motion, are the pivot of Hobbes' radical epistemological gesture. The good is defined in relation to the desires of a person, themselves defined in service to the vital motions of the body. Will, therefore, is presented as an expression of vitality in a strictly corporeal sense. What is good is what is good for the body, ultimately, for Hobbes.
The impetus for this motion is defined in purely material terms. The conatus of a person is the locus of motion proper to their body. Vitality is defined in purely empirical terms as the persistence of motion. The function of the sovereign is to order those motions, to coordinate them. The united body of the sovereign, then, represents the sublation of all vital motion under political order. The passions, in this conception, are all reducible to expressions of a simple will to biological continuation.


Conclusion: The wedding of nominalism and materialism

I began with a question of experience: What might a person ensconced in the left arm of the sovereign body experience of the right? It seems absurd to say that if a person in the right arm felt something harsh, a pinprick or abrasion, then a person in the left arm might grab themselves in pain. But the logic of conatus that girds Hobbes' theories of mind and politics suggests exactly that. Because a passion is defined by knowledge—by the creation of an experience as such through the work of reason and the implementation of marks and signs in ordinal processes—then a subject that knows of a fellow subject's pain should, through the unity of the sovereign, in some real way experience that same pain. An injury to one is an injury to all; or, more generally, the experience of one is the experience of all. A sign, to function as such, must be cognizable by every rational body. There is no possibility then, in this system, of any ineffable or otherwise incommunicable experience to be considered meaningful. All experience that is not shared is held either in “Contempt,” if it does not affect the sovereign unity, or “Aversion” (hate) if it poses the threat of dissolution. The natural body must submit its vitality to the sovereign's direction. What allows this theory to cohere, for Hobbes, is the proof of cognition elaborated in De corpore.
In this way, his nominalism and materialism work in tandem to create a cogent idea of sovereignty in Leviathan. By applying the logic of the ratiocination of the sign to the person, the process of authorization can really be understood as a process of subjectivation. The conatus of the artificial person, the citizen, is fundamentally changed in the formation of a relationship with the sovereign. It is a transformation that is thoroughly material, and wrought under the name that takes ownership of the sovereign's actions.



Works Cited

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. Richard Tuck. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas. The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. N.p.: Elibron Classics, 2005. Print.
1Leviathan, 53
2De corpore, 13
3ibid, 14
4This rudimentary private/public distinction would have to be understood, by my argument, to separate the natural from the political. A private “mark” is used in the state of nature, whereas a public “sign” finds use within the body politic.
5ibid, 15
6ibid, 16
7ibid, 18
8ibid, 19
9ibid, 27
10Leviathan, 112
11ibid, 113
12ibid
13ibid, 114
14By “assignation” I refer to the function of the sovereign in its role as Representer. It is analogous to the function of Reason in ordering Speech, for Hobbes, insofar as it doesn't coin or assign the name-as-mark (which is arbitrary) but rather activates the name-as-sign.
15ibid, 38
16Voluntary motions being the supplement, in all animals, to the vital—purely corporeal—motions, e.g. circulation, breathing, etc. (ibid, 37-38)
17ibid, 39
18ibid
19ibid