Thinking Thoroughly

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One of the things I enjoy about Durkheim so far is the way he uses notions of both space and time to analyze society. It is rather ingenious. It does seem like the density and number of nodes on a social network have an effect on the way time is socially experienced across the network, as well as other features of society and how individuals experience society. Put in other terms, Durkheim links network topology (looking at a network as a geometrical object that can experience displacement of its components while preserving certain properties) with social ontology (the social being of the individuals that form the nodes of the given social network). I’d like to expand on this insight, since so far at least Durkheim is not incredibly clear about his reasoning process from quantitative population measures and network size to qualitative differences in solidarity. What he does make clear is the relationship between qualitative differences in solidarity and the sophistication of the division of labor. It is this which makes me not fully buy into Durkheim, and, I think, if I go over why this doesn’t make me buy into it in detail, it may reveal this comes from some of my sympathies for Marx.

So maybe I should think abstractly about social networks for a moment. For example, if you have millions of people you socialize with, each of whom know at least a subset of those who you socialize with, even if its to varying levels, one can say that your social network is “high density.” Perhaps we could measure density in terms of how often network links intersect with each other, and thereby how many times an intersection must happen (wherein the intersection is not yet another individual, and is thus not a node insofar as nodes are specified to be individuals in our analysis here). Or, perhaps, in terms of how many links are likely to radiate from any given node in the network. In any case, a high density network is going to affect each node’s experience of time insofar as each node’s traits remain constant (or, more generally, to the extent that nodes are constrained in their use of resources and their rate of capacity to reproduce themselves before they’re completely spent out of existence). That is to say, a high-density social network would make agents in them experience a higher pace life since it may require them to divide their time, however disproportionately they may do so, and it would also make agents in them experience higher risk in decision-making. Both of these are because:

  1. Each node has to divide their time in a way correlated with the amount of links radiating from them, leading to a loss of integrated social information by which to make decisions, increasing uncertainty about the general reception of their personal/social decisions;
  2. Each given node is more saturated with information that is of personal relevance (whether negative or positive), which means that cultural symbols lose consistency of meaning across groups and the likelihood of miscommunication across social groups is thereby high. Society can here then be said, not only to “speed up” since social formations become more ephemeral/flexible with higher density, but higher density can also put pressure on nodes in the network to the degree that there may be an incentive to meet social status goals more quickly or as quickly as other individuals.

Yet, Durkheim’s interpretation of this breaks down right here. It’s not enough for society to be high-density, in order that it speed up or accelerate. This already presupposes a generalized social status factor that requires a high degree of competition, due to its object being scarce (whether naturally or artificially). This is not a given. An alternate possibility is for high-density networks to incentivize the growth of each individual’s capacity for manipulating abstraction as well as each individual’s capacity for metacognition (or, capacity for entertaining a multiplicity of perspectives/interpretations of behavior).

In the same respect, it could then disincentivize them from relying on fight-or-flight, fear, etc., as sources of problem-solving. This is because the necessity of these skills seem to be latent in the fact that those individuals have to deal with more complex social networking (although, again, this is mediated by status-seeking). Further, Durkheim seems to see this “civilizing” force as, in retrospect, promoting individuation (i.e., increasing the average uniqueness of traits across individuals). But he never asks whether this individuation is on the individual’s own terms; he seems to implicitly think so since his language for describing what happens in this individuation is that society leaves a space open for the development of individual powers. He doesn’t say that society produces that uniqueness. Rather, for Durkheim it seems to be a side-effect of the space left open, to members of society, for independent action. This way of characterizing it may be a bit naive, for if indeed society also tends to speed up or accelerate with this process, it’s not clear where Durkheim’s assumption of agency comes in. Is it not the case that agency may be decreased given a loss of huge amounts of integrated social information available to the individual?

Even Durkheim’s point about specialization and the division of labor may not be straight-forward if its justified only on the basis of properties of the network. To illustrate: The other property of the network we can look at in terms of space is the number of nodes in the network. It seems obvious that, since any given level of density in a social network is also constrained by the quantity of nodes/agents in the network, a high number of nodes/agents in society is necessary but not sufficient for high network density. What, then, is the more direct impact of a high population of societal members on that same society, if it’s not necessarily high network density? Well, with higher population, a higher range of differentiation is possible simply because there is a higher number of possible permutations that may act as variables related to particular traits that may be manifest in individuals, and because there is a higher variability of possible distribution of individuals in that society across a whole geography. Higher population, then, is likely to increase diversity.

However, here’s where Durkheim’s optimism falls apart a bit: Durkheim interprets this diversity to mean specialization. The previous point I mentioned shows this to be a non-sequitor, as the skills that a high-density network can promote may allow for incredible ease at multi-tasking, integrated application of different skills as a single person, and an over-all improvement of performance across various domains. While the level of skill or performance in some things would still be higher than others, other skills and performance can nonetheless be high enough that tasks requiring them do not have to be outsourced to other labor so that the given project undertaken is successful. The relevant variable being what “successful” is, but it will involve an average understanding of success by that society that may not need to absolutely emphasize productivity (output per unit time, in money or product) or efficiency (trimming of labor extraneous to the basic expected average use of the product).

Even if we grant that the domain-general skills a high-density socially networked society demands of individuals need not prevent specialization even if may make it less necessary in more general terms, there’s another issue with Durkheim’s assumption that diversity means specialization: he lumps, or conflates, all division of labor as essentially the same. This makes his parallel between the development of mechanical solidarity into organic solidarity, and the development of low specialization to high specialization, quite suspect, even if we take it to be a logical/ontological claim (a claim about one thing’s logical dependence on another, or one thing’s dependence on another for its existence) rather than a historical claim (a claim about what came first in a temporal order, in actual fact). How is it suspect?

Well, given what has been said so far, it seems reasonable to say that mechanical solidarity can hold, internally, a high degree of specialization if it is extremely strict, as all mechanical solidarity requires is that individuals in the society be highly integrated into performing a single function at the societal scale. We see this in some ants. What it can’t incorporate is a flexible and highly dynamic allocation of individuals into particular divisions of labor. Organic solidarity, on the other hand, could probably internally hold both sorts of division of labor. In fact, we see this in how some societies are constituted by some rather essential social conflict due to the disproportionate significance given to certain divisions of labor, or in how the production of a division of labor may be largely related to culturally specified roles more than they are necessary to the material provision or production of goods in more general terms (this role having material necessity only to the extent such a contingency itself affects the politics of distribution of wealth and of the distribution of the returns on production). On the other hand, if we see history in terms of forces of production, as Marx does, we can see how this “cultural contingency” is not entirely a contingency, but a matter of the relative development of the forces of production from one point in history to another given both scarcity and the inextricability of consumption from the development of unified culture out of inconsistent norms and values.

So I gave this article on some more recent discoveries in IQ and genetics a read.

Some of those genes which correlate not only with IQ but social success at the same time, may not actually be contributing directly to IQ but to capacity for acquiring or building those environments relevant to IQ gains (which can involve environmental factors as an individual’s traits can affect society’s receptivity and vice versa). Note, by directly contribute I mean that it enhances the phenotype, all other conditions at the genetic level being equal, and by indirectly I mean that it enhances the phenotype based on its ability to precisely break or leverage initial environmental conditions (and thus irrespective of genetic or environmental heterogeneity). In any case, genes that contribute directly can get muddled up with traits that contribute indirectly, which is where the danger comes as the latter type of trait’s contribution is mediated by social status. I also suspect that the more complex the phenotype, the more that phenotype just tracks correlates produced by patterns in social selection. This is important to emphasize due to the fact that scientific racists rely on the strict dichotomy between the social and biological world.

Paradoxically, not selecting some adverse genes might—depending on which they are—in the long-term further entrench social, and thereby ecological, ills the more fit the aggregate of the populace is in its own unecological & antisocial social structures and institutions. People who lack reproductive success, who in aggregate have lower rates of survival due to social vulnerability/negligence/violence, or who have trouble accessing social environments that enhance potential survival outcome perform a positive long-term function in interdependent societies by supplying short-term potential negative feedback to population-scale coordination, incentivizing the society as a whole to develop either more efficient or more rewarding forms of coordination. It would seem any contemporary eugenicists out there might feel threatened and would rather not acknowledge any positive function for mutations or “unsuccessful” or “low-achievement” genes. This would seem to make political sense since eugenicists—having historical roots in scientific racism and misogyny as well as sympathies with fascist concerns—would hate if the society they benefit from were pressured to improve.

The lazy way out preferred by them would be to edit all undesired genes out so that they can continue to justify their incompetence, though as ecological destruction accelerates nature will indeed have the last laugh. When there's a demographic that normies (literally normies—those who are nearer the center of the bell curve for things) find undesirable, even sub-/un- consciously, the two options are to adapt social conditions to make room for that desire or those people, or to continue to reject their existence as desirous beings themselves (the modern racists & modern eugenicists seemingly favoring the latter by default). Which option should be taken likely varies situationally on a cost/benefit basis, but most of the time, for reasons I will not digress into, nature is suboptimal, so I can expect people often err on that analysis even if we tend to do well enough on that analysis to make it through as a species on average (a rather low bar for a species that would see itself as intelligent and trifles over stupid things like IQ scores). In any case, any “hard scientist” in these areas should be looking into sociological theory (functionalism, “conflict theory,” and symbolic-interactionism) and its sub-disciplines of sociology of knowledge and sociology of deviance. This is why science these days requires a greater synthesis across disciplines, not snide interdepartmental condescension.

Here’s a key and interesting quote from the article, which to me resonates with the idea that we need a functional biology and more biosemiotics. So far my impression is that the interaction between social and biological phenomena can only be analyzed if biological phenomena are treated as wholes with functional excesses that are constrained and honed in by and through social behavior, and if the selection of such functions is seen to involve the relatively short-term, error-prone, heuristic processing of group information or interpretation of signs by individual organisms:

[…] Stanford University geneticist Jonathan Pritchard and his colleagues argue that complex traits aren’t polygenic, or influenced by multiple genes, as geneticists have long assumed. No, Pritchard argues: They’re omnigenic, or influenced by every gene.

In essence, the omnigenic hypothesis posits that the networks regulating genes are so interconnected that any gene expressed in a given tissue is going to have some impact, no matter how infinitesimal, on the function of that tissue. What’s more, the genes likely aren’t neatly arranged in discrete clusters, as behavioral geneticists have hoped.

futuristbottle

Joule was faced with the dichotomy: heat is either a substance or a kind of motion. From the experiments which were performed with the magneto-electric machine, he inferred that heat must be a kind of motion, since it could be created or destroyed through motion. Since heat is motion, the experiments were interpreted as conversion from mechanical motion into another kind of motion or vice versa. The conversion factor is called mechanical equivalent of heat. The interpretation of the paddle-wheel experiments is analogous. He defended that friction consisted in the conversion of mechanical power into heat. This statement was not published in accordance with the wish of the Committee to whom the paper was referred (Joule 1884, p. 328).

[...]

Energy is usually presented in the following way: ‘energy can neither be created nor destroyed but only transformed’. If energy cannot be destroyed, it must be a real existing thing. If its form changes, it must be something real as well. Thus, that statement can easily lead to the concept of energy as something material. The German physician Robert Mayer did not find, however, anything like a substance but rather a methodology for dealing with phenomena. Using observable or measurable elements, he established equivalences between different domains, such as those which concern heat, motion, position or electricity. Let us suppose that we use Mayer’s methodology for dealing with phenomena. In this case, we know in advance that an equivalence is established by us between certain quantities. Hence, we do not need the ‘indestructibility’ of an entity to express that the quantity does not change. As we also know that we establish equivalences between mechanical, thermal, electrical quantities, we do not need to suppose the ‘transformability’ of the same entity.

The above excerpt about energy sounds a lot like Marx's concept of value to me, especially since he analogizes it to weight in Capital, vol. I. After all, value also acts almost as a mere conserved quantity in the context of exchange—the main difference being that value can be “created” and “destroyed” because its also tied to an exclusive domain of activity, i.e. some “transformations” are either irrelevant to the particular world in question in which entities act—due to differentiated fitness landscapes or the presupposition of a given, particular input—or act to antagonize that particularistic world—e.g., waste, death (violence more generally according to Bataille). This also makes it easy to incorporate Bataille's insights on the connection between life and death through his scheme of continuity v. discontinuity (synthesizing Bataille's concept of excess with Marxian economics’ concept of surplus).

In addition, this may have connections to the concept of abstraction as understood in software engineering and programming language development since exchange-value does not just refer to exchanges in the sense of transformations, but exchanges as a consequence of a sort of particularized abstraction (represented by Marx's theory of commodity-money). If it were just a matter of exchanges in general, then treating the economy (understood in terms of value) separately from the ecosystem (understood in terms of energy) to any degree would be a mistake (I don't think it is though, despite obvious continuities between value and energy). That it isn’t a mistake to do so is especially so when one considers that information conservation is at odds with the thermodynamic tendencies of closed systems (more generally, at odds with highly efficient thermic systems), as well as when one considers how economies are in some ways cognitive systems (an insight we get from Hayek), as are the living actors or agents particular economies depend on. Here becomes visible a potential notion of teleology that is already mired with conflict from the start—a sort of conflict involving possibilities.

Needless to be said that conceptualizing energy in terms of motion rather than as substance also means one can't just treat all energy uses as equivalent in that they refer to the “same sort of thing,” as if there were no opportunity costs for specific “effects” of “motion” (thereby as if “energy harnessing” involves the containment and local conservation of some specific scarce “stuff,” and as if energy is indifferent to the type of “harnessing” it undergoes). This take also creates a distinction between matter and energy. This distinction doesn't necessarily contradict Einsteinian equivalencies, but just implies that this equivalency need not suggest identity (am reminded of Heidegger's critique of reducing identity to a mathematical discourse of equality). This distinction also allows us to think energy outside of the properties established by substance theories. Energy seems precisely to be about the relationship between a whole and its parts (e.g., the conserved quantity being the speculative whole that acts as the denominator to plural entities), and formal/structural possibility sets. This may present some issues for strict mechanism, and would also then possibly link the problematic notion of energy to the problem of non-locality in quantum physics.


In reaction to the following question posed:

Suppose I have a 1st order desire A; a 2nd order desire B which is to not have desire A; and a desire C which is to not have conflicting desires. Is C a 1st order, 2nd order or 3rd order desire?

It can be achieved by changing desire A to conform with B (and if I wanted exactly that then it would have been a 2nd order desire) or by changing desire B to conform with A (and if I wanted exactly that then it would have been a 3rd order desire), but what if I don't have any preference as to how to achieve C?

When one speaks of “orders” of desire, it is likely one is looking at the issue propositionally, as the idea of “orders” is a logical one, hence one that applies to propositions. Namely: (1) “I desire 𝓍,” (2) “I desire that it not be the case [I desire 𝓍],” etc. In which case, if there is some desire for the consistency amongst desires, such that one can conceive of the desire as higher-order, such that it becomes “I desire that it not be the case that [I desire that it not be the case [I desire 𝓍]],” what occurs is merely further inconsistency in evaluating the truth or falsehood of any particular proposition about desire, as stating a desire does not seem to mean simply stating a factual state of affairs, but stating something about a factual relation to some event or object that may well be non-factual—and if one were intent on further solving for that evaluative undecidability (that, in a determinate form, would result in inconsistency) by searching for some foundational desire, one gets into an infinite regress insofar as the number of possible orders of desire are indeterminate. And in any case, if that foundation were found or the regress arbitrarily limited, it would deviate from our actual diversifying, everyday, concrete desires. Yet if that arbitrary limit is not reflective of the nature of simple desire as such, such that the limit is actually a priori given as “I desire or do not desire X” (i.e., a point of indecision rather than a real limit), it is possible that such an arbitrary limit itself remains the consequence of at least some second-order desire, such that desires are at least limited up to the second order for purposes of description (that is, in order to be put them in propositional form).

But in the case of the second-order limit, one assumes a contingent decision has to have already been made, and, insofar as the possible choices are constrained in their occurrence according to at least this factor of desire (the factor we are isolating here, the second-order desire), that means the arbitrary limit can only be “justified” or caused precisely if a regress were to have been presupposed prior to decision-making. Proposing an arbitrary limit or foundation for the sake of allowing assessment of the truth-value of desire-propositions, or being able to make propositions about desire, would at the same time mean excluding the issue of decision-making which is either a condition of possibility for desire or an outcome of desire. This means the regress problem applies not only in the case of negative desires¹ that are more than or equal to the second order of propositions, but to positive desires² at any order as well. But this looks like an infinite regress merely from one perspective—if the several orders of desire are herein being treated as a hierarchy, then there is no reason to assume there's any bidirectional relationship among the different positive or negative desires occurring in this context.

All these objections would ultimately come down to the desire for consistency or inconsistency being located outside of the given orders of desire, in the same sense that in a formal system there will ultimately be a presented undecidability between consistency and inconsistency when striving for soundness. Yet it's not even all that clear there really is a consistency problem in this case despite the analogical structure between orders of desire and orders of justification—the objects of the proposition “I desire that it not be the case that [I desire 𝓍]” and “I desire 𝓍,” or “I desire that it be the case that [I desire 𝓍]” and “I desire ¬𝓍”³ are different—only one of the orders in the second-order/first-order pairs provided here is about 𝓍. The idea that there is an inconsistency presupposes that desiring that it not be the case one desire 𝓍 entails something about what happens to 𝓍 as much as the desire for 𝓍 does. That is, it implies that all desires with the same “nested” object are functionally equivalent, i.e. all bare some consequence on the nested object.

To the contrary—the former second-order desire regards a desire and not the object of that same desire, to that effect producing or suggesting paths of action that would differ radically from a simple negative desire towards 𝓍. In other words, one is presupposing a set of conditionals of the sort: (1a) “If there is an 𝓃th-order positive desire nesting 𝓍, then 𝓍 will/shall be the case,” (1b) “If there is an 𝓃th-order negative desire nesting 𝓍, then ¬𝓍 will/shall be the case.” If these conditionals are rejected, there is no inconsistency to solve, and so there is no desire for consistency or inconsistency of desires possibly implicated. That is, the perceived inconsistency, circularity, or regress comes from too straight-forward a view of the relationship between desire and action/decision-making, and thereby too naive an assumption that statements about desire have the same consistency requirements as statements about the world. Desires are rarely, in other words, merely intended towards objects, but implicitly already involve possibilities of action and approach given a combined state of objective and subjective affairs. The regress of orders of desire is an illusory effect of the fact that desire both produces and is produced by this state of affairs. The problem across the orders of desire isn't so much one of inconsistency or regress as of practical action: its indeterminate what will be the case, or what will be desired in the future and, consequently, what can and should be desired now—it is here that the conflict plays out. This is why desires are nonetheless experienced as conflicting—desire is unitary and singular as a vague generality without a determinate object, but it splinters into agonistic pieces when active reality breaks through the intertia of subjective affect. The additional implication here is that it is impossible to know what one desires except post-facto.

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In some sense, too, desires do not just appear to conflict, but desires actually do conflict at that point at which “active reality breaks through the inertia of subjective affect”—it's just that this conflict cannot be characterized in logical terms. This moment of breakthrough is whence a set of universal practical dilemmas: scale v. span/scope of decisions (long-term v. short-term, local v. global effects), as well as opposite directionality of effect internal to action itself (anticipation v. production of some outcome, preparation v. follow-through of some process) that produces imperfect information. Imperfect information regarding the erotic or desirous content of future experience, and its relationship to affect at the finalization of an action. Imperfect also in the fact that holding any particular thing as an object of desire automatically segregates it, at a cognitive level, from other phenomena that nonetheless constitutes or captures that object while likely affecting the production or capacity of desire as well. So the real question is how one's desire or lack of desire for 𝓍 relates to both 𝓍’s and the desire’s own conditions of possibility. In turn, the question also becomes how these conditions of possibility affect how the relationships among (positive) desires are to be evaluated or how the relationship between a (positive) desire and itself is to be evaluated, insofar as any given (positive) desire could lead to a network of (negative or) opposing desires given the latent potentials of the object of (positive) desire.

The relevant desire is then not of consistency of desire, but of the consistency among actions in upholding the possibility of the fulfillment of any given action—that is, the integrity of action. Integrity is often described as honesty with oneself regarding one's own moral principles and how one's acts fit within those principles—but this is rather an epiphenomena of actual integrity, as inconsistency between cognition/conation and action is the bread and butter of all passionate action. Given the practical contradictions aforementioned, it would be unreasonable to always expect people to “do as they say.” That is to say, integrity in this case does not indicate a lack of hypocrisy—if hypocrisy is treated broadly as any observed contradiction in one's actions (the quintessential being a contradiction between what one declares belief in and what one does). Rather, integrity is a stance towards consistency in relation to the conditions of existence for the desired object and the capacity to affect that object, as well as a stance towards those conditions necessary to reasonable reproduction of that desire. Desirous or erotic action therefore inherently involves a working through the inconsistencies of practical life, which will mean starting from these inconsistencies as bias and moving towards some attempt at greater consistency. It also otherwise comfort existing between temporal antinomies (past v. future), which is the same as to say comfort with acting in the present.

The “orders of desire” are really a helpful but limited gimmick when it comes to describing this—the “orders” really just have different objects of desire that reflect a dialectical movement in the development of desire. Going back to our conditionals, they would more accurately be: (2a) “if there is an 𝓃th-order positive desire regarding 𝓍, then 𝓃-𝟏st-order positive desire regarding 𝓍 will be the case and 𝓃-𝟏st-order negative desire regarding ¬𝓍 will/shall be the case” which is practically the same as to say “if there is a positive desire regarding 𝓍, then 𝓍 will/shall be the case”; and (2b), being an inversion of the former as far as the positivity/negativity of 𝓍 and of the 𝓃th- or 𝓃-𝟏st-order desires. In other words, we can already see that there is a kind of churning wheel of negation that constitutes the orders of desire. Perhaps the problem then is that we are assuming a propositional nature for desires, and thus that desires about desires are “second order” in a propositional sense. Instead, it may well be that desires have a metaphysical contingency to them, but nonetheless a sort of subsequent logic (dialectical rather than propositional) that makes desire look like a pseudo-coherentist affair.

Yet, supposing we wish to maintain the propositional form, perhaps modal propositions need to be introduced. Suppose that propositions about desire equal to or beyond the second order are actually different in form in a sort of patterned way: e.g., rather than a second-order desire taking the form, “I desire that it not be the case that [I desire 𝓍],” it would be more-so “I desire that it be possible that [I desire 𝓍]” or “I desire that it necessarily be the case that [I desire 𝓍].” In this case the situation becomes far more interesting—one could argue that the language of necessity or possibility renders even propositional inconsistency a non-issue and thus erases it as a possible erotic/desirous concern.

Either of the solutions presented here (which are not necessarily mutually exclusive) would render locating a “desire for consistency or inconsistency” a non-problem. The result, of course (if we're using “desire” as the basis of, or a significant complicating factor in, our ethics or axiology), is a sort of value pluralism—but the role of practical and material conditions (and their various levels/scales) can constrain or expand its scope, such that some value dilemmas indeed are rationally decidable and are thus non-arbitrary despite the intrinsic contingency of desire. That is to say, under an ethics developed from the point of view of desire, traditional kinds of moral rationalism would be scrapped. A new moral rationalism that accepts the indeterminacy and contingency of the ends of action would be birthed, whose concern would be internal instrumental consistency within action and among actions at any given scale. Preference of how to achieve 𝒞 (as specified in the question) may be a matter of indifference to desiring subjects, but what was just explained suggests that the preservation, expansion, degradation or constraining of possibility is itself going to have ethical/axiological implications that slips past any sort of ethical consequentialism. Ethical consequentialism would play a role, but would be perceived as a severely limited approach due to its negligence of internal instrumental consistency. Neglecting such comes at a high cost in ethics, because it makes it more difficult to find a link between personal and sociopolitical morality, and makes it less likely that ethical teaching could have any observably positive effect on social life. In this regard, an ethics informed by desire as it is conceived in this post could be called a kind of “ethical structuralism” insofar as conditions of possibility are an object of concern for all desires and all action, even if the connection is not immediately apparent for subjects (hence the possible indifference to the means of achieving 𝒞).


  1. Negative desires are desires not to do something.
  2. Positive desires are desires to do something.
  3. While this was left out as being a tangential concern, it is certainly possible that there is a material difference between “I do not desire 𝓍” and “I desire ¬𝓍”—that is, between a negation of desire and desire for the negative of some object. For example, if I say I do not desire coffee right now, this is to say that this object is uninvolved in any of my desires. Not only do I not desire coffee, but I consequently do not desire not coffee. That is, in the sense that one could not conclude that I desire everything or anything else. On the other hand, if I say I desire not coffee, I am indeed saying I desire everything or anything but coffee. Perhaps this is why the grammatical convention in natural language use is to negate the verb or adverb, or implicitly negate the copula.

This may or may not end up being a sort of preliminary comparative analysis of Bataille and Kant's respective takes on universality, as opposed to something more thorough. After all, it may seem as if Bataille doesn't say too much regarding universality—at least not explicitly. Of course, this is not really true insofar as Bataille develops normativity in terms of universality—namely, at the very beginnings of Erotism: Death & Sensuality, Bataille precisely develops the case for the culturally universal presence of the taboo despite empirically documented violations of these very taboos.

Bataille and Kant on the Problem of Cultural Universality

The Investigation of Cultural Universals

After all, it would seem that no matter what norms are considered as “culturally universal”—key rites of passage for example—these norms can always turn up an exception. Easiest to observe is the fact that supposed norms against murder and incest are asserted as present irrespective of the aggregate level at which these very behaviors or relationships are partaken in, in a community. In other words, the sociologist and the anthropologist, when making claims about the presence of cultural universals, immediately confront the difficulty of scientifically bringing into account such universality. Measuring the presence of a norm seems to be impeded by the fact that norms themselves are internally comprised of the contradictions within individual subjects' idealization of the social functioning of the given society—this idealization extant insofar as the society itself is seen as actually endorsing its own professed aspirations, despite observed dynamics of behavior in that society. To be able to measure, then, the presence of norms in a society is at the same time to necessarily presuppose precisely that more hidden relation between what is professed and what is not done, for otherwise there would seem to be an impossibility of the very idea of a cultural universal.

Nonetheless, with this presupposition, the very objectivity of that cultural universality would seem to empty itself into a subjective generalization made in defense of the cohesion necessary for social function. That is, the norms immediately turn into the empty rituals of institutional mechanisms of enforcement at the same time that the norms achieve only a subjective reality. For this very reason, the anthropologist and sociologist who see themselves as reasonable and empirical sacrifice the initial objective search for cultural universals, in order to initiate the objective search of institutional dynamics instead, reflective of an emphasis on exogenous normative enforcement. The institution, in this case, is the universal, or the cultural universal. But this is merely a sly act of moving the goalpost, for an institution is precisely predicated on the lack of universality—that is to say, its internal structure and function leeches off cultural particularities so that it may persist. This temporal persistence evidences a kind of universality, but it's not a universality of culture—it's a universality of both the technical and the social. It is also only a contingent universality, as not all institutions survive the test of time, and not all of them arose in some perennial fashion. In this way, any generalizability and thereby universality of an institution itself already rests on the aforementioned presupposition immanently operative within the given culture itself.

Kant and Bataille's Respective Solutions

How, then, does one make an objective case for cultural universality? By abandoning this very project of empirical objectivity. Here is where Kant and Bataille seem to have some agreement. When expounding on universality, in this case of culture (or a sort of descriptive ethics), there must be a formalistic approach—it cannot be merely empirical. Where Kant and Bataille would nonetheless disagree is that the former thinks this involves an objective process independent of empirical content or a normative process of confirmation built into the relevant propositions about culture (which renders it a priori while nonetheless synthetic), while the latter thinks the investigation of the form of culture or the community involves precisely an investigation into the structures of objective, external facts and observations to see what they say about subjectivity. Kant, in other words, sees the problem in terms of the conditions of possibility for thinking culture and community which one cannot get behind and which transcend all experience of culture and community, while Bataille sees this problem in terms of the possibility for culture and community evident in the structure produced and enacted by cultural and communal participants, and which constitute their external objective being. In other words, there is a methodical difference. Bataille, then, retreats precisely into the structure of the subjectivity which grounds the relations among the objective facts observed in culture, rather than to the objective features necessary to a subjective, epistemic access to culture and community (e.g., the properties of thoughts or propositions regarding some object—for example, culture or community—which render them intelligible and truth-functional). The result of Kant's method would be close to mere definition (whether analytic or synthetic), while the result of Bataille's method would be an exposition of the dynamics inherent to the production of culture. Bataille, in this sense, is more in line with Hegelianism (and Heideggerianism) than Kantianism, although he still breaks from all of these thinkers in that both Hegel and Heidegger still posit their own version of a transcendent (respectively, the teleological terminus or the ontological difference/gap).

To be fair, of course, Heidegger and Hegel's respective “transcendents” are a lot more ambiguous than Kant's insofar as they precisely either violate the dichotomies Kant constructs, or otherwise posit a functional binary that, in being ontological rather than epistemic, obliterates the problem of realism and epistemic access (or at the least, their relevance). Of course, it also may be somewhat unfair to depict Kant as blind to the subjectively enacted structure necessary to community. After all, insofar as his social/political philosophy, Kant seems to have an awareness of the impossibility of perfectly following the categorical imperative—particularly in public life—and seems to understand rather implicitly, as in his philosophy of religion, that there is a sort of assent to the community as such (the commitment to the existence of the community as a prerequisite to its flourishing) which is requisite for being bound to morality. In Kant's case, this community is idealized as religion, and the metaphysical notions within a religion are precisely of a practical import to the creation and sustenance of the community. That is to say, individual caprice can be subject to the ideal of duty-for-its-own-sake most optimally only when a means of rational discourse and deliberation is present, and this is present only when the notion of existent community is assented to without need of proof (when the idea that the most perfect and rational being exists is assented to as a matter of faith). This is why Kant's concept of faith plays an important role in his epistemology—without it, there would be a disunity between his epistemology and normative ethics. It's also a way of resolving the tension between Kant's notion of personal duty and the practical realization of the kingdom of ends in the public arena. For Kant, faith therefore doubles as social trust and assent without proof.

But this merely brings us back to the original problem. Rather than synthesize it, Kant's approach sustains the contradiction by consent to an illusion: the community or culture (or God) exists by means of its lack of existence. This may of course not be surprising given Kant thinks there are limits to reason (exemplified in his exposition of the antinomies of pure reason). Nonetheless its worth noting the inadequate attempt at tying the knot back together. The subjective provision for the objective lack of community/culture/God (via faith in the lack of this lack of community/culture/God) is done as a matter of moral necessity. Is it not clear in that case that, in the context of trying to resolve the problem of (descriptive) cultural universals, Kant would merely lapse back into the methodically confused investigation of the sociologists and anthropologists as previously explained? With practical reason, the divisions of a priori v. a posteriori, and synthetic v. analytic judgment break down. Given Kant's approach to morality, this breakdown is made invisible by the treatment of ethical claims as a priori synthetic claims insofar as they rely on a metaphysics—but the result of such a notion is precisely that ethical claims fail to fulfill their function, even by Kant's own standards, without faith deployed in metaphysics, which disregards the requirements of a priori synthetic (or scientific) claims.

This outcome, of course, does not so much prove Kant entirely wrong as it much more proves the limitations of his framing—namely, his understanding of universality. Of course, one can argue that Kant's notion of a priori synthetic truth precisely suggests some unity of normativity and evidentiality or justification that may be compatible with his notion of faith, as in that case propositional meaning and method of confirmation are in unity. This is simply not the case, however, as his notion of faith is precisely not about a provision of evidence or justification—it is disconnected from this epistemic concern, precisely so a priori synthetic claims have full force. Notice the structure of what occurs here: practical reason, which relies on a grounding scientific logic, must take an exception to its own grounding so that its pragmatic aspect remain intact. In other words, in parallel fashion Kant has landed back to moving the goalpost from the issue of normativity (the existence of descriptive cultural universals) to that of institutional dynamics (the action/reaction patterns of social actors and the role of institutional trust). Indeed, one is immediately reminded of the structure of Bataille's notion of the taboo (universality which subsumes its own exception).

For Bataille, the universal is not so much found in its global applicability as precisely in its particularity—it has a precise and particular relationship to the possibilities of experience as a whole, and this whole is not exhausted in it but, rather, must always pass through it. This universality is a universality of passage rather than a universality of ends. Thus, in Bataille's case the particular character of the exceptions to an otherwise universal is itself supremely important to whether the universal is indeed actually absent or obliterated. I.e., the passage may be the universal, but the beginning and the end of a passage have a diversity of relationships just as they do diverse relations with the passage. Yet in all cases the passage functions as some sort of condition for them. When one mentions the exceptions to a cultural universal it is necessary to look at the character of these exceptions to see if they precisely constitute that universality, or if they indeed contradict it. Contradicting a universal would mean to obliterate the passage, rather than to exit it by its blessings. In other words, the question is: is the purported exception necessary to that universality? How is it possible to discern this?

Bataille isn't clear, but throughout Erotism: Death & Sensuality there's a sentiment that any exception which finds its necessity in the universal or whose practice must be rationalized through the constraints of the universal is constitutive of that very universal. For example, when Bataille discusses the taboo on violence, this taboo is for him culturally universal, despite the fact that violence nonetheless exists in various cultures. But this violence nonetheless occurs always from the standpoint of this prohibition of violence—either the violence infects those who, in its enthrallment, are both threatened and aroused into their own explosion of violence for the sake of snuffing out the violence confronted and effectively stopping it in its tracks—even if at the danger of succumbing entirely to this very violence—or the violence is given a habitual and regulated procedure of enactment such that it must incorporate an antithetic movement towards the affirmation of the scandalous nature of that violence. Consequently, cultures are equally fascinated and disturbed by violence in particular ways precisely because it is universally prohibited. In sum, for Bataille, the universal could be seen as merely a particularity privileged as the frame of reference through which its negated contrasting possibility is structured. E.g., “non-violence” is privileged as the frame of reference through which the real and undeniable possibility of violence is engaged and made intelligible.

Evaluation of Kantian v. Bataillian Approaches to Universality

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Universality in the Categorical Imperative

Admittedly, Kant's discussion of the universality of normative ethics is being treated as transferable to a discussion of descriptive ethics (or, cultural universals), while Bataille's discussion of descriptive ethics (or, cultural universals) is being treated as transferable to a discussion of normative ethics. But in fact, insofar as the implications of the thesis of universalism is extremely similar whether applied in normative or descriptive ethics, I believe I am justified in making this seemingly asymmetric comparison/contrast. There is nonetheless a difference between normative and descriptive ethics, but this is precisely where the implications of, say, Bataille's views become interesting as they cross-pollinate with concerns in normative ethics, especially in the context of Kant. Famously, Kant's categorical imperative legislates the moral law on the basis of internal conceptual coherence of act in an imperative, provided its own conditions of effective possibility. That is to say, in the example of whether one should lie when a murderer is asking about the location of his victim, the condition for the effective possibility of telling a lie is that there is some standard of honesty as a frame of reference by which the lie can be made. But if one suppose everybody lied all the time, lying would be inherently impossible. Hence, it fails the test, and lying is no longer a moral option.

Relation between the Categorical and Hypothetical Imperative

While Kant disassociates this categorical imperative from the hypothetical imperative, given that its supposed to be unconditional, it is possible to analyze the categorical imperative in terms of the hypothetical imperative. After all, despite Kant's banishment of the passions as arbitrary sources of moral decision-making, it is necessary that Kant extract his purely rational ethical formalism through abstracting from these desires and passions, thereby entering into the cognitive mode of discourse by which rational deliberation is made upon desire, yet in spite of desire. But essentially what this means is simply to isolate reason from the material accidents which spur such passions and desires, and thereby to dilute any empirical content (the observation of the fact that we “feel” like doing something or “enjoy” doing it or otherwise) as source of justification for our actions from rational deliberation. This is so even if the undertaking of action must, after this, still find itself under the forces of the experiential world and confront them.

Hence, in the context of the hypothetical imperative, what Kant is essentially doing is subtracting the accidental character of the antecedent: “If I want eggnog, then I must go and buy it at the liquor store.” While there may be reason, material or otherwise, to mentally associate the given content of the consequent with the antecedent, the antecedent, despite its lack of dependence in this context (wherein it stands as independent variable in the conditional), is largely accidental. For the subject need not want eggnog. It could aim for any sort of thing. So, what Kant is trying to do is make this un-accidental by reducing the antecedent to its formal nature, susceptible to purely rational deliberation: “If I want X, then I must go and buy it at the liquor store.” While “want” gives a sense of passion and desire, it could be seen as a trivial expression for “aim”: “If I aim for X, then I must go and buy it at the liquor store.” The subject here has a variable aim whose value is, if analyzed simply in terms of the possibility of what may be aimed for, rationally discernible in terms of the weighing of logical possibilities.

The logical possibilities are already delimited by Kant's own valuation of the subject as, via rationality, a self-controlled and self-legislating, and thereby free, subject. They are also delimited precisely by the distillation given in his exposition of the forms of knowledge: this aim must be both a priori and universal. Indeed, also synthetic insofar as this aim is not already thought in any of these particular aims, even in combination. They may or may not be contradictory at any given time, but this would not tell us much about their decidability as this contradiction does not conceptually derive from these aims but is also contingent. Nonetheless, contradiction is another thing to avoid for a rationalist ethics, but what contradictions matter? Those that derive from application: practical rather than theoretical contradictions. Already, there is an attempted unification of universality with applicability—the practical expression of universality. The universal applicability of what, then? Of some action, as an action sums up an aim in its generality. If there is a contradictory result due to the universal application of that action undermining its very conditions of possibility, then it is categorically prohibited (it contributes to a negative maxim). That, in sum, is how the categorical imperative works to allow for universal maxims.

In this way, the given aim—the categorical imperative, or its allowable maxims, or their contrapositives—can be inserted for any other aim into the hypothetical imperative, albeit consequently disbanding a subset of possible aims by also covertly restricting the consequent. In fact, the consequent is largely irrelevant except in this act of restraint on possible ends. Notice that the consequent takes the role of a means by which the antecedent is achieved, and likewise acts as the causal/logical outcome of the antecedent. In other words, the means by which one abides by the maxims allowed for by the categorical imperative (as well as more unsurprisingly, the material consequences) are irrelevant. The means, through their irrelevance, are an indirect way through which to restrict achievement of the aims to those means which precisely abide by the aims, for their sake. The relationship between the means and the aim here seems reciprocal initially, but they are not—the means is subordinated to the end, not in the sense that any means will do provided the end but that any means will do provided it is consistent with the kingdom of ends (which means a lot of both means and possible ends are off the table).

They are asymmetric simply because of the very functional difference between the antecedent and consequent clause of a conditional: in completely abstracting and formalizing the antecedent, what is being done is a movement whereby the consequent, whose conceivable content is dependent on the content of the antecedent, plays no content-based role in relation to the antecedent yet remains formally restricted by that antecedent. The loss of the consequent's material-practical meaningfulness leads to action being disconnected from both those conditions necessary to act (means) and those effects or ends which may or may not affect the presence of such necessary conditions (of such means). That is, in privileging and prioritizing rationality, Kant subtracts those concrete conditions and constituents of basic agency. While he attaches those concrete conditions and constituents back post-facto, they have been so abstracted in the service of rationality that it comes at the cost of the exercise of actual, concrete agency as well as at the cost of practical plausibility. The issue, then, is that the categorical imperative restricts the moral possibilities far more than is rationally necessary (e.g., the categorical imperative would seem to restrict a person from killing another person trying to kill them¹), but also does the opposite in opening the possible moral maxims far more than is rationally necessary (e.g., the categorical imperative cannot decide between a maxim of self-defense v. that of pacifism—even as it restricts a person from killing another person trying to kill them, which is too particular to generalize into a restriction on self-defense!).

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Issues with the Categorical Imperative

First, in applying a criterion of coherently, logically possible universal applicability to the aim or end alone, it assumes that the resultant incoherence of a universal case is somehow transferable to the actual particular case such that a value judgment can follow directly from it. In sum, it assumes that value judgments are transferable across universal and particular cases. There is simply no reason to assume this even with Kant's rationalist approach. Notice that in explaining Kant's categorical imperative and the reasoning behind it, at no point is the connection made between abstract maxims derived from a hypothetical case of universalization, and the world of causality and concrete determination. Even if we treat autonomous actors as ends-in-themselves, this does not mean non-universalizeable actions violate this treatment given that non-universalizeable actions can in fact protect the necessary conditions for other people's exercise of their autonomy (such as, say, personally choosing or allowing someone else to choose to have homosexual sex instead of heterosexual sex²), or may involve a dilemma in which two actor's autonomies' are mutually exclusive.

The perfect [Kantian] example of the latter is whether one should lie to a killer about the whereabouts of their victim—Kant says one shouldn't lie, but clearly the victim would then lack treatment as an end-in-themselves, making one's lying or not lying effectively a trade between violations of the categorical imperative. Of course, Kant's abstracted notion of moral agency allows it so that this can be true, but nonetheless not affect the morality of our action let alone our blameworthiness. Yet this abstracted notion of moral agency is problematic precisely because it deflates blameworthiness to the moral value of one's action. There is a strong disconnect, in other words, between Kant's notion of free will (will formed by rational reflection, which anchors the morality of action) and “will” as an object of causal necessity (the will as something one can be more or less responsible for given degree of personal contribution and how this is to be meted out given the relationship between moral causes and moral effects). While it is certainly true that Kant cleverly tries to dissolve the is-ought issue by rendering “oughts” a consequence of a rationally self-reflective “is” within the chain of causation, he messes this attempt at reconciliation up majorly by failing to adequately recontextualize moral agency—after all, this rational self-reflective mind must find a rational connection between maxims and laws of nature at some level and this connection cannot but be instrumental in nature. Yet the direction of this instrumentality is not clear: maxims being useful to nature, or nature being useful for maxims.

In addition, even if we take that autonomous activity which is an end-in-itself as precisely characterized by sticking to the categorical imperative rather than the mere possibility of doing so, it would then not be autonomy in Kant's sense. If non-universalizeable actions or maxims a priori negate the presence of autonomy then Kant has betrayed his own notion of autonomy, in which freedom is expressed through self-legislation. If it is required that one decide not to kill oneself, for example, so that autonomy is to have been exercised, then it would seem respect of the moral law supersedes the mere possibility, plausiblity or likelihood of respecting that moral law when it comes to evaluating the presence or lack thereof of autonomy. This would seem to suggest that anybody who is ignorant of what the objective maxims are even as they act out of duty, while nonetheless following or violating whatever the true maxims are, lacks autonomy even if they have been effectively self-legislating. Again, this would be bizarre, even if it would be consistent with his condemnations of suicide, given another of Kant's objections to lying is that it withdraws others' ability to exercise autonomy in their decisions (suggesting that it is the possibility to act out of duty that makes autonomy what it is, rather than conformism to the moral law). It seems there is ambiguity whether respecting one's own autonomy and that of others requires allowing them space to self-legislate, or requires self-legislating the correct moral law and following it. This connects to aforementioned quibbles: this bizarre take on autonomy comes from a disconnect between agency and blameworthiness in Kant—or, the way causality is rendered irrelevant to the exercise of moral agency.

Further, even if we assume that, while non-universalizable action does not necessarily violate treating autonomous actors as ends-in-themselves, it is still immoral based on the categorical imperative, the fact that that which is tested for universal applicability is one's aim (whether understood as action or translated as maxim) is actually entirely arbitrary on the part of Kant. Testing one's aim for coherently, logically possible universal applicability is testing just one aspect of action—thinking that actions can be morally evaluated in a way intrinsic to those actions, which is also to say in terms of good will, does not necessitate they be evaluated only as (logically possible) ends. Kant's emphasis on rationality and intrinsic value in ethics does not require framing actions as ends, insofar as actions are always constituted by an instrumental relation. An action may have its intrinsic value due to its uniqueness as a means among other means. Even further, it seems this universalizability test is merely a moral heuristic and not strictly a rational affair: for example, that effective lying universalized is in tension with its presupposition of a frame of reference of expected honesty and the presence of truth, does not make the outcome incoherent. It is enough for there to be a mere possibility of truth for lying to likewise be logically possible, and so a case of universal effective lying has nothing incoherent about it. It is not even a performative contradiction. It would be like saying that universal darkness is impossible because darkness assumes a frame of reference where one could conceive of the presence of light, when it is in fact enough that light itself be a possibility regardless of conceivability. The fallacy is just less obvious because we're dealing in the “ought” realm.

A Bataillian Take on Universal Imperatives

The real concern here, again, would have to do with the conditions of possibility for lying. Once that is realized, however, the categorical imperative ceases to make much sense—the test of universal applicability doesn't really tell us about the conditions of possibility for lying, besides that condition in which honesty must be a logical possibility as well, at the very least. What's of real relevance, then, are the material conditions under which lying could obtain, but even more the conditions, rational or otherwise, where it would or should obtain. Simply thinking of the conditions under which it could not logically obtain leaves us empty-handed as to its value under any and all possible sets of conditions. If indeed it could not obtain without a frame of reference of actually expected honesty and actually-occurring frequent honesty, as well as the existence of truth, then this is merely a factual case of implausibility (or in the case of an absence of truth, impossibility), wherein the implausibility or impossibility is through some sort of moral alchemy transformed into a value judgment that transfers over cases where it is in fact plausible or possible.

First of all, why is universalized lying's implausibility or impossibility married to lying being bad? If its to do with the notion of a rationalist ethics (a way of avoiding performative contradiction), then it is the resultant irrationality of the universalized act that is immoral (the irrationality of the act is already contingent on conditions of omnipresence), and not the act itself. Bringing up respect for autonomy here as a defense doesn't exactly help as it merely raises objections already made previously. Especially given that autonomy nonetheless assumes a capacity for rational, and thereby universal, moral judgment (predicated on this very logic!)—and given that it is this capacity which requires we treat others as equally capable legislators of morality (i.e., that we respect their autonomy!). Further, would not a universal morality require that the goodness or badness of an act obtain regardless of whether everyone was or was not doing it? Would not a proper universal end be indifferent to conditions, even ones based on conceivable universalizeability? In which case, what relevance would “badness” (or incoherence) in a scenario where the act is implausibile/impossible have when it comes to demonstrating the possibility of universal morality, as opposed to simply the moral value of that which is universalized once it is universalized? If rationality were what were key it would seem that an autonomous agent would have to admit to being lost precisely in the seeming accident of aims and the concreteness of causal relations, and thereby in the practical relevance of instrumental relationships. There is no need to be a consequentialist to realize that our ends only gain any discreteness as a result of the properties of the very objects of our aims—their bounds, their relations, their structure (topology), their causality, their contingency. Hence, our aims are never isolated, but collide and intercourse with each other, in ways not merely accidentally related to the aforementioned external factors (e.g., bounds, relations, et al). If universally true moral claims must be synthetic, it would be a testament to this fact. As was noted earlier, there must be a connection, likely instrumental, between the rationalist intrinsic value revealed under pure contemplation and the mundane practical world ruled by regularities, causality and physical laws.

Kant here is simply performing the move of the exception yet again to get out of this rut, as this is precisely what gives the enactment of his morality an aura of impossibility, and thus of absurd harshness of moral judgment—that  is why Kant's political-legal-juridical notions seem at times far removed from his normative ethics (e.g., Kant was in favor of the death penalty). Bataille allows us, with his own notion of universality, to think this very exception Kant performs back into Kant, as woven more directly into a synthesis of his philosophy. Not only does a universal ethic allow for lower-order precepts, actions, or granular moral valuations which cannot be universalized in the way Kant wishes but may still hold correct in lieu of the highest-order universal precept, action, or value—and thus already accounts for exceptions to ethical judgment that apply universally—but the universality of one's aim is largely irrelevant the possibility of universal morality. A universal ethic could not be universal because it is applied to an object thought of as, or which actually is, universal—this is Kant's mistake. Rather, ethics could be universal only if action, as an object or end, which it would hold as its object, is rendered irrelevant. If it were otherwise, and actions are analyzed purely in their character and logical consequence as ends-to-themselves, the problem of actualizing the good rears its head: in such a case no action could be addressed in terms of some subordinate relation to another action.

It may seem as if Kant is privy to this, but arguably its quite the opposite—he rails against any particular, empirically filthy aims determining the moral law, but only to take the rational form of the aim as such and extrapolate an aim from it, however abstract (e.g., the following “maxim”), which all are subject to. This is precisely why for Kant it is not enough to simply conform to the maxim—it must have been one's deliberate aim, i.e. it must be that one acted out of duty. Thus he still technically holds to the relevance of the aim, and thus of the universality of the object of moral judgment, as relevant to the establishment or demonstration of a universal normative ethic.

Bataille seems closer to a more accurate view of both culture universals and, by analogy, ethical universalism. Contrary to Kant, the universality of a moral “law”—under a universality holding a similar structure to Bataille's taboo—holds by virtue of a particular relation this law has to “the whole.” That is, a relation such that any action, maxim, etc., passes through it even if it is not exhausted by it. Hence, under a Bataillian normative ethics, exceptions do not count against the universality of the moral law insofar as they precisely constitute the conditions of possibility for the binding nature of the moral law. This take, therefore, sees the universal moral law as, while applied by individuals, only rendered possible at the societal systemic level, via institutions insofar as institutions provide the medium through which exceptions to the moral law are incorporated or taken into account by individuals. Thus, in this case the individual subject's ethical position on what comprises the moral law also immediately forces always a confrontation with the whole of society, requiring the enactment of that moral law's ownmost exception insofar as the subject's position is a reflection of the impossibility of the law's fulfillment within that society. That is, the moral law, whatever it may be, even if it should be followed by everyone at all times, is nonetheless regrettably capable of challenge if done as a testimony to the societal impossibility of this moral law and done in the spirit of this law. Further, Bataille himself points us to an alternative to this “legislative” view of morality. Principles of morality emerge from networks of desire and their material basis (e.g., material constraints).


  1. Killing is non-universalizable. After all, お前はもう死んでいる (何?!)—that is, you would already be dead—and dead people can't kill. There is no way for people to truly equally kill each other at the same time.
  2. Homosexuality is non-universalizable. If all parents could have engaged in it, as well as all presently existing people, there would be no presently existing people to engage in it, and generations prior to those parents would render the parents non-existent as well, and so on. Of course, it may be questioned whether Kant's test should be applied diachronically as well as synchronically. Even conceding that Kant may restrict his universalizability test to be synchronic, it's clear that introducing synchronic universalization presents a problem for the question of autonomy and treating people as ends-in-themselves in Kantianism, and that this is related to the problematic nature of the assumption that value judgments are transferable across universal and particular cases. It would seem that introducing a temporal dimension into a rationalistic ethics breaks down Kantian deontology. The relevance of this (i.e., why this should be considered a flaw) is elaborated in the rest of the essay, albeit in the terms of causality more specifically rather than temporality more generally.

The previous Bataille post gave a preliminary definition of continuity, and thereby discontinuity, thusly: that which is united with or towards the start of a continuum with nature or inanimate matter, and discontinuity that which is disunited with or at the tail end of a continuum with nature or inanimate matter. Dictionary-wise, continuity is said to refer to a continuous and intra-connected whole, or otherwise an immediate connection or spatial/temporal relationship. Discontinuity would reasonably be the negation of all of these. Both of these notions seem consistent with Bataille's own use. The latter more dictionary-based definitions are certainly fundamental to what Bataille may mean, as he speaks of course of the internal withdrawal of the organism “into itself” in such a way as to have a sense of breaking away from the environment (Bataille 1986, 99-100).

In other words, of assuming a degree of independence from the environment, insofar as, even if its initial environment sets the conditions for its own survival, its activity and behavior can extract itself from the context and consideration of environment. In extreme cases this would be observed in the autocidal acts of animals (I say “autocidal” so as to differentiate it from “suicidal,” the latter of which seems to require a deeper existential awareness found in consciousness), but milder cases simply involve the movement of animals into habitats which promote the precarity and struggle of the given animal, voluntary or otherwise. This is clearly visible in the urban environment, though over time inevitably promoting adaptation. Put simply, the organism has an agency insofar as it can disregard its initial environmental conditions of existence or causes of birth by virtue of its fuel (internal energic dynamic). Consequently, the sense of continuity v. discontinuity here seems to be predicated on an understanding of space and time as environments rather than mere physical aspects of existence. This means there can be a variation of habitat, regardless of “natural” habitat, for an organism.

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The habitat, in this case, is the entire system of materials and their interrelated processes useful to the production/reproduction of an organism's state. By an organism's state is meant any particular internal configuration of materials at any given moment in time, or any fixed rate or frequency of some internal process. Thus, an independence from environment refers not to the ability to act and move with no environment whatsoever, but the undermining of a habitat's own self-selection for the organism—the organism can now select its own habitat and is not bound to it, even as this habitat precisely determines the organism's state. The degree, then, to which an organism has the intelligence to organize and adapt its own habitat correlates with the degree to which the organism is “discontinuous.”

Given that Bataille also speaks of humanity's particular degree of environmental independence as the “self-negation of animality,” or the negation of nature, continuity and discontinuity, as stated before, refers to the degree of separateness from “nature” in Bataille's own philosophy. But Bataille never really cares to give his readers a fixed notion of nature—in fact, the point of the dialectical language of negation Bataille uses is that nature is only determinate in relation to something else which posits itself as external to it. In this way its inaccurate to say that the discontinuous organism is discontinuous in light of its independence from nature, or its unnatural autonomy, as its autonomy precisely arises in and is constitutive of nature in one sense. For purposes of clarity, the aforementioned notion of “independence from environment” or degree of possible variability in habitat makes much more sense.

Another possibility is to, of course, semantically inflate what Bataille means by continuity v. discontinuity. For example, given that Bataille ascribes “inner experience” to particles, it is reasonable to suspect that Bataille's notions of continuity and discontinuity refer to the relative distance an entity has from some sort of monistic, unconscious whole with no self, or sense of self (Ibid). This whole, not having self, and seeming to also precisely consists in this surplus of individualities—in multiplicity—would seem also to have a superficial similarity to the Deleuzian-Spinozan univocity of Being. Nonetheless, it is safer here to be minimalist than presumptuous—it will be asserted, as cautionary tale, that Bataille may not assent to this interpretation even if readers may want to do so.


  • Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death & Sensuality. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights, 1986. Print.

Bataille notes (Bataille 1986, 84):

As soon as human beings give rein to animal nature in some way we enter the world of transgression forming the synthesis between animal nature and humanity through the persistence of the taboo; we enter a sacred world, a world of holy things.

Preceding this passage is of course a discussion of the apotheosis of animality as a function of the self-negation of the human. One would take to task the notion that hominization can be described in terms of a process of immanent negativity, in particular if this notion of “negativity” has a rationalistic kernel. Luckily, however, Bataille is being a good phenomenologist, and is merely being descriptive—the thesis here isn't so much about the ontological status of dialectics as it is whether at some point and at some level the act under consideration can be at least analogically seen in terms of a process of immanent negativity. The notion of technosociality should already clarify that the worldhood of the organism does not require negation, let alone initial consciousness, to arise given the Heideggerian bimodality of Being.

What's to be said then is that what Bataille describes here is a contingency of evolution—or a necessity of history (linguistic & visual documentation of time) only retroactively given due to that very possibility of rational necessity through which temporality is brought into notional identity. This persistent production and maintenance of self-identity is what constitutes historical or retrospective necessity. It is a necessary condition of retrodiction. Bataille may in fact be consistent with these ideas, since he earlier at least spoke of the taboo being the condition for the possibility of either rationality or non-rationality themselves (Bataille 1986, 63).

Escaping Bataille's Anthropocentric Conception of Hominization

That being said, Bataille's description is rather anthropocentric given the talk of self-negation. If the taboo sincerely arises—with society—from the tool, then, again, it is perhaps only fair to think that the difference between humans and other animals is primarily a matter of the scope of the tool (hence a spectrum of animality). In which case, a lot of what Bataille initially described as the difference between alter-animal and human sexuality is really a neurophysiological distinction between a neural system with complex modulation and a neural system with less complex modulation. For example, the possession of a neocortex already allows for rather sophisticated modulation of neural signals, manifest in a higher capacity for inhibition (a distance/disconnect between a neural impulse and its behavioral “command”). Another accompanying characteristic is then the degree of functional integration of ganglia. More abstractly, the difference between the alter-animal and the human is really just the difference between any organism and general basic animality as such. The functional specification of animality on basis of morphology & anatomy in the animal organism produces its technical scope and thereby its societal possibilities.

As a side-note, Bataille himself does not wish to be anthropocentric, it seems, as he thinks that “the transition from existence in-itself to existence for-itself cannot be assigned exclusively to complex creatures or mankind” and that “even an inert particle, [...], seem to have this existence for-itself, though I prefer the words inside or inner experience” (Bataille 1986, 99). Bataille attempts to disassociate himself from panpsychism by posing a distinction between feeling of self and consciousness of self, wherein the former involves a necessary spectrum of variation by which the self concerned is an immediate sensuous experience of withdrawal from continuity and into discontinuity relative to environment, “greater or less according to the facilities available for objective discontinuity in inverse ratio to those available for continuity” (Bataille 1986, 99-100). Nonetheless, given technosociality, it doesn't make sense in that case to limit both society and taboo to the human as self-conscious being, as if the self, conscious or not, were possible without some degree of “transcendent” prohibition arising from worldhood & withdrawal into discontinuity originating in and reaffirming the tool. And it is in this respect that Bataille is still too anthropocentric.

On the other hand, it may be appropriate to be wary of a misguided cosmism and panpsychism, as it's not clear where the spectrum ends, and whether this spectrum may merely hide diverse intersections of heterogeneous elements or qualities of “inner experiences” that allow us to talk about qualitative breaks between the inner experience of different sorts of organisms let alone things (if we were to even qualitatively include them). For now this is nonetheless fine.

To get back on track, this “synthesis” of animality and humanity is said to not be a return to animality—for good reason because, especially in light of what has been noted about the gap between alter-animality & humanity, this gap now precisely constitutes the initial conditions of engagement. As Bataille puts it, “the human world, shaped by a denial of animality or nature, denying itself, [reaches] beyond itself in this second denial [the denial of the sort of humanity produced by the denial of nature], though not returning to what it had rejected in the first place [not returning to nature or animality simpliciter but to animality or nature as mediated by divinity or the apotheosis or sanctity of nature and the animal]” (Bataille 1986, 85). Put in analogue terms, there is no symmetrical reversal of the arrival of the neocortex, though there is the possibility of relative disinhibition of the cerebellum once the neocortex is there. The qualitative difference is then that, with the default suppression of the impulses (analogous to the taboo), the return to animality—as exception—must be understood predominantly from the perspective of the default position, by which its initiation is pre-empted and its performance is, in advance, subsumed. That default perspective that the exception must be accountable to reflects why the taboo or inhibition can persist even in its trespass in the form of the transgression, and it is this which turns sexuality into eroticism. Similarly, one may speculate that it is this which also turns alter-animal hostility into human cruelty (Bataille 1986, 79-80). One begins to understand by now the unified nature of Bataille's Erotism: Death & Sensuality.

bornofshit

Excess as Uniting Life & Death in Reproduction, and the Ontogeny of Desire in the Organism

Further testament to the unity of Bataille's ideas here is chapter nine of Erotism: Death & Sensuality, wherein he elaborates on two main ideas in previous chapters: violence as the excess of urge or impulse [possibility?] (more generally as that excess conceptualized as the displacement of stability) indigenous to both death and life—by way of this same thing yet expressed in the process of the instinct of survival which knows no temporal limit to survival but which evermore invites this limit as it outspends its defenses or is offensively out-spended. Also that same thing expressed in the expansion & continual development of this life through the full appropriation of the environment which also evermore invites a transcendence of the very metabolism which fundamentally determines the possibility of living. The organism, so to speak, experiences violence from below (the threat of outspending itself in its own immanent struggle against dead matter) as from above (the production of predators and pathogens).

In chapter nine, the implications of the cosmos, or even just some total quantity of possible edible nutrition, containing more energy than can be fully used to maintain or sustain a particular, homogeneous, static organism composed of particular metabolic materials and still in contact with that full energic environment (which leads to the organism deciding how to spend this extra energy) are followed through; they are also combined with the previously noted elaborations. Such implications are:

  • That reproduction is merely another form of biological growth: The very persistence of a multicellular, sexually reproductive organism is the result of the scissiparity of its unicellular units, in which the growth of a single cell anticipates its own cessation into two distinct cells as well as the cessation of other cells by means other than asexual reproduction (e.g., the replacement of dead upper epidermal cells with new cells consequent of asexual reproduction [due to growth of other cells]). Note that division, if leading to relatively successful life, generally occurs when the initial cell subject to reproduction already has an excess of materials (an excess in that it does not need it for basic function). But this excess is precisely a consequence of an excess ingestion and/or production of cell material—it no longer is useful to proper functioning of the single cell as the rate of ingestion diverges from the cellular metabolic rate, or it may be harmful to proper functioning of the cell as cellular metabolic rate diverges from the rate of ingestion (there are too many organelles, &c, relative to what the cell can actually get from its local environment). The solution is to adjust these rates—various methods abound for doing this, such as directly re-adjusting catabolism or anabolism through alteration of gene expression, but for the most part apoptosis, cell death from toxicity, or asexual reproduction.
  • That, as another form of biological growth, reproduction occurs at a cleavage point between death and birth: For example, reproduction occurs at the cleavage point between the death of the previous cell as its singular self and the birth of the plurality of cells consequent of this death, especially given that the daughter cells have a relative independence from each other, such that their conditions of activity are not exactly the same as the parent cell.
  • That the parent cells die and the daughter cells are born in asexual reproduction: Given the new cells can be regarded as their own distinct agents relative to the parent cell, there is no longer any unitary agency synonymous with that of the initial parent cell after the process of asexual reproduction. It is no exaggeration, then, to say that the parent cell goes through death in this process in that it ceases to exist as an agent. Bataille speaks of it in terms of the growth phases of the cell: “The violence of agitation which at first takes place within the being's [cell's] continuity calls forth a violence of separation from which discontinuity proceeds” (Bataille 1986, 96). It is the same as if you had successfully cloned and fully replaced your hand—the hand left-over, dead or otherwise, is not “your” hand any longer, as it has a relative dependency from the hegemonic sense of agency characterizing the body as a whole. There is in asexual reproduction then both the disappearance of the individual, the multiplicity of individualities, and the persistence of the whole as the dynamic and movement of growth. “Immortality is wrongly ascribed to dividing cells” (Bataille 1986, 97). Growth can eventually mean creative self-death once it is unsustainable.
  • That death is fatal to individual discontinuity and only that which is discontinuous dies, revealing a “deeper” continuity, while birth is the arrival of discontinuity, concealing “deeper” continuity, and only that which is continuous is born: This is roughly self-explanatory, though there is much interpretation that can be made regarding what Bataille means by “discontinuity” and “continuity.” In a preliminary fashion its best to take these to mean, respectively, separateness from the rest of non-living nature and unity with the rest of non-living nature (with all the previous caveats to protect against anthropocentrism, of course).
  • That all the aforementioned is true of sexual reproduction, or reproduction at the organismal rather than cellular scale, as well, the difference being that reproduction at the organismal scale does not imply a sudden and radical break from discontinuity: As Bataille notes, multicellular organisms stay alive for a further extended period of time contemporaneous with the birthed organisms consequent of their sexual reproduction, and otherwise at death nonetheless leave traces of life (either dead matter with the morphology or anatomy of its living version or the dispersal and functional separation of unicellular and tissue life) (Ibid). “Death follows reproduction with sexual beings too, at a distance if not immediately” (Bataillw 1986, 101). Bataille treats this as a necessity, as “only stagnation ensures that creatures shall preserve their discontinuity, their isolation, that is” (Ibid).
  • That another relevant difference between sexual & asexual reproduction is that sexual reproduction is precipitated by unification of the living beings: The gametes first unite as a whole prior to division. As Bataille puts it, “lost continuity can be found again” before it is again torn asunder (Bataille 1986, 98). This intermingling of distinct meiotic processes mirrors the intermingling of sexual difference at the organismal scale, which “[stimulates] this undefined sense of continuity due to similarity of race while at the same time betraying it [i.e., betraying this similarity of race] and making it hurtful” (Bataille 1986, 99). The sexual difference, in other words, both establishes the hope for the possibility of continuity in a way that maintains life and, in that very role, reveals the sense of discontinuity native to life itself. This unification of the living beings symbolized in the penetrative act is a rendezvous of interpersonal violences—an explosion of impulsive energy and vital abundance internal to each sexual participant that threatens each sexual participant be torn asunder into continuity by the infectious violence of the other (Bataille 1986, 102-103). This opens all involved creatures to the precipice of continuity, but exhausts itself short of death in the orgasm, the little death.
  • That the chasm between continuity & discontinuity is the mainspring of pleasure (Bataille 1986, 105): For Bataille, this tug of war between continuity and discontinuity is the fountain of desire, and thereby the condition of possibility for pleasure. At the same time, the violence necessary within this tug of war is itself interpreted as a threat or as a hostile element arousing disgust, fear, panic, etc., at the receiving end, or hostility, guilt, shame, etc. at the perpetrating end, consequent of this violence being unleashed under a deliberate recognition, directly or indirectly conscious, of the general taboo against violence, in this case against sex. Bataille continually analogizes the physiological, gross reactions to death, mutilation, & decomposition with those physiological, gross reactions to sexual stimulation, in order to demonstrate an objective unity that also conditions the possibilities (namely the possible objects) of both pleasure and pain. That is, in order to show the shared objective constitution of sex and death for the sensuous body, whose corresponding shared inner experience is violent (bodily convulsions, gagging, black-outs and faintness or mental fog, nervous hyperactivity, loss of self, state of heightened physiological arousal).

One could of course go on to discuss the problematic, vague and unclear concepts of continuity v. discontinuity in Bataille, especially in light of Bataille's claim that, not only is continuity deeper than discontinuity, but discontinuity itself is illusory (a far more daring ontological claim). For the time being, since its been a while since posting and a lot of material was read in the mean-time, its sufficient to leave this here as a summation of what Bataille has said so far. Subsequent posts may tackle this issue of continuity v. discontinuity in much more detail.


  • Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death & Sensuality. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights, 1986. Print.

While reading Chapters I & II of Georges Bataille’s “Erotism: Death and Sensuality,” it was rather fascinating how much of the material overlapped quite well with the kind of challenge I’ve been trying to make against a memetic theory of cultural evolution. In particular, Bataille seems to at least implicitly share the notion that the subjective experience as, needless to be said, we know it was birthed in tandem with the arrival of the tool. First, I will give my exposition of the framework I came in with when I began reading “Erotism,” and then I will describe how Bataille’s own position may relate to my own.

The Technosocial Model

In my case, I treated the capacity to craft tools as the basis upon which something such as “society,” or the social, is possible. At the same time, this thought required the intimate initial linking of the institution of religion and the method of superstition with the very existence of society itself, for if it were the case that tools acted as the ground upon which social life was possible, this would only be due to the requisite faculties required for deliberate or on-going tool-making, namely representational thought, self-externalization and structured activity/process. These are the same exact elements which make society possible, for in such a case the activity and process of the organism itself is able to self-regulate by drawing some foreseeable connection between elements of the environment, and not simply that, but is able to represent this connection or relation to itself. This it can only do if it can be at a distance from itself, because the representation of the connection between environmental variables for the organism can only be possible if it already assumes a position extracted from the object of its process and activity, which necessarily involves its own behavior. Society can be nothing but this representation of environment. The idea of a complete and full, substantial and self-identical objective being from which the organism arises and into which it dissolves is a movement perceptible to the organism in terms of the arising and dissolution of its own representations.

Though it is otherwise perceptible in an entirely different way, or mode of thinking, it is in this mode that the behavior of an organism can be perceived for it in the character of a modus operandi rather than a modus esse. It is important to highlight the word “can” here, for it is not the case that this mere (self-)representation—which becomes the ceded anchor for the structuring of the organism’s process and activity—is sufficient for the actual recognition of the distinction between modus operandi and modus esse. The recognition of such distinction between modus operandi and modus esse is merely latent in this capacity. And yet, the latent recognition of this distinction is not necessary for society to already be actual. The very act of representation of self (as behavioral body) and environment ironically serves initially to naturalize the modus operandi of the organism. This is because, as requiring self-externalization, the consequent self-representation is also committed externally by objects and therefire is “latched onto” external objectivity. This entire exposition already describes the base of society, or social life, in its most primitive form.

It should be clear, given this explanation, why religious institution and society could be regarded, initially, as the same thing: this objective self-representation is the birth of mythology, and mythology expresses the ordering of behavior, not just for the given organism, but all organisms which share in both this representative capacity and the given representational act. In fact, myth served as both the historical basis of religious discourse and the primary source of culture throughout the initial development of society. The undoing of their links owes itself to this very fact, as this undoing was an internal movement within each of them. If one returns to the tool, it would seem then that the tool is the very mainspring of the social-cultural-mythical, and that tool-making is at the same time society-making.

Note this does not suppose a representational model of the mind, let alone of epistemic access to the world; in fact, this representational thought is just a narrow aspect of mental life, precisely in being a development of evolutionary forces, symbolic of the environment of the given organism. And as such a narrow aspect, it express itself in an activity which seems species-specific, whether as a matter of degree or kind: tool-making. I call this the technosocial model of cultural evolution. Perhaps it has already existed by a different name, but that might just require I read more anthropology, cultural sociology and religious studies so that I can give proper credit to the pre-existing theory.

That irrespective, in a sense one can say about society that it is, as Stirner would say, a phantasm. Yet it has been a very useful one for not only one’s own endeavors, but also, to one’s dismay, for others’. As a tool it has managed to structure activity in such a way that it eventually allows for concepts of productive efficiency and calculation, and gives such structuring a compelling cosmic justification.

That being said, Bataille goes beyond this, but whether the direction he takes is fruitful is something I’m not sure of yet.

What is the Relationship between Taboo and Technology?

It seems clear that there’s agreement about the centrality of the tool to society and social life, for Bataille holds that “the community is made up of those whom the common effort unites, cut off from violence by work during the hours devoted to work” while linking the existence of such work (defined as labor united with rationality) with the capacity for tool-making (Bataille 1986, 47-48, 44-45). Yet, there seems to be no such agreement as to the origins of society, mythology, religiosity—Bataille would seem to be of the opinion that, rather than such things arising from the tool—or vice versa—both the tool and society arose together from the common origin of the taboo (Bataille 1986, 38):

Without the existence of prohibitions in the first place, man would not have achieved the lucid and distinct awareness on which science is founded. Prohibitions eliminate violence, and our violent impulses [...] destroy within us that calm ordering of ideas without which human awareness is inconceivable.

It doesn’t seem all that clear, however, that the ordering of ideas itself relies on a kind of initial, grounding prohibition. It would seem that the given ordering of ideas—to the extent that ideas are themselves reliant on a mode of being that grasps the environment as a set of distinctive entities—is a consequence of those relations relevant to the particular world brought to light in that “readiness-at-hand” aspect within which that organism exists. That is to say, the as-structure (the *being-as-something* such as being-as-itself) of the organism and its environment is what determines the scope of possibly relevant relationships for the organism.

Nonetheless, it is indeed the case that a structured activity and process—a particular order or pattern—would be ineffectual in a case of raging and constantly competing impulses. It is necessary that some overwhelming and unilateral friction be produced, even if amongst them, so that stability and relative unity is achieved. It is possible that the “prohibition” Bataille speaks of is really just this friction of instincts. But it does not seem obvious why any unilateral friction should hold amongst impulses. So insofar as Bataille’s “prohibition” suggests more than this friction, the clues may be in Bataille’s use of the word “disequilibrium” to describe something which sounds awfully Heideggerian (Bataille 1986, 31): “I regarded eroticism as the disequilibrium in which the being consciously calls his own existence into question.” Earlier on he stated (Bataille 1986, 29): “Animal sexuality does make for disequilibrium and this disequilibrium is a threat to life, but the animal does not know that.” These two quotes taken together suggests that eroticism for Bataille involves, not just a kind of sexuality-beyond-sexuality (and thereby a question of desire), but an awareness of the disequilibrium implied by this sexuality, or the disequilibrium intrinsic to such desire. This would seem to suggest that there is some sort of fundamental disequilibrium organisms—if not the cosmos—partake in.

Nonetheless, Bataille so far does not characterize this disequilibrium in any more detail. It would seem key to the question of a unilateral friction of impulses.

To return to topic, however, the prohibition would have to have the character, in that case, of something which does not merely suppress impulses, but reconfigures them, and which commits such reconfiguration from within the organism’s ownmost possibilities (thereby definite ideas and ideational structure) as earlier specified. But in the case of the social animal, the horizon of this possibility, concretely expressed, is precisely the technological, since the tool is the space within which to alter possibility. The technological requires a sensitivity to time. In this way, the tool becomes the medium of desire.

This solves a problem Bataille runs into (though he does not frame it as a problem): “If we were unable to repress these impulses we should not be able to work, but work introduces the very reason for repressing them” (Bataille 1986, 41). This brings up a sort of chicken-or-egg question in regards to the ability to work—does the prohibition arise as a consequence of work, or does work arise as a consequence of prohibition? Insofar as Bataille speaks of disparate communities as distinct “unities” of work, this challenges the notion of technology and social life arising from the common origin of the taboo (Bataille 1986, 47-48). It would seem reasonable to answer the chicken-or-egg question posed by positing the tool as the common origin between prohibition and work. In fact, this would make Bataille’s attempt to tie in work with social life a bit easier, as, with the tool of common origin, it becomes immediately apparent that just as the tool becomes important for the life of the organism, so too does the organism’s work gain importance in its social life. In the production of society through the tool, society is rendered one’s own tool through gesturing one’s own activity as tool within society. The prohibition, or taboo, then, is merely the expression of this last move. It would also help Bataille’s explanation of the taboo of death, as it is easy to bring temporal perception into the picture.

It is important to note, however, that this sort of response is incomplete without an account of the unilateral friction of impulse, which is an issue this post digressed into momentarily. The tool may allow for and produce both prohibition and society, but how is it that either is possible at all, i.e. in a general sense? I believe, again, this question ties back to the notions of equilibrium/disequilibrium, perhaps by way of the further notions of difference, relation, appropriation and identity.


  • Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death & Sensuality. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights, 1986. Print.

1 The Way as “way” bespeaks no common lasting Way, 2 The name as “name” no common lasting name. 3 Absent is the name for sky and land's first life, 4 Present for the mother of all ten thousand things. 5 Desire ever-absent: 6 Behold the seed germs in all things; 7 Desire ever-present: 8 Behold their very finite course. 9 Forth together come the two 10 As one and the same 11 But differ in name. 12 As one, a dark recess 13 That probed recedes 14 Past that portal whence 15 The milling seed germs teem.

~ p. 27, Dao De Jing: The Book of the Way by Laozi, trans. by Moss Roberts

The Nature of the Dao

This stanza is likely the most famous one from the Dao De Jing, mostly because of the very first 2-4 lines of the stanza which sets up a conflict between the nature of the Dao (the Way) and its capacity to be described. As a result, the entirety of the rest of the stanza is also read with the purpose of illuminating the nature of the Dao further, hence many interpretations of this stanza focus on the many dualities present in the stanza, as useful to the clarification of the Dao even if not exhaustive of it. With this approach, one can come to the conclusion that, in some way, the Dao unites dualities,⁹ but this very unity is precisely manifest in the way of duality.¹⁰⁻¹¹

Of course, one cannot ignore those lines which also reference plurality and not simply duality.⁴ ⁶ ¹⁵ The role of plurality is seemingly as a sort of last outcome to the Dao. After all, the Dao “as one” recedes as a darkness “past that portal” which originates, causes, etc., the ten thousand things.¹²⁻¹⁵ In this particular stanza at the very least, the Dao does not simply precede the plurality of things but precedes a “portal” which acts as a more immediate cause or is a more immediate origin of that plurality. This portal is likely the dualization of the one, and this dualization then leads to plurality. It is important to characterize this as a dualization, because it allows one to think about duality not as a property of something but as an action which something can engage in. It makes it a bit easier to imagine a “unity” whose unity is in its duality when that unity is described in these terms.

At the same time, this introduces a different difficulty, which is conceiving of something extant such that its action and existence are one and the same (wherein an action is enacted independently of any entity), persisting identically in its product insofar as such enactment continues as constitutive of that product. After all, notice how the plurality of things are characterized as “seed germs” and thereby as generative in their own right.⁶ ¹⁵ One could say that in addition to a vertical causality that is directed from the Dao to the ten thousand things, there is a horizontal causality that is directed across the ten thousand things. Other observers note, after all, that in other stanzas this portal (the dualization) and the Dao are treated as the same thing, and the Dao as this action whose existence is independent of any entity and is purely enacted in-itself may explain this ambivalence in separating the unity in the Dao from its duality. However, this would not explain why in some passages or stanzas a daoist may find it more appropriate to emphasize duality over unity as well as vice versa. This is something to be analyzed later on. For now, one must focus on the given stanza.

Problems with this interpretation

This is a good start to interpreting the stanza. The problem is that reading the stanza as an exposition of metaphysical doctrine is rather reductive, because it renders a lot of the rest of the specific content of the stanza—especially the metaphorical content—unproductive. That is to say, the other associations that the stanza brings to bare in attempting to describe the Dao by means of metaphor are pruned and narrowed to those that are conducive to the most parsimonious metaphysical assumptions consistent with the stanza as a whole. Parsimony is generally a good principle to have, but parsimony is a tool which is always submitted towards a certain purpose. In this case, the purpose is giving a metaphysical reading of the stanza. For this reason, thorough and varied interpretation often rebels against parsimony standards that are largely context-contingent. There are several other themes which run their thread in this stanza, and which define its internal logic, which is not purely metaphysical. However, another problem, which is the one that shall be addressed first, is that the metaphysical interpretation of the stanza is focused on what it seems to imply for the Dao itself. But there is more going on in the stanza than just the Dao.

A Thicker and Richer Interpretation

The Metaphysics of The Ten Thousand Things and Bundle Theory

In particular, the stanza's first two lines are not just making a comment about the nature of the Dao, but making a comment about the ways names and naming functions.¹ ² Clearly, however, naming in this context plays a double-role: it both means concrete determination, thereby signaling an ontological act, and the actual application of language. Clearly because later on in the stanza there is talk of real entities, or extant things, which come together as one but which “differ in name.“⁹⁻¹¹ But this difference in name is not merely a difference in name, because there is in fact ten thousand things for which the mother is the name.⁴ This is an ambiguity in the text, but it cannot be treated as a merely accidental one, which requires the reader to prioritize one or the other possible meanings. Rather, perhaps the ambiguity serves to suggest an implicit analogy between the act of naming things, and the act of producing or creating them. The exact extent of that analogy, however, is up to debate. At minimum, the suggestion would seem to be that the sort of logical or computational work that is undertaken in naming things characterize the production and creation of a plurality of things (henceforth to be called “pluriproduction”).

Under pluriproduction, there is no capacity to produce any singularity without also producing things necessary to that singularity that nonetheless exceed its capacities for containment of those very things necessary to its existence—these excesses manifest as independent entities unto themselves. Pluriproduction is an outcome of ontological excess. This is clearer if one returns to the two original lines of the stanza, wherein the implications for naming or pluriproduction would then be that the logical/computational work required for them cannot grasp that which negates this type of work. And what negates this type of work according to the stanzas is something which has a “commonness” to it. What is common isn't what is universal. It's what has the tendency to be shared, or held across things, and hence lacks a necessity (or at least unconditional necessity) in this sharing or holding across for the given set of entities.

In either case, this commonness is of specific things, which are nonetheless neither names nor pluriproductions. They are of specific things because the stanza isn't limited to the first line, which presumably tells us something about the relationship between language (or naming) and some absolute referred to as the “way,” which seems quite non-specific at first glance due to its additional apparent vagueness. The second line, which importantly has parallel construction, makes it clear that the limits of language do not just apply to the Dao, but that they also apply to names themselves. That is, what is really at issue is the general relationship between words and their referents. The stanza characterizes words as ontologically deceptive in some fundamental sense. This also means that, insofar as this deceptive relationship is concerned, all things, including the Dao, obtain as universal that deceptiveness of the linguistic relation. But the Dao is precisely what is being used to elucidate this universal deceptive relation. On the one hand, the Dao is a specific “thing” (of a special kind, even, such that it's not even a traditional thing, as discussed earlier); on the other hand, the Dao's specificity is precisely in its special relationship to universality: that which is true of the Dao applies to each of the ten thousand things (i.e., singular things) because the Dao has a unilateral relation to every thing. Commonness precedes universality, insofar as unique and specific relationships are necessary for constituting universality. Of course, there may be a translation issue at hand—it may be that “commonness” in the original language really was more equivalent to universal, or even to eternal or infinite. In which case, it is necessary to be conservative in asserting that commonness precedes universality under a daoist worldview.

Even rejecting this, at the very least the Dao does seem to be referred to as both a specific thing and, one could say, as anything insofar as its relations or properties are transferable to other entities. But, only transferable to other variable entities (e.g., a name) vis-á-vis other specific entities (e.g., the name given to a name). Put this way, one can frame the first two stanza lines as making an ontological observation and not just a linguistic one—simultaneously an observation directly about the Dao and indirectly about the diversity of things in the world. Let us not forget that naming and names in this context double in meaning as pluriproducing or pluriproduction. Given what has already been said, ontological excess must be seen as coloring every singularity: on the one hand, there is some concept that the transferability of properties or relations precedes the existence of any particular entities (save for the Dao); on the other hand, reflected is also a concept that the specific instance of a transference is contingent on all other actual transferences (save for the Dao). This means that any singularity is in effect “borrowing” its existence as a self-enclosed, independent and unique entity from its relations and/or from an amalgamation of properties, which themselves hold to their own diverse relations and potential properties. The implication is that any entity must, as part of its necessity, take part in entities which are not fully captured in it. This is what characterizes pluriproduction under daoism. This also explains why the stanza says that there are seed germs in all things.⁶

This sounds like an awfully Humean account of entities in some ways (refer to: bundle theory of properties). The main difference between this and Hume's rejection of Western substance theory, however, is that nonetheless there is a real thing which underlies these relations and amalgamations, insofar as there is a uniqueness which has borrowed its existence from these things. Perhaps it is best to call this a quasi-substance, though it has yet to be well-defined. But this underlying thing is accounted for by these relations and properties, as opposed to accounting for them. In fact, this is what puts the “-production” in “pluriproduction.” Another difference is that it is ultimately potentially misleading in addition to limiting to describe pluriproduction in terms of relations and properties, for reasons similar to the reasons a Heideggerian would have in expressing caution about relational ontologies (i.e., that such “ontologies” are actually ontic rather than ontological). In addition, one could speculate that what makes this “borrowing” possible is the Dao, whereas in the bundle theory of properties there is no reliable account for this borrowing. This also means that in a daoist ontology, the Dao is an exception to the rule.

To sum up, what is important to understand about this stanza is that it is implicitly dealing with issues of causality first and foremost, and building its metaphysics on top of causal concerns: How do relations and properties transfer from one entity to another? What determines when a property or relation is transferred and when it isn't? The questions of causality are also tied to questions about logic and computation. Underlying this question are also issues of modality (e.g., necessity & contingency). The concern with naming and names is actually a concern with the production of difference within a system of continual transference which is seen as the basis of universality, or seen as the transcendental condition of universality. If this seems far-fetched, the third and fourth line of the stanza is quite telling: the name or pluriproduction is absent for sky and earth's first life, but present for all ten thousand things.³⁻⁴ That is, naming or pluriproduction are not at work for the origin of conjunctive dualities (like sky and earth). To the contrary, dualities and their conjunction are the portal whence pluriproduction is. Singularity and alterity in their juxtaposition is the portal whence naming.¹²⁻¹⁵

The Axiological/Praxeological Reading of the Stanza: Desire and the Mother's Name

One of the interesting parts of this stanza is the mention of desire.⁵ ⁷ The mention of desire seems to conflict with the purely metaphysical reading of it. But to realize the full role of desire in this stanza, is to reinterpret also those lines in the stanza which do not seem to attempt to lean on the concept whatsoever. Nonetheless, its better to start precisely with those lines which are most explicit. The mention of desire is done within a parallelism, wherein desire is in one instance ever-absent and in another ever-present. One wonders why “ever-” is made to modify these adjectives, as they seem to suggest that the absence or presence of desire is eternal. Putting that aside for just a moment, it would seem that what is explicitly being noted about present versus absent desire is the following: in the absence of desire, therein lies a generative power (whether causal or acausal is ambiguous), while in the presence of desire, therein lies a “finite course.”

That is to say, when desire is present, this means that that desire is directed towards a given object and that the consequent path of this direction is finite by virtue of being delimited by its object (an important question to ask is whether paths can ever be infinite, such as when desire is for an infinite object—the stanza does not speak to this). When desire is absent is when generation is present: pluriproduction gets its foothold in the absence of interference by desire. This seems to suggest that the presence of desire is an impediment to pluriproduction. Of course, this would seem to make no sense metaphysically, insofar as desire is itself part of the canopy of pluriproduction. A more charitable interpretation is that desire actually forecloses the full range of potential for the one that desires at the same time that it motivates the actualization of the object of desire, which is to say that desire necessarily occludes or obfuscates pluriproduction for the one that desires. This in turn means that desire actually allows one to not only miss the majority of opportunities (save a narrow selection), but to fail to adapt to and thereby leverage the particular state of affairs one finds oneself in moment-to-moment irrespective of a hypothesized future.

While daoism is not Buddhism, there are inklings of Buddhism in this discussion of desire. But these inklings are related precisely to the fact that desire is being talked about as in-itself an inherent cost, in the same way that it is in Buddhism. Apart from this, daoism and Buddhism are world's apart: whereas for daoism what is intrinsically wrong about desire is its obfuscation or occlusion of pluriproduction, for Buddhism what is intrinsically wrong about desire is its finitude and singularity. Of course, the former is in some way a necessary condition for the latter, but for the daoist the cost of desire is one that must be assumed; hence, what is required is not to forego desire but to practice habits which allow us not to be mislead by desire. This would explain why institutionalized daoism later on emphasized ritual practices which not only balanced qi but focused on sexual health and vitality, which is incomparable to Buddhism's development. This would also explain why this stanza asserts that desire ever-absent and desire ever-present, or their respective effects, come together.⁹⁻¹⁰

The “ever-” characterization of desire's presence or absence is intentional, as desire being sometimes present and sometimes absent presents no contradiction. Desire treated as a contradictory is what makes the idea of their coming together as duality, and beyond duality, so jarring in this stanza.⁹⁻¹¹ This shifting of desire due to the interaction between pluriproduction and singularity is what it means for desire ever-present and desire ever-absent to be “one and the same.” But, pluriproduction and singularity could also be treated as “one and the same” in relation to desire, thereby in relation to desire differing only in name.¹⁰ The singular focus of desire and the pluriproduction that forms the backdrop of desiring precisely informs the development of pluriproduction, insofar as pluriproduction has its contingency as a totality in each of the entities which arise in it and which, in the interest of desire, persist or subsist. Desire carries forth pluriproduction, and in doing so directs that pluriproduction as one into a dense and impenetrable singularity—impenetrable and dense because when the singular object of desire is probed, knowledge of its true object “recedes past that portal” of dualization and into the Dao. But this Dao is precisely what is prior to the rational calculation (logic) or computation which exists on the plane of pluriproduction. To refuse to be mislead by desire means precisely to abandon rational calculation and computation in the enactment of desire, as well as to subordinate all specific, finite goals to the intuition of the function of the Dao.

Let us then not forget also, however, that names and naming in this case bring language into relevance when interpreting this stanza of the Dao De Jing. The name is present for the mother of the ten thousand things.⁴ Names can never fully refer—all attempts at reference are failures. What, then, does the name do? It “mothers” the ten thousand things. Under traditional sexist mythology, one can interpret this to mean that the name takes care and nurtures the ten thousand things. It is clear, however, that names are deceptive in that they allow us to lose sight of the Dao within each of the ten thousand things, and losing sight of this degrades the ability to bring any thing into maturity and into measured and appropriate expenditure of itself and its environment. This is because the name, in carving out, leads to pitfalls, but the name, in mothering, for this very reason multiplies not only the classifications but the systems of classification pertinent to the tasks demanded by the situation, and thereby endows the control necessary to exercise choice. Language in daoism would seem to be the mother. Desire must accept names insofar as names nurture desire and at the same time allow it to have the control to “take care” of not simply it's single-minded goal, but each and every thing among the ten thousand. It's not clear whether this view of language is meant to be descriptive, or is primarily meant to be normative. It is likely normative, given that this stanza also sees language as fundamentally deceptive. There is buried underneath this stanza a relationship between deception, desire and care that remains inarticulate.