Monthly Archives: August 2011

On World Population, Hydroponic Cucumbers, & Milk

Countries of the world proportioned according to their populations as of 2010

I just found an excellent video on CBC News. Apparently, “the world prepares to welcome its seventh billion inhabitant sometime this year.” Its eighth billionth is projected to appear in 2025, but world population is expected to settle at 9-10 billion by 2100. As well, India is projected to become the most populous country by 2050.

Oh, and by the same institution (Agence France-Presse): Malthus, anyone? No, to invoke Malthus is to be overly pessimistic; I think that hydroponic growth sounds quite promising, especially if we can manage to do such farming in multiple floors of skyscrapers, which would provide a more efficient use of space than our clumsy acre system, and the lack of wasted resources would allow the world’s poor to be fed with little to no extra water and nutrients used (which is especially pertinent given the looming water crisis). The main problem is accumulating energy cheaply enough to make these projects profitable…

Hydroponics allows an indoor (i.e. weather-independent) means of growing foods with no waste of water & nutrients; with every variable known & controlled, hydroponics epitomizes the modernist project.

In 1988, The Newfoundland government (Canada) donated $13 million of taxpayers’ money to build a “space-age greenhouse” which would hydoponically grow cucumbers which would sprout to full size within six days. Unfortunately, because of the market being flooded with cucumbers, the company, Enviroponics, had to sell their cucumbers at $0.55 wholesale, while each cucumber costed them $1.10 each. According to a survey near that time, the average Newfoundlander ate only half a cucumber a year, and Enviroponics could not export their cucumbers at a profit, so surplus cucumbers flooded Newfoundland’s market, and its dumps (reminiscent of the semi-recent European milk crisis, except less morally ambiguous and more inept; point your mouse at the links for explanation). In 1989 Enviroponics went bankrupt, selling its facility to another company for $1. A total of about 800,000 cucumbers were produced, and the cost to taxpayers per cucumber was $27.50, compared to 50 cents for cucumbers produced out of province and sold in Newfoundland grocery stores. This “boondoggle” (i.e. fiasco) has since become a symbol of foolish government spending. (via)

Close-up of a hydroponic apparatus (cf. the diagram above)

Just a little history lesson. Nevertheless, it’s been 20 years, no? Surely hydroponic science has progressed a bit further since then. At any rate, however, the world is in no state to revolutionize farming methods anytime soon. Still, hopefully the above has suggested that the modernist dream of ‘mapping’ every variable of the world is still going strong, despite the postmodernists clamor. But then, social science is still in its infancy compared to the mass progress of the natural sciences (as Imre Lakatos asserts, with whom I more or less agree), yet it’s precisely this latter field that will most likely give representatives of the modernist project a run for their money (hopefully in the literal as well as the figurative sense).

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Trying to Get Immanence Out of a (Philosopher’s) Stone: Archetypes, Sociobiology, Harry Potter, and the UK Riots

Click the picture for a more detailed explanation of the notion of signifier/signified.

[To make the parallel of Harry Potter & the Tottenham riots seem less farfetched, see here.]

There are a number of popular (i.e. non-academic) intellectual movements whose objective is to find an immanent basis for the meaning of signifiers. One such example is Jungian archetypes, which states that various symbols are innate in the human mind, and thus that symbols are “universally recognizable.” As well, the sociobiology of Desmond Morris seeks to ground social phenomena in biological instinct (once again, innate), e.g. he ascribes the tradition of women coloring their lips red to the fact that when a woman becomes aroused, her lips become engorged with blood, appearing fuller and redder; thus lipstick is a display of availability for mating, just as is the peacock displaying its feathers. A third, more contemporary instance of this tendency can be found in the Harry Potter series. In Hogwarts, students of witchcraft & wizardry are taught combinations of signifiers (e.g. a “swish & flick” of one’s wand combined with the words “Wingardium Leviosa” pronounced in a specific way) which are somehow inherently connected to their magical function. There is no talk of ‘inventing’ spells; presumably experimental wizards merely spout out Latin-sounding words in hopes that they’ll bring a result connected to their etymology. This essay will outline the three views described above; show how meaning is in fact not immanent, but for the most part purely arbitrary; and show how this immanent treatment of signifiers resonates within the UK riots, perhaps to the point of precluding any significant cultural change.

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A Brief History of the Real, or, Laruelle’s Niche: Ontological Reification

[Note: After actually reading Laruelle, I disavow everything written in this post. It completely misses Laruelle’s point, and I’m only leaving this post up to let it serve as a bad example.]

The responses by An Und Für Sich to Graham Harman’s review of Laruelle have reminded me of an old argument I had against his ‘Non-Philosophy’. My argument centres around a single aspect of Non-Philosophy―namely, the notion of ‘The One’―largely because my exposure to Laruelle has been limited to Anthony Paul Smith’s “Introduction to Non-Philosophy” (notes) and Alexander Galloway’s “François Laruelle, or The Secret.” Nevertheless, I feel that it adequately situates Laruelle within the tradition of Continental philosophy; to make it more accessible, however, I will preface it with in-depth background information.

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My Nervous Illness’s Memoirs: Schreber’s Beautiful Insanity

Above all I want to mention that the rays (nerves) of the upper God, when they are thrust down in consequence of my nerves’ power of attraction, often appear in my head in the image of a human shape. I am by coincidence in the fortunate position to be able to point to a really existing picture instead of having to describe these things in words; this picture is surprisingly like the picture I often see in my head. It is the painting “Liebesreigen” by Pradilla contained in the 5th volume of Modern Art (Berlin, published by Richard Bong); in the left hand upper corner of this picture a woman is seen, descending with arms stretched before her and folded hands. One has only to translate her into a male person to get a fairly accurate picture of what appears in my head when the nerves of the upper God come down. Head, chest and arms were distinct; the arms swung to one side, almost as if these nerves were trying to overcome an obstacle to their descent―the nerves of Flechsig’s soul crowding the heavenly vault… The rays of the lower God (Ariman) also quite frequently create in my head the picture of a human face which (as soon as soul-voluptuousness is present) starts to smack its tongue, like human beings when eating something they like, or in other words, if they have the impression of sensual enjoyment.

~Schreber, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, pg. 228

The woman who Schreber describes is in the upper left corner, the second person from the cupids.

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A closer look at this section, though unfortunately the woman described by Schreber is decapitated

Another section of the picture (lower right)

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Daniel Paul Schreber

The Schreber case seems to me a striking example of how language (i.e. in this case, reading the Memoirs as a book) is inadequate for depicting the real. The following are links to artworks inspired by Schreber, which help to capture the experience of his madness. Lacan hypothesizes that the fear provoked by horror movies is because they somehow express the inchoate, incomprehensible Real; it is far too easy to ignore the eeriness of Schreber by categorizing his book as ‘literature’, even when reading him for psychoanalytic reasons, and I feel that the following, particularly the films, capture nuances which allow for fuller comprehension of Schreber’s affliction. All of these works serve to underscore the one crucial fact that this actually happened, even if by no other method than creating ontologies (put more formally, diegeses; put less formally, fictional ‘worlds’) on lower planes of ‘reality’ than that of Schreber’s book, and hence make the Memoirs seem more real by comparison.

As Freud states in The Uncanny (1925):

[A]n uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolizes, and so on. It is this factor which contributes not a little to the uncanny effect attaching to magical practices.

It is not difficult to leave Schreber within the imaginary.  This, however, is to miss the point.

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Habe die Sonne nicht zu lieb und nicht die Sterne.     [Do not love the sun too much and not the stars.]
Komm’, folge mir ins dunkle Reich hinab.                [Come, follow me to the darker realm below.]
~Goethe, Iphigenie auf Tauris
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Althusser on Purchasing

“I now feel I know for certain that one is not really alive unless one spends, takes risks, and therefore has surprises, and that surprises & spending (freely rather than for profit, which is the only possible definition for communism) are not simply a part of all life but constitute the ultimate truth of life itself, in its Ereignis, its surging forth, its very happening, as Heidegger has argued so well.”

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~Althusser – The Future Lasts A Long Time, pg. 107

The Dialectical Moment: A Schema of the Adjacent Possible


Steven Johnson, an expert on creative geniuses and their ideas, has developed a concept which he calls the ‘adjacent possible’―roughly, the set of possibilities available with the resources and techniques of a given point in time. To illustrate, Gutenberg could not have built his printing press until a variety of minor inventions had been made, e.g. the wine press, which was the basis for his design. Johnson states that his concept provides a more cogent alternative to words such as zeitgeist, but it could be argues that much of the time the word zeitgeist is used, the ‘adjacent possible’ is the notion to which it refers.

G.W.F. Hegel is famous for his philosophy of history & the zeitgeist, as exemplified in his book The Phenomenology of Spirit. The most common interpretation of Hegel’s method was developed by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus and popularized by Marx, with three stages: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. (Hegel himself never used this terminology, and in fact disparages cold, rigid formulas in his preface to the Phenomenology, but Chalybäus’s formula works well enough that it has been preserved for over a century; nevertheless, the close reader of Hegel should bear the above in mind.) In the Thesis stage, an idea or historical stage (‘moment’) occurs. In the Antithesis stage, a historical moment occurs that is entirely opposite to that of the Thesis state. Finally, in the Synthesis stage, the contradictions of the Thesis & Antithesis stage are resolved (‘sublated’), and the Synthesis becomes the Thesis for a new Dialectical process.

The concept of the adjacent possible can be used to make sense of the famous quotation by Hegel, “What is real is rational, and what is rational is real.” There are many interpretations of the above quotation, which can seem deceptively simple. It might be clearer to think about this phrase as “What is thinkable is possible, and what is possible is thinkable,” the latter part referring to the adjacent possible: an idea becomes thinkable only after its conditions have made their way into the zeitgeist.

I have a rule that I’ve developed for myself regarding interpretation, however: the meaning of a quotation can only be fully expressed by the words that the author has used. Disregarding translation from the German, as well as textualism, the following answer emerges: Hegel wanted to emphasize the actualization of elements in the adjacent possible, and his use of the word ‘rational’ is peculiar to his own notion of ‘reason in history’.

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**Note: This new emphasis by Steven Johnson on the possible strikes me as a Deleuzian twist to Hegel. Perhaps this betrays that Deleuze’s antagonism may have been brought on by ‘anxiety of influence‘ rather than simply disagreement.

Marcel Mauss on Islamo-Capitalism

“The famous Sourate LXIV, ‘mutual disappointment’ (the Last Judgement) given to Mahoment at Mecca, say of God:

15. Your wealth and your children are your temptation, whilst God holds in reserve a magnificent reward.
16. Fear God with all your might; listen and obey, give alms (sadaqa) in your own interest. He who is on his guard against avarice will be happy.
17. If you make a generous loan to God, he will pay you back double; he will forgive you because he is grateful and longsuffering.
18. He knows things visible and invisible, he is one powerful and wise.

Substitute for the name of Allah that of society and the occupational grouping, or put together all three names, if you are religious. Replace the concept of alms by that of co-operation, of a task done or a service rendered for others. You will then have a fairly good idea of the kind of economy that is at present laboriously in gestation. We see it already functioning in certain economic groupings, and in the hearts of the masses, who possess, very often better than their leaders, a sense of their own interests, and of the common interest.”

~Mauss – The Gift: The Form & Reason For Exchange In Archaic Societies, pp. 77-8