Monthly Archives: April 2012

A Genealogy of Nothing: Ether and the Case for Fallibilism

[The following essay is directed toward an imaginary positivist with unflinching faith in the veracity of Einstein’s research programme of relativity, because of relativity’s overwhelming empirical success. Rather than being anti-science (quite the opposite, actually), my humble goal here is simply to show that empiricism does not provide the full picture, and that fallibilism is justified as a default position when considering contemporary science. I would have liked to explicitly dwell upon specific philosophers of science (particularly Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend), but that will have to wait for another time. Lastly, this is unfortunately not an introductory essay, and is directed toward those who are at least superficially familiar with relativity and the history of physics preceding it.]

The pessimistic meta-induction is the supposition that just as so many theories in the history of science have been superseded, current theories will likewise be found to be unsatisfactory, despite their empirical success. This can be taken in a strong or a weak sense: the strong sense implies that current theories are completely wrong (just as phlogiston, to contemporary scientists, is completely wrong), and the weak sense (fallibilism) acknowledges the empirical success of current theories while insisting that they may be incomplete—epiphenomena, of sorts, of a larger pattern. It is the aim of this essay to make a case for fallibilism, illustrating its case with examples from special relativity, general relativity, and quantum theory; once the latter case is made, the strong pessimistic meta-induction will be left as a possibility, since by definition no positive case (save the explicit falsification of current theories) can be made for its correctness, but only a negative case. Starting with a brief glance into Einstein’s epistemology, the historical development of the concept of ether will be documented, and upon finding that it is not necessarily as “superfluous” as Einstein may have once thought, the implications of this incompleteness will be examined.

“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother,” Einstein is reputed to have said. This strikes the reader as a surprising statement to come from one so notorious for the abstruseness of his theories, but it reveals a striking distinction for philosophies of science: that between how a theory works (in all its mathematical intricacy) and what it means. As Hegel writes in his Shorter Logic,[1] “The chemist places a piece of flesh in his retort, tortures it in many ways, and then informs us that it consists of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, etc. True: but these abstract matters have ceased to be flesh.” Here we see that Hegel rejects the mechanical in favor of the conceptual, presumably reacting to the reductionist tendency of scientists to favor the former at the expense of the latter, but we see in Einstein a desire to retain the two in all their incommensurability. Yet, we can also proceed backwards from Einstein’s distinction: if mathematics is a formal delineation of the relations between terms, then insofar as mathematical physics is an empirical science, its terms cannot merely be mathematical variables, but objects, to which correspond concepts. With physics in particular, however, the boundaries separating concepts are of prime importance, and it is these mutable boundaries that pose the primary weak point of scientific research, to the point where fallibilism becomes a rational mindset for scientists regardless of the empirical success of any given theory taken on its own. Read the rest of this entry

Klossowski’s Living Currency

It has recently come to my attention that a quasi-economic study by Pierre Klossowski entitled Living Currency (La Monnaie Vivante) is in the process of being translated by Reena Spaulings, to be published by Reena Spaulings Fine Art. This is particularly noteworthy due to its author’s influence in the history of theory: Pierre Bal-Blanc praises the text for providing the missing link from Bataille to Baudrillard and from Lacan to Foucault and Deleuze. Living Currency was originally published in 1970, only two years prior to the publication of Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and four years prior to the publication of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy (in which the work of Klossowski plays a key role), so it will be most interesting to compare and contrast these authors’ respective theories of political economy.

Bal-Blanc (who has hosted a long-running art exhibition of the same name as the text) summarizes Living Currency as follows:

The book’s introduction posits very simply the initial perversion as the first manifestation in a human being of the distinction between reproductive instincts and voluptuous emotion. This first perversion distinguishes human from mechanism, and will later be found to be the definition of human thought. Then, ideology appropriates perversion as “false or foul thinking”—the industrial and capitalist system, in organizing the production processes towards specific and policed ends, closes them down in the same gesture as it expels everything that overruns for being perverse. For example, a tool is used for doing only one thing. It is perverse to exceed, to overrun. This is the limitation at the foundation of the capitalist division of labor. Thus the drive behind the “open form” or the “open work” becomes to explode and dismiss these limits, to multiply possibility. These practices, so typical of the 1970s, work to invert or reverse the industrial system, which borders on perversion, instrumentalizing it. One can also go back to Charles Fourier,…who tried to offer a theory of impulses be [sic] distributed in another organism, taking into account their necessary variety….

Likewise, the online poetry zine The Claudius Appbriefly describes the book in the following terms:

A magisterially paranoiac and prescient investigation of libidinal economy and economies of affect, Living Currency updates Fourier for a post-Fordist era: a para-cybernetic flowchart by Sade’s “neighbor” linking the processes and products of art and industry through their human, all too human medium of exchange. From the trade in bathos to spot-priced simulacra and the orgasms they unfailingly blow out like O-rings: enjoying your symptom means pricing your fantasm. Raise a glass with Juliette, to the open market—may it never close its legs.

The same zine has published the two last sections of the English translation, the latter excerpt serving as part of its introduction. (See above for the link.) It may be worthy of note that for the rest of his life following the publication of Living Currency, Klossowski’s efforts were near-exclusively devoted to painting, his artwork having since achieved some renown in the art world.

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