Spritzophrenia

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Posts Tagged ‘ontology’

Why Does Existence Matter? Simondon and Ontology

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 16, 2012

I’ve been reading about Gilbert Simondon, a French thinker (1924 – 1989) who has been very influential on the Continent, but is only just becoming known in the English-speaking world. I’m wondering if I can use his ideas to help me in my studies.

Using sociology I try to understand what a human being is, and how they are constructed by social forces (or how they construct themselves). Discourses of gender, for example, help construct us as male or female. Simondon spends a lot of time discussing what an individual is1.

Rather than understanding an individual as a static unchanging being, Simondon suggests individuals are a process which is part of a system. “Individual development is a constantly changing and fluid, ‘non-linear’ process” (Harvey et al, 2008: 4). He also thinks we are fundamentally relational beings. Simondon thinks we are permanently in relationship, and that our being can only be defined by our relationships.

The term “individuation” describes the process of how individuals are created from “pre-individuals”. Debaise says Simondon refers to a “preindividual nature”, by which it seems he really means “being” rather than the natural world of plants, rocks and seas (Debaise, 2012: 3). So we are individuated (‘created’) as a process in a system of being. I originally thought that for Simondon individuals have multiple selves, or parts, but this may be a misunderstanding on my part.

existence

Simondon is talking about ontology, which is the study of being, or existence. I think it was Sartre who said, “The biggest question is why anything exists at all.” He’s right; if you start to ponder why the world is ‘there’, it can get very tricky. Ontology is not just about the fact that things exist, it’s also about the nature of their existence. Ontology asks, “At the deepest, most core level, what kind of a thing is a person?”. If we think a person has a soul, we could ask, “What kind of a thing is a soul, and how does it interact with the world?” If you’re not comfortable with the word, just replace ontology with “existence” whenever you see it.

And here is my question: Why does it matter what the existence of humans actually is? How does being able to describe the “being” of a person make a difference to me as a sociologist? To sociologists or scientists, people who are trying to understand the world, does it really matter? I could just say, “People exist, we know that, let’s move on to something else”.

Here is a second, related question: If ontology does matter for doing sociology, how do I connect ideas about ontology to ideas about how society works? How would knowing the essential nature of a person (or group) affect how I theorise their actions? Does knowing that a person is not a static thing, but a process of individuations make any difference in how I think about their gender? (There are at least a couple of feminist articles on Simondon that suggest some social scientists think it does make a difference.) If you have any ideas I’d love to hear them.

Here’s what I think ontology could mean for social theory:

In the next few months I am going to be interviewing a number of men who will tell me about their lives. Instead of understanding these men as unchanging, fixed “souls”, I can analyse them as a developing process, who are in relationship with their world. Their gender, for example might not be fixed but changing over time as they relate to other men and women. What I believe someone actually is will affect my interpretation of their social world.

Here’s another idea. Elder-Vass (2012: 144) suggests that a theory of ontology can explain causality – how someone causes things to happen. I can cause the water to flow by turning a tap, for example. Socially speaking, ontology might explain how a parent can “cause” the development of gender in a baby by their words and actions. Or a church can “cause” a man to be excluded.

Perhaps I’ve answered my question. But I think there’s more that could be said. Do you have any ideas or comments?

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Notes
1. For Simondon individuals aren’t necessarily humans. Other things (cars, rivers, elephants) can be individuals too. The idea of non-human individuals, and technics, have been hugely influential on Actor Network Theory, Latour et al, and the philosophy of science. This part of Simondon’s theory is less important to me at present.

References
Debaise, Didier. (2012). What Is Relational Thinking? Inflexions. 5.

Elder-Vass, Dave. (2012). The Reality of Social Construction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harvey, Olivia; Popowski, Tamara; Sullivan, Carol. (2008). “Individuation and Feminism.” Australian Feminist Studies. 23(55).

Salmonella Dub – Conspiracy Dub. Great New Zealand band.

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What is “The Universe” Telling Me?

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 15, 2010

Cigarette smoke swirls in the air and teaspoons swirl patterns in the coffee cream. The waiter wanders past with someone’s bowl of fries. It’s Friday night and I’m hangin’ with a dozen friends at our usual café-cum-nightspot. Conversation rises and falls. Sometimes people say unexpected things: “The universe is telling me to let go”, says Carole. Carole is an atheist. Others nod and murmur in agreement, I look away and say nothing.

Have you heard someone say “The universe will provide”? “The Universe is trying to tell me something”? Or perhaps “Put your intentions out to the Universe”? Do you believe in “signs from the universe”? If these words simply mean something metaphorical, I can accept that. Just what IS this “Universe” Carole talks about? It’s obviously more than the stars, rocks, oceans and life that make up the physical Cosmos.

Is it energy?

I think most Universe-invokers conceive of the Universe as some kind of energy or force. A Universal Energy like electricity, or perhaps a force like gravity. If you put out positive energy, you get positive stuff back, and vice versa. Karma, if you like, it’s a kind of cause-effect thing. Flick the switch on the wall, the energy flows and the light bulb gives light. Forgive me, but aren’t we just talking about the consequences of actions in a blind universe? What does the “Universe” add?

The Universe

But Carole often goes further than this. She talks and behaves in ways that imply the universe cares about her. She seems to say that the universe has a purpose or plan for us.

A purely bricks-and-mortar Universe doesn’t care about us. An energy can’t speak, it can’t “tell us” anything. If the universe can give good things based on the “positiveness” of our energy, can communicate, can take notice of us, can be on our side— those are all things only a mind can do.

So Then, Is it Personal?

OK, so perhaps there is a powerful energy that is also personal. By personal, I mean something like a mind. Does Carole mean a “something” that has personality— has intelligence, consciousness and maybe purpose, ethics or desires? If this is what she means by the Universe, I think she’s talking about another word for g0d.

I don’t have a problem with her calling God “The Universe”. But let’s not kid ourselves when we’re doing it.

Is There a Middle Way?

Carole dips a cigarette into the ash-tray. She might suggest I’m closed to some other “middle way”. I’ve been trying to conceive of how that might work. Maybe a kind of “force” like gravity? Do a certain thing, and it reacts. Apparently, if I think negative thoughts then negative (unhelpful? bad?) results flow. The idea of “positive versus negative” thoughts reminds me of the warm energy of reason, a gift the Universe gives us.

[What “positive” energy actually means, is another good question. I think to be labelled “positive” implies something ethical, like “helpful” or “good”, which in turn could lead to a moral argument for God.]

Unfortunately I don’t think a force helps us any more than an energy. If the “something” is in any sense benevolent, if it in any sense “notices” us, then we are again left with some kind of g0d. We know that in our Universe only minds can speak, or love.

There is nothing we can conceive of as a mind in the middle, a “half mind”. We know of damaged minds, and of animals that don’t quite seem to have a mind in the sense we understand, but these are not half minds. These are minds that are not able to do the full range of mind-stuff. A half mind would be like saying I both have a brain in my skull, and at the very same moment, do not have a brain. (Quiet with those rude comments in the back seats 😉 )

I don’t want to be mean. I’ve really tried, but I can’t conceive of any other option. Either the Universe is impersonal (negative?)— and therefore useless in the way the concept is used. Or it is personal (positive?), a mind. And therefore a g0d. There seem no other options.

“The Universe” is Personal

For all Carole’s neurotic foibles as a fashion designer, I love her. Maybe one day we’ll discuss what she means about “the Universe”, but people don’t like having the bubbles of their personal beliefs pricked. I don’t know if she realises it, but she’s not an atheist.

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I love this track from King Crimson’s brilliant album, Discipline. Well, I love all of them, actually. “The more I look, the more I like it. I DO think it’s good.” It speaks to our obession around creating a thing (a philosophy?) which is good.

King Crimson | Indiscipline

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Posted in agnostic, god, Mysticism, New Age, ontology, Philosophy, Sociology, spirituality | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments »