Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Question of Form or, Sorry Mr. Spock

Ah. Pure energy. Matter without form...

Materialism has traditionally been good at exploring what things are made of. But it has a less good track record explaining why things have a certain shape or configuration. This is where a renewed attention to Aristotle at least helps to clarify things.

Materialism's comfort zone is reducing things to smaller things. So it's not surprising that it skews towards emphasizing what things are made of at the expense of the form they assume.

Incidentally, this is the major distinction between what Marx calls “metaphysical” materialism and his dialectical materialism. For Marx, materialism has to do with form: the configurations of economic relations, relations of class, between superstructure and base and so on. (The very terms “superstructure” and “base” connote a formal way of thinking.)

For Aristotle, there are four kinds of cause: material, formal, efficient and final. What is something made of? (Material.) What shape does it have? (Formal.) What does it do, how does it work? (Efficient.) And what's it for? (Final.)

From these, we get the rhetorical trope of metonymy, which applies to the four causes.

“Okay frog. Burn rubber.” (Material cause of tires.) (HT The Muppet Movie)
“I like your wheels.” A car has wheels as part of its form.
“Can I bum a smoke?” You smoke a cigarette (efficient cause).
“I don't smoke cancer sticks.” The final cause of a cigarette.

Metonymy is interesting because it's literalistic. Unlike metaphor, it uses parts of an object that really are genuine parts of that object. I shall have to think on this more when it comes to thinking about causality for my book project.

Materialism defaults to reductionism if it only considers material causes. Thus biology is good at reducing lifeforms to molecules, but not so good yet at thinking morphogenesis. Some big questions about form remain unanswered.

The therapeutic value of Aristotle is that he lets us see form as a cause, not as some kind of add-on, a bottle into which a liquid (the “real” thing) is poured. Form is just as real as content, and just as fundamental.

Sorry Mr. Spock—there is no matter devoid of form...

6 comments:

Joe Clement said...

Isn't this "matter devoid of form" really the stuff of science fiction anyway? My partner is a chemistry student and I find myself in the company of physics students often enough too (I studied humanities, critical theory and anthropology in college). Not only have I seen plenty of shape-bestowing properties to the matter she studies, and the formal descriptions she uses, but anything that smells of "matter devoid of form" or "pure energy" gets dirty looks, because they know it's nonsense.

This is clearly not a scientific sample, but all the same I wonder who really believes in and uses that way of thinking/talking - scientists or humanists or still yet another group of wackos.

Joe Clement said...

Oh, I take that back. I show the post to my girlfriend, and she says it's nonsense to say form is the cause of anything. She's only slightly familiar with Aristotle's four causes too, but from what she knows she says the efficient cause is the closest to what she'd say is a cause for anything. That said, she doesn't speak of matter without form, only that as far as matter is concerned form arises from the mathematical relationships governing matter.

I guess I had that in the back of my mind too when I read the post though: do you mean form as in the form an atom takes relative to its constituent parts, relative to one another or the more colloquial form we see in mid-level objects - or still yet something more abstract like mathematical formality or the chairness of a chair? That latter is the thing that scientists, I guess, love to hate.

michael- said...

I agree Joe, the properties of things themselves are expressed as form... Hence the need for radical specificity prior to metaphysical generalization....

Zach said...

Well, this is weird. There are a couple of points: I think, in addition to "no matter without form" this is saying "there is no causality without form." And that Aristotle's four causes can be linked through metonymy. I think Tim is thinking through metonymy and form simultaneously.

That said, I think metonymy makes more sense in terms of hyper-objects. And I think formal cause is primary. And form is getting weird.

The trick is not "the properties of things are expressed as form", but that form always interprets the properties of other things... or just things. Even with-in a thing. That's number 1 (I'm substituting form for object), I think. To think this from the human level, this is what Graham calls "weak correlationism"; if I remember correctly.

Number 2 would be extimacy, sampling, phase-space (or as I would think of as design-space for genetic algorithms), scale, retroactive causation...

My intuition would be that extimacy is a global principle and metonymy is a global principle of scale...

Extimacy, would encapsulate sampling and design-space...

println;

Zach said...

Oh come on! The captcha messed me up.

Quickly summarize...

I think this post is thinking about form and metonymy simultaneously.

I think metonymy makes more sense in terms of hyper-objects.

I think formal cause may be vicarious causation.

I think it is important to remember OOO is a "weak correlationist" theory (That seems accurate to me, I think Graham made a comment as such on his blog). That is why it is not that "the properties of things are expressed as form"; but that form determines what and how things are expressed to it. And amongst itself.

To me, trying to think through form in this context naturally lends itself to extimacy, which, I think encapsulates sampling, retroactive causation, phase-space (or from my experience, i would think of as a crazy design-space for genetic algorithms)...

Extimacy is a global principle, Metonymy might be a global principle of scale having to do with hyper-objects...

In fact, it might be the "if/then" that allows one to identify hyper-objects...

*phew*...

prinln;

Zach said...

Ha, I like how the summary ended up as long as the original