Category Archives: Thinking

The Adjacent Possible(s)

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field. The number of potential first-order reactions is vast, but it is a finite number, and it excludes most of the forms that now populate the biosphere. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.

Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From

Steven Johnson locates an impetus to creativity in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From,  in the lacunal spacebetween thinking, between the concrete. His premise is that good ideas never come in discrete packages “shipped direct from the factory” but rather are cobbled together from a history of detritus and the forgotten. Johnson writes that we “take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.” This is the “adjacent possible,” that space of no space which acts as a shadow to new thought, and which shelters, or incubates, ideas whose time has not quite yet come.

While Johnson is describing a scientific process (which he uses as a metaphor for the social) Heidegger also summons forth a form of the “adjacent possible” (though in not so clear language) when he describes, in What Is Called Thinking?being caught in the “draft” of a thinking which withdraws, and that it is in this moment of surrender that thinking is able to begin thinking. Heidegger writes that “what withdraws from us draws us along by its very withdrawal, whether or not we become aware of it immediately, or at all.” It is by being pulled forward that the being of language actually engages, and that “‘this being in the draft of’ is in itself an essential and therefore constant pointing towards what withdraws.”

DeBeauvoir, in her essay The Ethics of Ambiguity, again calls attention to the liberating necessity of “unhinged” thought, of the creative absolute (which is never an absolute.) Science, she writes, “condemns itself to failure when, yielding to the infatuation of the serious, it aspires to attain being, to contain it, and to posses it; but it finds its truth if it considers itself as free engagement of thought in the given, aiming, at each discovery, bot at the fusion with the thing, but at the possibilities of new discoveries.”

These three thinkers, separated by half centuries and radically different positions in life, all echo a similar thought; that there is a necessity for thought to remain open, to be constantly torn loose from what is know. It is only in this way that we can begin to think. It is a plea for the irresponsible, for the reckless. In an age of certainty and absolutes, of Fukuyamaian non-history,  of known truths and unknown truths (which are even then known) it is the thinking of the non-concrete, of the fluid and flux-filled that points, through a non-pointing withdrawal, a way forward.



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Heidegger and no thing.

We venture the paraphrase; No thing is where the word is lacking. “Thing” is here understood in the traditional sense , as meaning anything that in any way is. In this sense, even a god is a thing. Only where the word for the thing has been found is a thing a thing. Only thus is it. Accordingly, we must stress as follows: no thing is where the word, that is the name, lacking.

—M. Heidegger, The Nature of Language

No thing is lacking. Heidegger has placed the emphasis on is, making it the affirmative, making it the positive. No thing is where the word, that is the name, is lacking. If we remove then (if we can remove then) the word, the name, than that is where no thing is, that is where no thing blossoms, enriches, belongs, becomes. What is no thing? Heidegger writes just before this that “thing is anything that in any way is.” And just after this selection he writes that the “world alone gives being to the thing.” But what happens if there is no word? What happens if there is no naming of the thing?

We can name—and do name—that which we know. We equate knowledge with knowing the name of something. A brick is a brick, a hammer is a hammer, the universe is the universe. By naming a thing, we create, and draw its parameters, the parameters of the thing. In the four dimensions relatively available to us, we observe (and name) that the brick takes up possibly six by four by two inches and is, in the sense that it currently occupies this time slot. It fulfills its destiny, its being, its brickness. But what happens if we remove the name for this brick, if we no longer know what to call it, in fact the it (this brick) is no longer a thing in the sense that by not naming—by removing the name—it still occupies the same dimension but is indiscernible from the world. It simply is, un-reliant, un-needed by me. By removing the subject (me) from it (the brick) do I not then also remove the object—or at least the objectifying—of it.

Why is this important? Why does this matter? I have not really removed anything. I have not changed anything, per se. The brick still occupies the same space in geographic and temporal dimensions. I have literally not even touched the brick sitting on my desk. But what I have done is removed the name, removed the word (according to Heidegger) and in this, there is something vertiginously liberating, not only for me (and my way of thinking) but also for the brick itself. By removing the name, I allow ( or rather one allows, or no one allows) the brick to be all things, to manifest its manifold being, to incorporate all things into its being. It becomes, quite literally, everything. Because, in its infinite manifestness, it incorporates everything.; the mud that gave it its current being, the water that formed the mud, the sun, the stars, the universe and it also allows it to become mud again, to become landfill, to become again, water and sun and stars and universe.

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Mike Love’s Intellectual Wanderings

Mike Love has created a primitive program linking thinkers with other thinkers and those thinkers in with more thinkers. Seemingly banal, it is a wander through the arcades (think Benjamin’s Passagewerk, think the Flaneur) of proximity and contingency and ultimately endlessly compelling.

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Ray Brassier speaking on Heidegger


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Heidegger and the Freedom of Being-with

Imagine, if you will, the absence of Descartes in history, and therefor the absence of his famous phrase Cogito, Ergo Sum, popularly translated as “I think, therefor I am” (which is perhaps a mistranslation but we will get to that shortly.) Without Descartes, who is arguably the most influential philosopher of the last five hundred years, especially in that everything we think and do is centered essentially around the cogito, around the idea of the I, around a centered objective subject that sees the world spread out and ordered—Linnaeus like— around her, we could perhaps see (re-cognize) a very different landscape. Without this central I figure we have something like the Copernicusation of  conception (Copernicus  being the early 16th century astronomer who famously wrenched the earth from its geocentric model and replaced it with a heliocentric one) in which the I is unceremoniously ripped from the center of its ordered and named universe and what? Done away with? Reconfigured? Shattered? Essentially this is what Martin Heidegger did through Being and Time in the 1920’s and 30’s when he worked with the concept of Dasein, which translates as, essentially, being. Let us return for a minute to the mistranslation of cogito. Cogito, as I said earlier, is often translated as “to think”, which it is, but this is too simple by far. Even the shorter definitions offer in addition to think, the phrases “to ponder, to weigh, reflect upon.” The word itself is derived from co-agito, agito meaning to “set in violent motion, drive onward,” and to “impel forward.”  The Lewis and Short Latin Dictionary refers to it as “In gen., of the motion caused by other things.” But what interest me more than cogito is its relation to the word cognition, which comes from the Latin cognitio, a close relative of cogito. Again the Lewis and Short provides a general example which is “a becoming acquainted with, learning to know, acquiring knowledge, knowing, acquaintance,” and as knowledge “as a consequence of perception or of the exercise of our mental powers.” This definition strikes me for being so active. It is not something which is observed dully, statically, but is sought after, is impelled towards, dynamically and sometimes violently. Each of the definitions of cognitio is a verb, something that is constantly already becoming. If we couple this with the prefix re we get an even more dynamic word, recognition, that is constantly re-becoming acquainted with, re-learning to know, re-acquiring knowledge, re-knowing. And it is in this that Heidegger’s Dasein and more importantly his concept of the Mitsein, (being-with) comes into play. Heidegger writes that Mitsein belongs to the being of Dasein that is an issue for its very being.” Being-with, being in communion with, in community with, is at the very essence of what it means to be. We are active, engaged (and engaging) dynamic beings and it is only in activity that we can truly be, that we can leave behind our common, everyday laggard selves. Being is no longer defined and trapped by the prison of distrust that the cogito enforces but instead is moving out into the world, as into a river from which a thousand opening are constantly always already happening. We begin (always beginning, always rebeginning) to complete the circle away from the centered I and begin to close again with a being that is not complete, discrete and unique but which requires a necessary incompletion, indeed can only near completion when it is always already incomplete, when it is always already becoming something else. And there is liberty in that.


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Die Lichtung and the Forest

In Heidegger, the open, or das Offen, is not a space of dispersal and unlimited boundaries, of no borders and non-existent frontiers.  It is, instead, a space cleared, illumined. It is, according to Heidegger, the enlightened space that shelters.  This is a concept I have often had trouble with; a space which shelters, and in the sheltering covers, conceals, but never distorts, perverts, and in the end allows to un-coneal. I finally found a way in (to the space, to the clearing, the open) through Joan Stambaugh’s The Finitude of Being in which she writes that das Offene was later almost entirely replaced by die Lichtung. Die Lichtung would normally be translated as the lighting, the illumination, but which Heidegger takes great pains to disassociate from actual physical lighting, actual illumination (from a light off-stage say). (Because this would require the lighting from outside, the illumination from a source which would inevitably be metaphysical.) Heidegger writes that “only by virtue of light, i.e., through brightness, can what shines show itself, that is, radiate.” He has no problem with this, it would seem, but in the next sentence, he takes issue with the source of the light.  He writes, “But brightness in its turn rests upon something open, something free which it might illuminate here and there, now and then. Brightness plays in the open and wars with darkness.” So in true Heideggarian fasion, Heidegger returns to the etymological source of lichtung and explains that while, in a modern context, the verb liecht does indeed mean light, it is the adjective licht which means “open” that concerns Heidegger.  And so this Open, though closely filled with connotations of light, in fact means just an opening, a sheltered space. It is the flip side of the illumination by light; it is a space cleared to receive light which is important, not the source of light itself.  It is the opposite of shining a torch at the night sky in which the beam disappears into the murk; instead the light is pointed at a clearing which receives the light. And as it reveals, it conceals in order to protect, like, in Heidegger word’s, the forest clearing which is not only “free for brightness and darkness, but also for resonance and echo, for sounding and diminishing sound.  The clearing is the open for everything that is present and absent.”

This clearing then is a space for alethia (as it must be then for lethe) but it remains illumined and obscured in the center of the forest.  What then for the forest, the murk of trees? What exists beyond the forest?  Or does that in fact, in the end, matter?  Heidegger seems only concerned with the clearing, with die Lichtung, which works only in the clearing.  There is that feeling of walking on the land behind my house, emerging from a grove of maple and fir, to a space inexplicably opened and the calmness that rests there.  If we clear cut the forest to expand that clearing, it would of course disappear.  In the harsh light of broad daylight on a big plain, without a windbreak, nothing can survive for long, especially nothing as delicate as the ephemeral alethia. But again, what of the rest of the forest? This is a point where Heidegger takes a step back from the soteriological.  It seems, if only for now, that the rest of the darkness, the un-illumined, doesn’t matter.  It is enough that there exists a place, if only for a moment, like some sort of prussian satori where the unconcealed can remain concealed, where the true emerging of Being is hidden for as long as necessary.

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