Spinoza’s Memex

Justin says:

In our discussion last time of Bush, Deleuze, and Cohen, we touched on the idea that each of these writers (and perhaps the culture at large) persistently identifies technical innovation as the means by which the human mind will be able to wrap itself around the totality of knowledge. Though Bush’s memex remains in mind as a provocative example of such an innovation, these technics do not need to be mechanical in nature.  Indeed, Jamie said that a “technic” in this case is better understood more broadly as any procedural apparatus, discipline, or process for knowledge production.  For the last two weeks, I feel as though I’ve paid a heightened attention to the technics employed in my own discipline, in my classes, my assigned readings, and especially in Spinoza.  Setting the specific content The Ethics aside for the moment, then, I think it would be interesting to make a couple remarks about his methodology.

Even though the structure of his piece was initially off-putting (at one moment tedious, at the next overwhelming), I understood that it was only because of my own lack of familiarity with his chosen procedural apparatus. If the mathematical proof were only an organizational structure, then a novice reader would be able to adapt to it quickly enough, but the proof here goes beyond simple format. It is a thinking and writing technology of extraordinary complexity with hierarchies of parts (axioms, definitions, postulates, proofs, etc.) that move and interlock with one another to form a knowledge-producing machine.  For any given postulate that Spinoza announces, his apparatus puts into motion the appropriate parts (II. Post. i.; I. xi note; IV. xv and Coroll., etc.) to account for its verity. At this point, the new postulate becomes a part of the apparatus itself, making the knowledge machine more complex the more it is used, and lending each new postulate a longer trail of reasoning than the one before.

Like other technics, Spinoza seems to identify his apparatus as a means of making a true account of the data of the universe.  Though he asserts that there is no end goal or purpose for the material world (indeed, it is only humanity’s own desire for the purposive and the useful that makes us believe such a thing), there does seem to be an attainable end to human knowledge which his own methods are able to attain. Indeed, he frequently derides the arguments of others and their false argumentative apparatuses (see 78, for example) while praising his own (see 77 and 129 on the power of the mathematical proof as a method of uncovering the truths that go beyond mere “final causes”).

What The Ethics represents, then, is a memex at work: an apparatus designed to hold knowledge in memory (in the form of axioms, past postulates) and to systematically use that knowledge to produce meaning from new data offered to it.

Meghan says:

The internal logic by which Spinoza works is something that I also noticed.  Like, perhaps, many works that are unfamiliar to a reader, The Ethics seems at first glance tedious and—dare I say it?—almost absurd.  And then, it begins to teach us, to teach us not just about the ostensible philosophical matter up for discussion.  It also teaches us how to read it, how to follow it as a system of thought, a method for producing knowledge.

In addition to the elements in Spinoza’s text that Justin has already brought up, I was struck by something else: association, that powerful mental process whereby the mind’s imagining of one body straightaway leads to remembering another, simply because both bodies had once affected us simultaneously (see Spinoza 100).  It is interesting to note how the structure of The Ethics mimics its content, calling our attention to the process of association at the same time that it invites us to form these associations within the work and consequently render its logic more commanding.  Again and again the reader is invited to take, as proof of one of Spinoza’s proposition, some previous proposition, corollary, etc.  We have striking examples on nearly every page (see the Corollary to Prop XXIX on page 106 for a characteristic glimpse) of Spinoza proving ideas by associating previous ideas together, each proposition standing on the last like a Lego block (too linear a metaphor, maybe, but you get the idea) so that at last he has built us a philosophical castle.  The attentive reader (with much time on his hands) can follow every move, shuffle the pages back and forth, a print mimex of self-referral.  The less-attentive reader may simply accept the connections, begin to ignore them, having found no point to refute in the previous arguments.  The network of associations makes the argument stronger, but what if one piece, one association were to collapse?  Would the entire castle disappear, or just the rear wall?

Spinoza’s associations (I refer here to the ones he draws pointedly for us, and not to the myriad individual associations created by the reader perusing the text) are all self-contained: given the time and interest, it would be possible to connect every dot.  Perhaps one could say that the process would give one pleasure, in so much that, if all the associations were truly valid, the reasoning would strengthen the logic of the mind, the knowledge of causality, and thereby increase the body’s potential for action.  This may not be entirely in the spirit of Bush’s memex (or perhaps it is—isn’t the knowledge there of a finite nature, limited by whatever has been loaded into the machine?), as the path of associations is fixed.  Yet it leads me to wonder, particularly in relation to our discussion last week about the value of “collecting” knowledge: is there a place where the power of association breaks down, causes pain, diminishes our potential for action?  And if so, what would that mean?

~ by justinsevenker on September 12, 2010.