The Polynomia of the Beginning
12 June 2022
Woven inks, Nadine Tarbouriech, 2022; Image credit: Received
The question of the relation between persistence, end and beginning have been present in philosophical discourse without appropriate articulation. Benedetta Todaro finds in the text on “The Other Beginning of Philosophy” published by Nancy, Dwivedi, and Mohan a new articulation of this question through their very questioning of the logic of Being. Todaro moves on to the scientific and psychoanalytic resources to investigate further the crisis of thinking brought on by the meaning of the relation between persistence and end through the terms stasis and metastasis. She affirms a new relation between the thought of polynomia and the “obscure experience” to show the stakes of an other beginning.
"Why not, get it over with?" Jean-Luc Nancy asks himself and us in his latest text, entitled "La fin de la philosophie et la tâche de la pensée". (1) We do not want to provide an answer to this question – others have already committed themselves to it. But we do want to pose another question, because, as Dwivedi indicates in his article entitled "Nancy's Wager", Nancy's "wager" is "an appeal", which is "a provocation, a request, an invitation, a challenge". (2) The question is: "Why not, persist?". Immediately other questions arise: "what should persist?", "us? the world? one because of the other? one being the other?". To approach the question of "the end", one must also address the question of "persistence". As Shaj Mohan shows in his article "And the Beginning of Philosophy", (3) the history of metaphysics could be summarized, from Aristotle onwards, as an attempt to ward off the threat of the world's disappearance: naming Being, giving it an identity, establishing its outer limits, ensures its persistence. As Mohan noted, it is necessary to preserve oneself from exposure to "obscure experience". (4) So, to the question "why is there something rather than nothing?" is followed, logically and not temporally, by this other question: "why does this something persist rather than disappear?". In this sense, the logic of the identity of Being is also, irredeemably, the logic of the persistence of Being. Now, according to this logic, it is legitimate to ask: "how does Being persist?". But to answer this question, we must again refer to the logic of identity: it can only persist in Being itself, in its being identical to itself. The removal of the threat of the end of Being (logic of persistence) is ensured by the identity of Being itself (logic of identity) – and vice versa, chiasmatically. The logic of identity operates not so much in the evasion of the possibility of nothingness as in the removal of all otherness; the logic of persistence operates in the necessary perpetuation of that removal. The one necessitates the other. Nancy's call, at the end of her article, for an "allotropy" then seems to us to go expressly against the aforementioned logics. As Nancy again emphasizes, Being's self-sufficiency (identity) and its automatic reconduction (persistence) condemn it to "relate to itself by denying itself". (5) Being's withdrawal into itself, terrified by the fear of its own end, ultimately and inexorably leads it to that same end.
As Mohan noted, it is necessary to preserve oneself from exposure to "obscure experience". So, to the question "why is there something rather than nothing?" is followed, logically and not temporally, by this other question: "why does this something persist rather than disappear?"
Where, on the one hand, Mohan has employed himself to show the implication of the two logics mentioned in the history of Western metaphysics and, on the other, Dwivedi has employed herself to show it in the occidental-oriental opposition, we will instead be concerned with showing its implementation at a specific moment in the recent history of the declinations of what is called “Western metaphysics.” This moment is historically located around the middle of the 20th century and implies what happened in the fields of both philosophy and biology, and in the case of the latter in connection with the emergence of the terror of the "obscure experience" in the field of physics. In the seminar entitled La vie la mort, Derrida had already emphasized how "the possibility of biologism as a historical possibility is linked to the entire history of metaphysics, as a consequence of the fact that the equivalence being-physis-life has always been at work" although "this historical possibility nevertheless differs and is determined each time in a singular way". (6)
“First known representation of the ouroboros on one of the shrines enclosing the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun.”; Image credit: Wikimedia commons
Let us consider the emergence of this terror in the sphere of physics starting with the stasis-movement distinction: where stasis seems to guarantee the identity and persistence of Being, movement exposes it to the possibility of being other-than-itself insofar as, at the mercy of movement, Being comes to be differentiated from itself. But is Being really preserved in stasis? Is it not already inhabited, within itself, by an entropic increase that leads it to exhaustion? Rudolf Clausius, in a text that aims to contradict the "Principle of Conservation of Energy", expresses himself in these terms:
The closer the universe approaches this limit state, in which entropy is at its highest, the more the opportunities for further change disappear; if this state were finally reached, no more change would occur, and the universe would be in a state of prolonged death. (7)
This statement rests on two assumptions:
A closed system is a system in stasis that, operating at the maintenance of its own identity, is destined to entropic implosion;
any change of the system from one state to another is irreversible, i.e. it emerges not equivalent to itself, and thus loses its identity.
Let's be clear: to be identical to itself, a system must not change, but thus destines itself to its own end; to persist, a system must undergo change, but thus destines itself to the loss of its own identity.
Camille Flammarion, a French astronomer who lived between 1842 and 1925, speaks of a "mystical fear'" of Christian origin: it would be the "fear of the immediate and universal end of beings and things". (8) This fear would follow the death of God, the inexhaustible motor of the existence of all things, as well as the enthronement of a science that reveals to us a world in the process of exhaustion. However, for Flammarion, the "simple" observation below should allay the fear that the science of the time had instilled in man: "Yet the universe has persisted in existing until today". (9) The solution to the fear of "the end of the world" would therefore be this: a single infinite and universal Being that has lasted forever and will therefore continue to do so. This is the conclusion of Flammarion's text:
And always the infinite space remained populated of worlds and stars, of souls and suns; and eternity lasted forever.
BECAUSE THERE IS NO END AND THERE IS NO BEGINNING. (10)
So let us return to the original question: Why not, persist since "it all seems to persist"?
But what is a Being that, having neither beginning nor end, is nothing other than one and the same indestructible Being, perpetuating itself ad infinitum? Flammarion indicates that only organismic Being can self-perpetuate infinitely: by drawing substances from its surroundings, it secures and reassures itself of its own perpetuity in an endless renewal (which is by no means "another beginning") of its own elements. "“Ever new” and “always the same”" (11) writes Merleau-Ponty about this organismic Being that is the flesh of the world. It seems to us, therefore, that the emergence of the fear of an "end of finite Being" corresponds to a new declination of Western metaphysics, which bears the names, among others – for there are many others – of "organicist revolution", in the field of science, and of "ontology of the flesh", in the field of philosophy, which elaborate a new apprehension of Being in which the logic of identity and that of persistence would act together, preserving us from the terror of exposure to the "obscure experience".
At the heart of Merleau-Ponty's ontology of the flesh, we find at work both the logic of identity and the logic of the persistence of Being, which is maintained by a false duplicity constituted solely by Narcissus and his mirror and which, therefore, can in no way be a plurality.
We are perfectly aware that proposing to criticize Merleau-Ponty's "ontology of the flesh" or "organicism" may appear to be a wholly unpopular choice. What could be dangerous about these two apprehensions of Being? A common agreement seems to have spread regarding the "salvific" scope of these apprehensions, especially in the attempt to overcome, on the one hand, the subject-object opposition (for the ontology of the flesh) and, on the other hand, the limits of reductionism (for organicism).
We will then present these two apprehensions, emphasizing the emergence of the following aspects in them:
The idea of a total Being, identical to itself and self-perpetuating;
The idea of a teleological Being, for whom it is a matter of appeasing the "fear of the end" by controlling the temporal dimension of the future;
The idea of a Being that, because of the other two points, must exclude exposure to alterity;
The fact that such Being, too, finally "gets it over with", albeit with a different "end".
Merleau-Ponty elaborates an apprehension of Being by attributing to it the structure of "chiasmus" (ABBA), which is structurally the "circularity" of a "fundamental narcissism" (12):
In the chiasmatic structure, duplicity – the "two leaves" (13) Being (A and B) – is reduced to the "back and forth" of a single, infinitely self-perpetuating Being. It is therefore not a duplicity that leads to differential deviations in ontological structure, but rather a duplicity that leads to the chiasmatic enclosure of a single Being – a single flesh – a "huit clos" (like the sign of infinity) terrified of otherness. A Being that, although ever new, is always the same. Thus (the) all, the visible as well as the invisible, belongs to absolute Being: (the) all is generated in itself, by itself and for itself – by self-reproduction. Carnal Being is a full thing – Nature, as Merleau-Ponty calls it – because each of its elements (14) refers to the whole of which it is a part, that is, to the general system of Being. At the heart of Merleau-Ponty's ontology of the flesh, we find at work both the logic of identity and the logic of the persistence of Being, which is maintained by a false duplicity constituted solely by Narcissus and his mirror and which, therefore, can in no way be a plurality. In fact, as Franck Chouraqui points out, "Merleau-Ponty describes the passage from “the object” to “the element” as a passage not from the Singular to the One, but from the singular to the general, and presents it as a unified source of the multiple". (15) Precisely, the multiple is not the plural, for where the multiple is merely the serial repetition of the same mathematical entity (identity), the plural is only possible outside both the logic of repetition and that of identity. Multiplicity is self-reproduction: the temporal dimension of the future is then perfectly calculable. In order for the principle of identity to be preserved, that is, for Being to always be the same, it is necessary both for the system not to be completely closed – a circularity proper exposes itself to the risk of entropic increase – and that it never touches its “true” exterior, so that, like the Moebius strip, the exterior must be reduced to being only the reverse of the interior – a narcissistically chiasmatic circularity. Plurality can only be achieved according to a "polynomial" logic. From a mathematical point of view, this implies a shift from a logic of "elevation to the power of a term" (xy : multiplication y times of the same term x) to a logic of "addition or difference of several terms" ( x± y : addition or subtraction of one term to another). Now, if carnal Being only extends itself, that is, multiplies itself, without ever touching the outside, this is with a view to preserving itself, that is, to ensure its own perpetuity through its own serial self-reproduction. Therefore the singular must fade into the general, just as the serial, and therefore generalized, re-production of the capitalist system erases the singularity of the object.
The organicist conception of living beings became established in the field of biology at the beginning of the 20thème century. Later, through systems theory, the "organicist conception of biology" changed into the "general systemic conception": everything is a "system" and, consequently, everything obeys the "rules of the system". It is what we call "metabolism" that guarantees the "automatic self-regulation" of the system, i.e. "the maintenance [of the organism] in change of components". (16) Every organism thus performs a vital action that is a mechanism of "adaptation", in which the internal/external distinction is suppressed in favor of an immanent indistinction in which the reciprocal exteriority of organism and environment is overcome. The organism is then an "open system" (unlike the "closed systems" of mechanism), but it is a regulated and regulating openness, which never exposes the organism to the "shock of the outside", to the "shock of alterity". Moreover, as Von Bertalanffy points out, the organism is a teleological being, that is, a being guided by the principle of finality and not cause, that is, by the "dependence of the process on future instead past conditions". (17) A new logic then emerges, that of "equifinality": Being does not persist in itself because it has always been so, but rather because it will always be so, regardless of its original form.
Plurality can only be achieved according to a "polynomial" logic. From a mathematical point of view, this implies a shift from a logic of "elevation to the power of a term" (xy : multiplication y times of the same term x) to a logic of "addition or difference of several terms" ( x± y : addition or subtraction of one term to another).
In organicism, the mechanistic fear of the "end" is then assuaged in the certainty of the future persistence of Being. Indeed, if the idea of a closed system preserved the identity of the system through an internal/external delimitation that nevertheless exposed it to the risk of entropic implosion, with open systems both the identity of the system and its persistence are guaranteed through the suppression of this delimitation and the establishment of regulatory mechanisms that respond to the teleological logic of equifinality. But what is suppressed is the relationship with alterity, which could never be reduced to a mere "correlative" of the system or a mere "reverse" of the flesh.
“The Twittering Machine”, Water colour and ink, Paul Klee; Image credit: Wikimedia commons.
But is the fear of the end really put out of play?
Heidegger, in his text entitled TheFundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, proposing to grasp "the singularity of the organism with respect to the machine", argues that the organism is characterized through "self-production, self-government and self-renewal, which are also expressed in the well-known concept of self-preservation". (18) The coupling of identity and persistence of Being is realized through what Heidegger calls the "attitude of return", which is "the attitude of returning to the place of origin," (19) that is, to the organism's being-proper-to-itself. How does this return take place? It is a matter of mastering the temporal dimension of the future ("in-view-of-what") so that the organism can maintain itself in being-in-itself. Such "self-preservation" was theoretically conceivable, according to Heidegger, only when biologists freed themselves from the chimeras of the mechanistic view of nature. (20)
This Being that does not expel itself from itself, that does not move away into an outside, and as outside, can only operate a mere displacement that does not change the nature of the body at all, but, on the contrary, founds and affirms it. We find ourselves, here, at the exact opposite of the movement of ex-propriation that Nancy speaks of, particularly in Corpus, with regard to the body as that which ex-poses itself to otherness as alterity: the body "touches the outside, but at the same time [...] touches itself as outside".(21) On the contrary, in the organism it is a matter of the auto-matic movement of proprio-tropy, opposed to the hetero-matic movement of allo-tropy invoked by Nancy.
Now, it seems to us that where Heidegger emphasized that it is only a mode of being, attributable, moreover, exclusively to the animal, (22) it seems that today we should rather consider it as the mode of being of Being in general.
Heidegger concludes the theme of the essence of the organism with a reflection that allows us to return to the initial point. He states that the organism "cannot die, but it can only come to its end, insofar as we attribute exclusively to man the fact of dying". (23) The being-in-itself, despite the effort to persist as itself or, strictly speaking, precisely because of this effort, eventually ends up with itself – but not through death. Now, given our hypothesis that today (the) everything – the same everything inaugurated by organicist ontology – functions organically according to the principles of identity and persistence, we can (re)affirm that the exquisitely provocative question posed by Nancy ("Why not, get it over with?") must be accompanied by this other question, namely: "Why not, persist? ".
As we have tried to show, the "fear of the end" that plagued the mechanistic worldview was stemmed by the arrival of organicist ontology. In order to avoid the stasis of the closed system, and thus the dangers of entropic increase, it was necessary to think of an open, metabolically functioning system, so as to guarantee both the identity and persistence of the system. However, following the path of Heideggerian reflection on the organism, we have come to realize that the organic system can also "get it over with". It is not, however, the same "kind" of ending. Where the closed system, having reached a state of stasis, collapses through entropy, the open system collapses through metastatic accumulation, i.e. through what we define in these terms: a self-reproduction ad infinitum of the "self", of the "one primary substance" – in other words: through cancerous proliferation. To continue the medical metaphor, the end of the open system is reached when cancerous proliferation reaches metastasis, i.e. when the cells of the "primary tumor" detach themselves from their place of origin and spread elsewhere. Thus, by metastasizing, the tumor aims to reach the whole: the cancerous cell – a cell with an "accelerated gluconic metabolism" – multiplies endlessly. Indeed, it would appear that the metabolism of cancer cells, in order to accelerate "cell proliferation", relies exclusively on the consumption of glucose and not oxygen: in the accelerated effort to reproduce, to multiply, the organism goes into its own asphyxiation.
In this sense, the fear of the end will have led to it – to this very end. Or, to be more precise, the fear of an end will have led to another end.
So, once again, "why not get it over with?". But is this really the only solution, the only end, in the sense of the only purpose? Do we not fall back here, perhaps, into the equifinality we have tried to criticize so far? For although it is another end, it is still an end.
What if that is not the question? If the question of the end seems irrevocably – "equifinally" – to close the story, should we not rather do without it? What if, instead of asking the question of the end, we should rather ask the question of the beginning or, rather, of The Other Beginning?
The other beginning must open to the possibility of the polynomial: to the possibility of ever new and unpredictable regularities. As Dwivedi reminds us, Nancy had spoken of the "beginnings of philosophy" where "beginnings" "must always be written in the plural, since it is not possible to designate only one". (24) Equifinality, which is based on a teleology as baleful as it is fatal, is then offside: "always new, always other".
1. Jean-Luc Nancy, « The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking », in Philosophy World Democracy 2.7, July 2021: https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/other-beginning/the-end-of-philosophy.
2. Divya Dwivedi, "Nancy’s Wager", in Philosophy World Democracy 2.7, July 2021: https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/other-beginning/nancys-wager.
3. Shaj Mohan, "And the Beginning of philosophy", in Philosophy World Democracy 2.7, July 2021: https://www.philosophy-world-democracy.org/other-beginning/and-the-beginning-of-philosophy.
4. Shaj Mohan, "The Obscure Experience", in European Journal of Psychanalysis: https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/the-obscure-experience/.
5. Nancy, " The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking ".
6. Jacques Derrida, La vie la mort. Séminaire (1975-1976), Éditions du Seuil, Paris : 2019 (1984, Éditions Galilée), pp. 182-183, my translation.
7. R. Clausius, "Le second principe de la théorie mécanique de la chaleur", tr. fr. di P. Delestrée, Revue des cours scientifiques de la France et de l'étranger, 5, 10, 1868, p. 153-159 (estratto), in LOCQUENEUX, R., Histoire de la thermodynamique classique. De Sadi Carnot à Gibbs, Éditions Belin, Paris: 2009, p. 249, my translation.
8. Camille Flammarion, La fin du monde, Ernest Flammarion, Paris: 1894, p. 185, my translation.
9. Flammarion, La fin du monde, p. 374, my translation and emphasis.
10. Flammarion, La fin du monde, p. 385.
11. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, (edited by C. Lefort, tr. en. A. Lingis), Northwestern University Press (coll. « Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy »), Evanston: 1968 (1964 for the original French version), p. 267.
12. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, p. 139.
13. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, p. 131.
14. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, p. 139: "The flesh is in this sense an “element” of Being".
15. F. Chouraqui, "Circulus Vitiosus Deus: Merleau-Ponty’s Ontology of Ontology", in Studia Phaenomenologica, XVI (2016), pp. 474-475.
16. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General System theory. Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller, New York: 1969, p. 124.
17. von Bertalanffy, General System theory, p. 77.
18. Martin Heidegger, Les concepts fondamentaux de la métaphysique. Monde-Finitude-Solitude, Éditions Gallimard (coll. « NRF »), tr. fr. par Daniel Panis, Paris : 1992 (1983 pour la version originale allemande), p. 340, my translation.
19. Heidegger, Les concepts fondamentaux, p. 358, my translation.
20. Heidegger, Les concepts fondamentaux, p. 380, my translation: " It is precisely in the 19th century that, despite all the energy of research, this fundamental conception of life was missing for a long time, not so much because it was unknown as because it was stifled by the dominance of the mechanistic and physical view of nature".
21. Nancy, Corpus, p. 117, my translation.
22. Heidegger goes on to say: "The way man is, we call the bearing of relationship (Verhalten), the way the animal is, we call behavior (Benehmen). The two are fundamentally different", Heidegger, Les concepts fondamentaux, p. 347, my translation.
23. Ibidem, p. 387, we translate.
24. Dwivedi, « Nancy’s Wager ».