How to do things with theory


In Outwards we have the seminal (if  “more badly-written” than the average AH text) essay on what we’ll keep calling physics — to the dismay of I-fucking-love-science fans and maybe even some scientists. There’s something to the dynamics of theory-making (and not just AH, but philosophy, continental and analytic alike, linguistics, psychoanalysis, etc.) that leads it to eventually “abuse” or overlap the terminology of science. More often than not the principal reason for this is rhetorical, whether to borrow the self-importance of science and mathematics (like in Badiou) or to stress that certain points have to be understood as technical and isolated from hermeneutics (like in Lacan’s graph of desire and four discourses). It doesn’t help, of course, that these guys have very little training in the hard disciplines.

I like to think of what we’re doing as far more honest. The calculus on graphs can be rigorously constructed in a very general setting — many people are aware how differentiation in grid-like graphs converges to the ordinary calc-101 differentiation as it gets finer, but that’s not the point at all: graphs (rigorously, rigorously rigorously!) generalize the ordinary (continuum) setting where continuum physics is built. Let us get this out of the way at once: what we call physics is indeed physics, but not a physics of the natural world. What, then? It really depends: even on my note-taking app I’m continually fiddling with what is understood to be “mass”, with whether boundary values should be set to obtain conservative potential fields or what semantics are given to boundary values.

In this way, physics matches the distributed-but-heterogeneous nature of tempo. This match happens because both concepts are indexed to the world we operate in. The gaps between dt (continuous time, chronos, what have you) and the time we experience have long been the subject of dense contention from Bergson to neuroscience features in The Atlantic. A common wisdom prevalent in “learned” folks tends to interpret such gaps as issues of perception — paradoxes, yes, but ones where “the buck stops here”; where the valuable way is to humble ourselves to dt — in the limit, to the meillassouxsian Great Outdoors. The reactionary politics implicit in this attitude make sure it never gets far; but the objectification of time is one of the boundary value conditions that this learned wisdom needs to hammer down in order to mess with other aspects that have greater political leverage. Therefore “July 4, 1776” is a definite interval comprising 86 400 000 milliseconds,  but the date of American independence is up for grabs.

Here we must rigorously follow Moldbug’s ratchet strategy: sure, highlighting the continuity of slavery across the times of the American revolution, woo hoo, but aren’t they insufficiently revolutionary by failing to question time itself? And what is the physics of this “America”?


One reason theory is not particularly truth-valued is that theory is the theory of generic structure (I’d love to see the first person who tattoos this), which pulls it in an apraxic, axiology-first direction. But another, so far only diffusely alluded to, is that epistemics is the scold of perception. Rationalism, which flocks to epistemics like high-powered executives flock to leather-clad whip-yielding escorts, tells us that perception is a fairweather lover but submission (mock submission, at that) is much more erotic, i.e. life-giving. There’s good arguments in both directions; if the analogy were to hold all the way through, we could say that the healthy middle is to love perception and have it play epistemics (eg. make small predictions) for kicks. My own note-taking physics gizmo is some light kink thing in this way: that’s a lot of maths for a catalog of jazz records and session players.

But there’s always been a slight ambivalence about the vaunted “apraxic character of theory”. General Axiology has always been both “ultimate wisdom” and “ultim,ate power”. If we haven’t rushed to make good on the latter promise, it’s because we had and still have very little in this respect. It was nevertheless always clear that it was in the cards and we just needed to press on. Clear to me and therefore hopefully to us; the never-before-explained reason of the I/we voice switching is that as we progress to general axiology the distinction melts down.

The mistake made by most kinksters is to worship prediction. Prediction is a partial object (the petit a); its seductive power both conceals and suggests a wholeness of being-alive-in-the-world like paraphilic objects seem to conceal a wholeness of sexuality. But it’s all too easy to fetishize the seduction itself, the impediment to fulfillment as a higher form of enjoyment. Division of labor encourages many of us to derive some kind of endorphin rush from predictions that lock us out of actual climax.

The name of this actual climax is operation. Praxis is, in contrast, an act-first-think-later kind of method; pragmatist philosophy tells us “no ideas but in things”. But engaging the world through theory works otherwise: one works up a frenzy of thought until it becomes operational.   Thought is engaged by theory because it wants to see what its seduction conceals — the thing itself, the whole thing — but can only go all the way through by understanding this wholeness part by part, realizing (yes, bringing back from reality) that skin is made of pores, distributed, asynchronous, complexly connected.

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