Gilles Deleuze was a philosopher who resurrected the ‘neglected’ and unconventional figures of philosophy - such as the philosophy of Henri Bergson - in order to reanimate some of the concepts and problems produced. Ultimately, they point in different ways to one important concept; ‘becoming’. Being and matter are never stable: they are always caught in an endless process of variation or becoming. ‘Being is becoming’ is thus a guiding principle in Deleuze’s work. For Deleuze: “The life of philosophers conforms to the ordinary laws of succession; but their proper names coexist and shine as luminous points that take us through the components of a concept once more or as the cardinal points of a stratum or layer that continually come back to us, like dead stars whose light is brighter than ever”.
Deleuze’s ‘practical vitalism’ points to Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1911), where the fluid structure of the élan vital is described as a form of materiality in process of becoming, which eludes intellectual analysis and can only be comprehended through empathy and intuition; it is an expression of the pre-individual, of the flux and indeterminacy of life, where the constraints of identity are yet to be applied. As Bergson points out, the intellect tends to spatialise, to immobilise the flux of life. In this way, the perception of being is reduced and impoverished. Accordingly, Deleuze adopts a mode of thought and a style of exposition subtle enough to penetrate the flow of life: “Your writing has to be liquid or gaseous simply because normal perception and opinion are solid, geometric”.
Deleuze adopts Bergson’s model of perception, which conceives the world as ‘flowing-matter’.
This involves a constant process of transformation, and a metaphysics in which the light of consciousness is already in things themselves, where ‘movement-image’ and ‘flowing matter’, ‘pure spiritualism’ (philosophical idealism) and ‘radical materialism’, converge. The universe is conceptualised as a kind of ‘meta-cinema’; a machinic rather than a mechanistic universe. It is a universe without eyes, in which light is not reflected or stopped: “In other words, the eye is in things, in luminous images in themselves”. Bergson and Deleuze are machinic materialists, who consider consciousness as immanent to matter. A monistic materialism that provides us with ‘a world without a subject’:
My eye, my brain, are images, parts of my body. How could my brain contain images since it is one image among others? External images act on me, transmit movement to me, and I return movement: how could images be in my consciousness, since I am myself image, that is, movement? And can I even, at this level; speak of ‘ego’, of eye, of brain and a body? Only for simple convenience; for nothing can yet be identified in this way. It is rather a gaseous state. Me, my body, are rather a set of molecules and atoms which are constantly renewed. It is a state of matter too hot for one to be able to distinguish solid bodies in it. It is a world of universal variation, of universal undulation, universal rippling: there are neither axes, nor centre, nor left, nor right, nor high nor low.
The ancient Greek philosophers of the Ionian school thought the principle of all things was in matter alone; for it is that out of which all things are and from which they come into being, and into which, at the last, they pass away. This they say is the element and principle of things.
The philosopher Thales singled out water as the primary substance from which all else was derived and to which it returns. Many have questioned as to why Thales took water as the primary stuff of nature, the essential reality of all other phenomena. The philosopher Aristotle writes that Thales observed that every living thing contains moisture. Plants contain moisture, all foodstuffs contain moisture, whereas rocks are dry and cadavers very soon desiccate. Thales saw the essential part played by water in nourishing life so that the hot element could come from it, since what is alive has heat. Water is also the essence of seeds. His favourite phrase was: “Water is the most beautiful thing in the world”. Thales also chose the moist element because of his special studies of climatic conditions: water assumed such different forms as ice, liquid, and vapour, and to the ancient Greeks the phenomena of evaporation, mist, wind, animal breath, the germination of plants and the origins of life were all intermingled and identified.
Aristotle also suggests that Thales might have been carrying forward the primacy that Greek and Egyptian mythology accorded water, for he had spent time in arid zones such as Egypt and Mesopotamia, where water-cults were widespread, owing to the fact that agriculture and the very survival of the population depended upon the flooding of the rivers. The Egyptians worshipped the river Nile as a God. Thales also held that everything had a soul and was therefore “full of gods”. This hearkens back to the animistic phase of religion, the knowledge that the body has of its essential union with nature, that sense of awe, wonderment and reverence towards nature as the outward, physical manifestation of a purpose that is essentially spiritual, springing forth from depths unseen. It is a picture of an enchanted world where every tree and river has its local indwelling spirit, god or goddess. Thales considered water to be the soul of the world, the universal essence of life: “A divine power is present in the element of water by which it is endowed with movement.”
“Everything is in a flux, everything changes” observed the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. For nothing remains what, where and as it was: everything is and also is not, for everything is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away. “All things are flowing” and change is universal, “for nothing ever is, everything is becoming”. This is a world where concrete sensuous ‘living’ opposites merge into one another. According to Heraclitus, “Souls are vaporised from what is wet. To souls, it is death to become water; to water, it is death to become earth. From earth comes water, and from water, soul. Fire lives the death of earth, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of air, earth - that of water.”
The impermanence and mutability of all things is expressed by Heraclitus in his famous aphorism: “It is not possible to step twice in to the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you: we are, and are not.”
A radical follower of Heraclitus, the philosopher Cratylus, argues against Heraclitus that it is impossible to step into the same river even once, seeing that, while we are stepping into the river, it is changing, is becoming another river. The extant being is, so to speak, dissolved in the very process of becoming. Thus every existing state of things inevitably breaks up, and every developed form is in fluid movement.
For example, picture an eternally flowing stream of molecules in motion, joining one with another, and forming certain combinations, ‘things’, ‘objects’. Such combinations are distinguished by the greater or lesser degree of there stability, existing for a more or less prolonged period of time, and then passing away, to be replaced by others.
In like manner, every organic being is at each moment the same and not the same; at each moment it is assimilating matter drawn from without, and excreting other matter; at each moment the cells of the body are dying and new ones are being formed; in a longer or shorter period of time the matter of the body is completely renewed and is replaced by other molecules of matter, so that every organic being is always itself, and yet something other than itself.
This celebration of the fundamental fluidity and sacredness of nature and hostility towards a disenchanted cold hearted rationalism cruelly ignorant of a vital and sacred organic reality, beautifully and poetically evoked in Ovid’s Metamorphosis:
As for Cyane, she lamented the rape of the goddess, and the contempt shown for her fountain’s rights, nursing silently in her heart a wound that none could heal; until, entirely wasted away with weeping, she dissolved into those waters of which she had lately been the powerful spirit. Her limbs could be seen melting away, her bones growing flexible her nails losing their firmness. The slenderest parts of her body dissolved first of all, her dark hair, her fingers, her legs and feet. It needed but a little change to transform her slight limbs into chill waters; after that her shoulders, her back, her sides, her breast disappeared, fading away into insubstantial streams, till at last, instead of living blood, water flowed through her softened veins, and nothing remained for anyone to grasp.
Everything becomes but nothing is. Like the Lethe and Mnemosyne rivers, the streams of forgetfulness and memory, substance, matter, is in a perpetual state of motion and change. The material ‘objects’ of the physical world exist for a moment of time only as temporary combinations amidst the perpetual flux of Becoming. However, for however long as these combinations remain the same, we tend to judge and define them as fixed, rigid objects of investigation, given once and for all in accordance with the formula of traditional logic: ‘Either yes or no’. Thus a thing either exists or does not exist; and cannot at the same time be itself or something else. Natural objects and processes are therefore perceived in rigid isolation, isolated from their general context; they are examined not in their motion, but in a state of immobility; not in their life, but in their death. This mechanistic point of view is one-sided, restricted and abstract: individual things are perceived outside of their relationships, in a state of rest devoid of motion, where, in the presence of their existence, their coming into being and passing away is ignored. We cease to see the wood for the trees.
Inevitably, however, in proportion as things change to the extent to which they cease to exist as they did formerly, and to the extent that we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move, change and are connected, we must apply a very different kind of logic: the logic of contradiction; we say “Yes and no, they exist and they do not exist”. Things are now perceived in their fluidity: in other words, in their connection, their interlacement, their movement, their appearance and disappearance. Everything is and also is not, for everything is in flux, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.
This, while supplying a positive understanding of the existing state of things, at the same time enables us to recognise that that state of things will inevitably break up. Accordingly we are led to regard the things of the natural world, and their concepts in the human brain, not as distinct, unchangeable, rigid objects, given once and for all, but instead as transient, in fluid movement, in their appearance and disappearance, in the perpetual flow of their life.
Furthermore, we find upon closer examination that the two poles of any apparent division or dichotomy, like subject and object, mind and body, self and other, male and female, are inseparable, and interpenetrate; they are two different aspects of a single entity, living, mobile, perpetually changing themselves in to one another; an interdependence or unity of opposites, known in logic under the name of principium coincidentiae oppositorium (the principle of the coincidence of opposites). This unity of opposites is something more, however, than a mere juxtaposition of opposing factors, but is, in the opinion of one philosopher, “the root of all movement and life, and it is only insofar as it contains a Contradiction that anything moves and has impulse and activity”.
We know that structurally the physical world exhibits a fluctuating and dynamic equilibrium of opposing forces in all its forms, down to the minutest combination of electrical particles. The very life processes of the human body itself depend upon the interconnection of opposing processes: the anabolic building-up processes and the katabolic, breaking down processes. And the body’s simplest movement involves an interconnected opposition of flexor and tensor muscles. In like manner, we find that cause and effect are conceptions which only hold good in their application to the individual case as such; but as soon as we consider the individual case in its general connection with the universe as a whole, they merge; they dissolve in the process of universal action and reaction in which causes and effects are constantly changing places, so that what is effect here and now will be cause there and then, in a world where all things are linked and tangled a thousandfold and every deed gives birth to countless others.
Ancient Greek philosophers such as Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes and Heraclitus promoted a ‘fluid’ and poetic mode of thought, a reverential approach to the substances of the natural world. An outlook where concrete, sensuous, ‘living’ ‘opposites’ are interchangeable, permitting the continuous ‘flow’ or transmutation of one element into another. Nature is experienced as a living, all-embracing and magical entity. For these philosophers, matter consisted of four primal elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Water is opposed to fire but allied to earth, while air is opposed to earth but allied to fire. By arranging these elements in pairs, four primary qualities evolve: namely heat (fire and water), dryness (fire and earth), cold (earth and water), and moisture (water and air). A conception later extended to the human body, which was held to be composed of four fluids or ‘humours’: blood, phlegm, yellow bile (or choler) and black bile (or melancholy), characteristic of the four human ‘temperaments’: choleric (warm and dry, quick and strong), sanguine (warm and moist, quick and weak), phlegmatic (cold and moist, slow and weak), and melancholic (cold and dry, slow and strong). This is a world-view that establishes an intimate and physical connection between the microcosm of the human body, consisting of 70% water, and the macrocosm of the natural environment.
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, known as “the father of medicine”, investigated the link between disease and environment in accordance with the theory that an imbalance in the four humours, or bodily fluids, was responsible for disease. The voluminous writings of Hippocrates, totalling up to sixty or so texts, amount to a palimpsest or Corpus of works extensively elaborated upon by succeeding generations of physicians. Two texts, On Regimen and On the Nature of Man, portray the human body as eternally flowing in a condition of perpetual flux: health is a matter of keeping the body within specific boundaries in order to ensure a proper balance or equilibrium. Imbalance produces illness if it results in an undue concentration of fluids in any particular zone of the body. What are being kept in balance are bodily fluids or chymoi. Though naturally present in the body, two fluids - bile and phlegm - are particularly associated with illness, flowing immoderately from the body of the sick patient. Thus excessive phlegm produces winter colds, surplus bile produces summer diarrhoea and vomiting, and mania results from bile boiling in the brain.
Blood was regarded by Hippocrates as essential to life, yet even blood could exceed its natural bounds, and was periodically expelled from the body in menstruation or nose-bleeds. Such natural evacuation of excess blood suggested the need to maintain a balanced bodily equilibrium of this life-giving fluid through the practice of blood-letting, a therapeutic device devised by the Hippocratics, systemised by the physician Galen, and serving for centuries as a cure for a host of maladies.
In On the Nature of Man, Hippocrates describes black bile as
an important, though predominantly harmful, humour. Visible in vomit and
excreta, it contributes to the dark colour of dried blood. Observing clotted
blood, Hippocrates asserted that the darkest part corresponds to black bile,
the serum above the clot to yellow bile, while the light matter at the top is
phlegm. Hippocrates correlated these four bodily fluids or ‘humours’ - blood,
yellow bile, black bile and phlegm - to the four primary climatic qualities:
hot, dry, cold and wet; to the four seasons; to the four ages of human
development (infancy, youth, adulthood and old age); to the four elements (air,
fire, earth and water); and to the four human ‘temperaments’ (sanguine,
choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic). The four fluids or ‘humours’ of the
human body are the organising principles employed by Hippocrates and his
disciples to situate the body into a coherent, symmetrical grid, a system of
binary oppositions guaranteeing secure boundaries, physical health, and the
established hierarchical order of society. For example, Hippocrates affirms the
‘natural’ superiority of men over women to the binary distinction between
wetness and dryness:
The female flourishes more in an environment of water, from things cold and wet and soft.
The male flourishes more in an environment of fire, from dry, hot foods and mode of life.
The medical treatises of Hippocrates are coloured by the subservient role of women in ancient Greek patriarchal society. However, research conducted by generations of historians, anthropologists, philosophers and archaeologists; for example, Lewis Morgan, Johann Bachofen, Friedrich Engels, Elizabeth Gould Davis, Mary Daly, and Marija Gimbutas, reveal, before the onset of patriarchy, women had enjoyed an especially revered status. The evidence of women’s pre-eminent role in ancient Greek matriarchal societies is recorded in historical accounts of ancient religious rites involving acts of symbolic death and rebirth linked with baptism in the waters of the Styx. The waters of this underworld river, across which all souls had to pass after death, were believed to possess the fecundity and sacred powers associated with the cyclic flow of menstrual blood. The place where the river was thought to originate was commemorated by a shrine at the city of Clitor, or Kleitoris, sacred to Gaia, the Mother of the Earth.
The philosopher Luce Irigaray argues that the historically dominate ‘masculine’ culture of the West idealises formal structural qualities above everything else. According to Irigaray, this sterile formalism in turn seeks and imposes unity, stability, consistency and completion, everywhere. Thus everything incongruous, jarring, asymmetrical, random and unfinished become terms of criticism, instead of praise. The emphasis on unity and stability of form sees the production of fixed and final meanings as the supreme goal of both philosophical reflection and scientific investigation. The idea that anything may have a dynamically changing or polymorphous identity, or have contradiction as its very essence or animating principle, is defined as monstrous and abominable in a phallomorphic culture that can tolerate only the homogeneous, the defined, knowable, consistent, and contained.
Irigaray argues for the values of an alternative ‘feminine’ culture that subverts the traditional emphasis on unity and consistency of meaning and identity. According to Irigaray, “‘She’ is indefinitely other than ‘herself’”: there is no longer an insistence upon a strict dividing line between the ‘self’, and what is outside of it (the other). The armour of an alienating identity, the fortress-like exclusion of the isolated ‘ego’ or ‘monad’, is identified with the tension, paranoia and self-obsession of traditional masculine, bourgeois society and philosophy. The alternative is described by Irigaray thus: “‘she’ goes off in all directions in which ‘he’ is unable to discern the coherence of any meaning. Contradictory words seem a little crazy to the either/or logic of reason, and are completely inaudible to those who listen with ready-made grids and a code prepared in advance”. This rejection of a mechanistic, either/or logic culminates in the philosopher Julia Kristeva’s assertion: “To believe that one ‘is a woman’ is almost as absurd and obscurantist as to believe that one ‘is a man’”. Thus it is not the sexual difference between subjects that is important, as the sexual differentiation within each subject: an androgyny celebrated by Kristeva in the following terms: “She was a man; she was a woman.......It was a most bewildering and whirligig state to be in”.
Irigaray claims that the traditional disquiet about that which is fluid is based upon an obsessive fear of anything that might disrupt the apparent solidity of things, entities, and objects; anything that threatens traditional notions of the self-identical, the one, the unified, the solid. Within a phallomorphic culture female sexuality is regarded as an uncontainable flow (associated with the menstrual flow); it is regarded as a threat to secure boundaries, attesting to the body’s permeability, its vulnerable dependence on an outside, and to the precarious division between the body’s inside and its outside. Bodily fluids flow, seep, and infiltrate; their control is a matter of perpetual uncertainty to the established order: “What she emits is flowing, fluctuating. Blurring. Fluid - like that other, inside/outside of philosophical discourse - is, by nature, unstable. It overflows the ‘subject’, who attempts to congeal, freeze and paralyse the flow, subordinating it to geometrism”. For Irigaray:
Fluids surge and move, and a metaphysics that thinks being as fluid would tend to privilege the living, moving, pulsing over the inert matter of the Cartesian world-view. The triumph of a mechanistic rationality equates with transformation of fluid to solid. Solid mechanics and rationality have maintained a relationship of very long standing, one against which fluids have never stopped arguing.
The school of thought established by the Swiss physician and alchemist Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus (1493-1541) perceived the world as a vast chemical laboratory. An internal fire located deep within the earth was given as the explanation for the existence of mountain springs and streams, which were understood as distilled by the earth’s central fire from vast subterranean water reservoirs. As heat from the earth’s central fire vaporised this water, causing it to rise and erupt through cracks in the earth’s surface, the result was the “distilled” mountain spring. Through a complicated process of distillation and fermentation, mountains acted as vast chemical alembics responsible for the origin of hot and cold mineral springs and pure mountain streams.
Nature, the striving to probe it and to know it, was for the English philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) an unquestionable law. In his view matter “seems to attract man’s whole entity by winning smiles”. According to Bacon, scientific truth is impossible “without dissecting and anatomising the world most diligently”. In his treatise, Novum Organum, Bacon describes nature as female, who has to be “vexed” and thus “forced to yield her secrets”. As the historian Carolyn Merchant points out:
Much of the imagery he used in delineating his new scientific objectives and methods derives from the courtroom, and, because it treats nature as a female to be tortured through mechanical inventions, strongly suggests the interrogations of the witch trials and the mechanical devices used to torture witches.....Bacon stated that the method by which nature’s secrets might be discovered corresponded to investigating the secrets of witchcraft by inquisition.
For Bacon, science exists as a means towards power and domination, and the progress of science and technological innovation is assessed against its capacity to subdue and control the natural environment; ‘binding her into service’, ‘constraining’ and moulding her:
For you have to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able when you like to lead and drive her afterward to the same place again...... For like as a man’s disposition is never well known or proved till he be crossed, nor Proteus ever changed shapes till he was straitened and held fast, so nature exhibits herself more clearly under the trials and vexations of art (mechanical devices) than when left to herself.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the systematiser of Bacon’s scientific method, continued Bacon’s quest; and it is precisely with Hobbes that knowledge “based upon the senses loses its poetic blossom, it passes into the abstract experience of the geometrician. Physical motion is sacrificed to mechanical or mathematical motion....Materialism takes to misanthropy”.
This impoverishment and mortification of nature, its reduction to geometrical and mechanical laws, meant that humanity itself was also impoverished, was also regarded as a mechanism and was restricted by the same laws. A world-view actively promoted by the French philosopher, Rene Descartes (1596-1650). A major physicist, mathematician, and one of the creators of analytical geometry and modern algebra, Descartes conceptualised the body of nature as a mechanical device and the physical bodies of human beings themselves as soulless and lifeless corporeal mechanisms directed by a ‘soul’ which alone is endowed with intelligence and will. The Cartesian world-view tears asunder and fragments the organic unity of living beings by establishing the centrality of the individualised and atomised ‘ego’ or ‘subject’, the metaphysical opposition of the thinking being to nature expressed by Descartes in his famous dictum: Cogito, ergo sum - “(I) think, therefore (I) am”.
Descartes then proceeds to radically differentiate mind (‘thinking substance’, res cogitans) from matter (‘extended substance’, res extensa). Through detached visualisation, the disembodied rational intellect apprehends “clearly and distinctly” the natural world of extended, material substance. The mind of the rational (male) subject is proclaimed as the incorporeal and transcendent “lord and possessor” of corporeal nature, which is perceived as a mechanical device, infinitely divisible into discrete units; the cries and writhings of animals beneath the vivisectionist’s scalpel regarded as insensate, mechanical reflexes. The physical world of nature is treated as lifeless stuff to be quantified and manipulated in accordance with the rules of mathematics, geometry, and mechanics:
Lonely and lifeless nature lay prone, fettered with an iron chain, strict measure and the arid number prevailed. As into dust and winds, into dark words the immeasurable flower of life disintegrated.
According to Descartes the totality of nature can be reduced to extended bodies differentiated by magnitude, configuration, situation and motion, that is to say, the world can be reduced to a system of measurements and mechanical laws. Like automatons, the movements of human beings are viewed as the effects of mechanical laws that describe the actions within the human body of the bony levers set into motion by the processes of muscular expansion and contraction. Descartes duly compares the internal workings of the human body to the novel mechanical artefacts produced by the developing science of hydraulic engineering:
One may very well liken the nerves of the animal machine I have described to the pipes of the machines of those fountains; its muscles and its tendons to the other different engines and springs that serve to move them; and its animal spirits, of which the heart is the source and the ventricles of the brain the reservoirs, to the water that moves these engines. Moreover, respiration and other similar functions which are usual and natural in the animal machine and which depend on the flow of the spirits are like the movements of a clock or of a mill, which the ordinary flow of water can make continuous.
Henri Bergson, a leading French philosopher at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, was strongly of the opinion that life flows, and that any attempt to cut this flow into segments kills it. Reality, according to Bergson, is fluid, a fluidity that a mechanistic mind-set attempts to grasp within a set of rigid, frozen concepts. Mechanism for Bergson is merely the external, objectified form of an inner creative activity, a vital impetus (elan vital); and we sense the flow of this creative life force through a primary inner experience called intuition. To the dominance in our thinking and mode of life of an “esprit de geometrie”, Bergson affirms an“esprit de finesse”. This involves distinguishing between the geometrical time that occurs in the theories of an overly analytical, mechanistic scientific world-view, and the real time that we directly experience in our consciousness introspectively, culminating in a fuller awareness and a deeper understanding of reality as in a perpetual state of flux, a fluid duree of Becoming, of which genuine understanding can only be had by a very different way of knowing - through intuition, involving empathy, feeling and participation. Thus it is possible to comprehend reality’s fundamental fluidity, on the wing, as it were, instead of freezing it, as was customarily done, into fixed, ready-made categories:
There is one reality, at least, which we all seize from within, by intuition and not by simple analysis. It is our own personality in its flowing through time. Our intelligence can place itself within this mobile reality, and adopt its ceaselessly changing direction; in short, can grasp by means of that intellectual sympathy which we call intuition. This is extremely difficult. The mind has to do violence to itself, has to reverse the direction of the operation by which it habitually thinks. But in this way it will attain to fluid concepts, capable of following reality in all is sinuosities and of adopting the very movement of the inward life of things.
Bergson condemns the mechanistic and geometrical notion of time as lifelessly abstract and mathematical; it is measured by clocks, scales and yardsticks. Time is represented spatially, and is broken up into homogeneous units (years, hours, and minutes). This mechanistic and mathematical notion of time neither flows nor acts. It exists passively. Most of Western humanity’s practical life in society is dominated by this conception, resulting in a loss of spontaneity, and the rigidification of human responses to the stereotyped and mechanical actions of automata. This overly abstract, intellectualistic and mathematical approach to reality is at home only when dealing with what is static, fixed, and immobile. The mind turns its back on the fundamental fluidity of existence and solidifies everything it touches. Such an intellect freezes, fixes, and coagulates movement into a homogeneous series of static concepts, arbitrarily making abstract cuts into life’s continuum. It invents “things” - an artificial world of hard facts: the domain of the solid, dead, and inert.
Bergson perceives this tendency as expressing a technocracy’s tragically misguided attempt to assert power over nature through industry and the mechanical automatism of the machine. And Bergson repeatedly takes the large, impersonal business concern and the sub-divided, Taylorised tasks of factory machine production to illustrate the life-denying economic rationalism he is determined to criticise and devalue. For Bergson the abstract, degrading and alienated life experience of the factory hand and office worker of today, compared with the concrete, symbolic and humanly fulfilling activities of the artisan and craft worker of a pre-industrial age, corresponds to the disappearance of the qualitative, individual characteristics of work, and the transformation of time from the concrete duration of creative activity into a process subject to mechanical laws.
Consequently time loses its qualitative, changing, fluid character; it freezes into a rigid, exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum, filled with quantitatively measurable “things” (which are the mechanically objectified “performance” and “productions” of the worker, wholly detached from their total human personality); in short, time is transformed into abstract, exactly measurable, physical space. The personality of the worker can do no more than look on and suffer helplessly as merely a rationalised and mechanically fragmented object of labour power, an isolated particle fed into an alien system. The increasing mechanical disintegration of the process of production into specialised sub-components also destroys those bonds that had once bound individuals into a community in the days when work was still ‘whole’ and ‘organic’. Articulating it philosophically, Bergson points out that a qualitative ‘whole’ consists of several quantitative ‘parts’: a ‘part’ is that of which many make a ‘whole’; therefore, the part is less than the whole - and the whole is always greater than the sum of its individual parts. Tragically, the mechanical rigidification of industry reduces and fragments workers into isolated, abstract atoms whose labour activity no longer brings them together directly and organically; instead, they are overtaken exclusively and to an ever-increasing degree by the abstract laws of a mechanism that imprisons them.
Nostalgia for an organic and integrated community in comparison with the moral impoverishment and ‘transcendental homelessness’ of the modern world colours the cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s most cogent essays. In ‘The Storyteller’, for instance, Benjamin compares printing and the dispersal of feeling in modern urban society - what Benjamin describes as a growing inability to exchange experiences - with the exemplary and authentic, highly personal and entertaining forms of verbal art, which the modern world of industry and mass media are in the process of destroying. Benjamin describes the yarns, the oral narratives woven by the storyteller as a type of craft, “an artisan form of communication, as it were. It does not seek to convey the pure essence of the thing, like information or a report. It sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out again. Thus traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel.”
Life, for Henri Bergson, is like a flowing torrent of creative activity, a ceaseless flow of energy, an elan vital. Matter, the condensed state of free activity, represents the cessation, the ‘objectification’ of the creative action. Life’s creative elan is ceaselessly solidified into finite, material ‘things’ or ‘objects’; calcified or crystalline deposits which are, in time, dissolved and reabsorbed back into the stream of life, into its creative flow. Bergson compares this process, and life itself, to a shell, bursting into fragments which are again shells. A view Bergson reiterates and extends into a veritable cosmology:
Let us imagine a vessel full of boiling water heated at a high pressure, and here and there in its sides a crack appears through which a jet of steam escapes. The steam thrown into the air is nearly all condensed into little drops that fall, and this condensation and this fall represent simply the loss of something, an interruption, a deficit. But a small part of the jet of steam persists, uncondensed, for some seconds; it is making an effort to raise the drops which are falling; it succeeds at most in retarding their fall. So, from an immense reservoir of life, jets gush out unceasingly, of which each, falling, is a world. The evolution of living species within this world represents what subsists of the primitive direction of the original jet, and of an impulsion which continues itself in a direction the inverse of materiality.
It would appear, therefore, that for Bergson the manifestations of Life (the elan vital) exist in perpetual conflict with “matter”, in any sense of that term in which it means something dead, inert, lifeless - in short, the utter opposite of Life.
How, then, does Bergson derive matter from Life? By the device, which is as old as Heraclitus, of balancing the upward movement of life by a downward movement. For every upward push there is a downward fall, for every tension of movement, a torpor or slackening of effort, for every creative urge, the relaxation and listlessness of fatigue. So, again, an action which, when first performed, was fresh and original, a new achievement in doing or thinking, becomes, by repetition, a habit. Plasticity yields to rigidity, variation to uniformity, effort to inertia.
Thus, we get matter - the burden against which Life is constantly struggling, yet at the same time the very life-process itself. For Bergson, evolution is not from matter to life, but from life to matter. Matter is derivative from life, a deposit or sediment (as it were) of the cosmic flux or Elan, produced by its slackening and receding from its own creations.
This is another aspect of Bergson’s philosophy: like a river flowing through an alluvial plain, we continue to follow the course which, aeons ago, the water once carved out - only, with the passage of the years, the original irregularities of the channel become exaggerated, the course more and more elaborately curved, the rate of movement slower and slower. The river does not change: it only becomes more and more characteristically itself. The sedimentation and accumulated weight of these past external objectifications of the human spirit express an endlessly flowing creativity concretised into ‘things’ that infuse and enrich our lives through the birth, internalisation and historical transmission of the outward forms of ‘culture’, as the stream of time moves on, inexorably.
“Life is a continuous stream proceeding through sequences of generations”. And what are human individuals? They are the bearers of this process. Is life more than the totality of its bearers? Yes and No. Life flows “as these individuals”. But individuals are not continuous. Life is continuous, yet it “dams up” in individuals, or more generally as individuated forms. All forms, social and cultural, represent the same sort of crystallization and even rigidification of life. The forms (including individuals) first appear as the “subjects” of life, but they turn out to be instruments that are themselves transcended by the flow of life.
The colonist and explorer Bernard O’Reilly, in his autobiography Cullenbenbong, describes the language of Australia’s Blue Mountains Kanimbla people, an ancient people whose culture expressed a direct, participatory experience of plants, animals, and elements - the sounds of insects, the speech of birds, the tastes in the winds, the flux of sounds and smells - in terms that seem to question the dominion of European reason over a natural world construed as a passive and mechanical set of ‘objects’:
The language of the blacks was not made for white man’s tongue and that is why it sounds like blasphemy to hear him try to pronounce an Aboriginal word. Black man’s words should never nave been put on paper for their is nothing in our alphabet as we understand its sounds which would make the written word any nearer to the original than a feeble parody. It is with regret then and some shame that the name Cullenbenbong must be written here; how cold and lifeless it looks in white man’s type, yet to hear it pronounced by the Kanimbla was to hear majestic thunder re-echoing amongst the granite mountains of their hunting grounds.
A strange thing this language of nature; a haunting echoing softness might give way to unbelievable drama and there were dread words which made your spine creep even though you didn’t know their meaning. If you listened to the Aborigines speaking together you didn’t hear a mumble of foreign words, you heard the sighing of trees, the voice of birds, the sounds of storm and flood and wind, the rolling of rocks on a landslide; you heard stark fear and infinite sadness.
K.Osmosis <S.P.K.> 2009