Max Herman via nettime-l on Thu, 1 Feb 2024 22:14:23 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Leonardo's Antidote

Why vote?

Why take any democratic action at all, by speech or act, in 2024 when US democracy is weak, compromised, corroded, and under imminent threat from autocracy yet again, perhaps to be defeated for good soon like the Roman republic or Weimar Germany, abolished for a significant period of time and replaced by brutal, toxic, unimpeded despotism?

"Vote" is from the PIE root *wegwh- meaning to vow, speak solemnly, promise, and pledge.  Why speak or promise regarding democracy, the system and process of voting and constitutions, when even in the best of times they are so imperfect in their results and uncertain in their timing?  Many have said for decades in the US and Europe, courtesy of say Paul de Man, that the Enlightenment was a sham, that there are no such things as rights, or voting, or laws, or constitutions, or equality, or communication, much less reason.  Even peace, they say, is a lie meant only to cover up war and what they call the real truth: violence is everything.  They've said it and written it so many times they can't turn back to where those democratic, constitutional, Enlightenment things matter, or can matter, even in a modified form or hybrid context; yet these same experts complain the loudest of their loss.

Susan Neiman's new argument about the left, as director of the Adorno-influenced Einstein Forum, blames Foucault and Schmitt.  Others farther right blame Machiavelli and "verità effetuale," the much earlier sharp turn away from ethical network fabrics to personal instrumental power as the true science of man, and of man's might making right, circa 1500 in the capital of Tuscany.  Others blame the universe, DNA, or the other party's donors or base.  Whatever the cause, the defense of constitutional democracy is wobbly at the start of the third millennium.  Why?  Some say it's loss of Aristotle, hence loss of Virtue.  (Jeffrey Rosen's forthcoming book about the Framers will concentrate on Virtue, and how their theory of happiness was not the gratification of appetite but ethical self-respect – Doing the Right Thing.)  This means Machiavelli, and the loss means loss of Dante.

Is Machiavelli all modernity is?  Or is there another modernity, perhaps hidden, but just as real and present as the anti-Enlightenment with its weeping and gnashing of teeth, sexy-beast business, and pseudo-ethical currency?

Let us consider the possibility that there is; and let us consider, as if defining a variable in algebra, its chief architect, author, and engineer to be Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolò Machiavelli's colleague, 17 years his elder, who may have seen through his junior compatriot's brave shell to the harm that would accrue and may even have set out a different plan, a different path which many even without knowing they were have followed fairly well.

What is Leonardo's philosophy?  Not "verità effetuale," the control of nature, but "esperienza," the experience of nature by both observation and experiment, not as an instrument of control but rather as a finding or sensing of place, a bodily adaptation or bridge to learning, harmony, and that life-world where the most promising possibilities of all life have been achieved sustainably. To help imagine this algebra, think of the Mona Lisa as a simple allegory like the bridge, garment, Experience hypothesis, ML = (E x f) / (b + g), a portrait of secular science and art depicted with its attributes of mirror, inhabitation, technological inheritance, and the indicative gesture which moves through every synapse cellular or otherwise.  Call this a detective story, historical surrealism, a thought experiment, isomorphic iconography, horsefeathers if you wish, or prescribed space for the absurd, but thinking of it for real works fine too.

How could such an alternative root system, even if it exists, and even if we can discover and connect to it, help?  Can it help us resume helpful or desirable actions, even in the tainted realm of politics, and what is worse, democratic ones?  Could it change our way of doing art and science, culture, for the better and more adaptive?  Maybe it can; and there is no way to change any process without accounting for its before and after as well as its during.

In this state of open question, Olga Tokarczuk's 2019 Nobel speech offers one way to proceed.  She begins with the image of a "tender narrator," like Experience, something everyone has, but has uniquely.  "Ognosia" is her later coinage for a new kind of narrative weft native to networks but not merely the instrumental control of them – verità effetuale – found in personality-management cults like neo-tsarism and capitalism with communist characteristics, but a "loose, organic network structure," biological and human as well as instrumental in just proportion i.e. where needed and proper and not where not, sustainably adaptive, and alert to Leonardo's arch claim that "every instrument requires to be made by experience."  Protecting the matrices of all life, you could say, from destruction by Machiavelli's new prince in order to achieve sustainability.  Or read her novel Flights.  Or, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, in which each chapter and the book itself begin with a quote from Blake; which is All Religions are One, which is 1788, which is The Federalist no. 85, which is Ognosia -> plenitude -> bridge -> welding -> etc.

However: the Nobel speech says we do not yet have a language for this new network literature which is not oppression.  How can we find it, choose it, declare it, and persevere in our pledge?  Roots are indispensable but help is also often found in branches.  (Foucault's crypto-Freudianism does not suffice, per Neiman, only helping de Man, thus neither does the Anti-Oedipus, unfortunately for us; and even the alt right tout their post-Enlightenment chops.)  Branches require meditation, the same as roots do, so we cannot ignore meditation as if it wasn't real science and as necessary for health as food, water, exercise, and sleep.

-  Wolfgang Leidhold – The History of Experience
-  Pamela H. Smith – The Business of Alchemy, and The Body of the Artisan, and From Lived Experience to the Written Word
-  Machiavelli in Wootton, Mansfield
-  Anil Seth – Being You
-  John Dewey – Art as Experience
-  Edmund Husserl – Experience and Judgment
-  Nina Witoszek – novelist and multi-disciplinary scholar (including of Renaissance eco-humanism) at Oslo University

You might even task your AI-GPT to write about the history past present and future of experientia for you, if that is your field; maybe it can persuade you where these books and I cannot.

Due to the network fabric inherent in Leonardo's model, which is to say, the model which reflects biological reality on the planet and not just Bernaysesque advertisement by trauma-tweak for industries of pretend control, it may require today's network artists, authors, theorists, and practitioners to unveil the allegory necessary for departure from Machiavelli's path of continuous harm and constitutional decline.  Those who favor destruction of democracy, or think it can't rebound without much more damage first, or who make money off such things as Foucault's conservatism or comparable anti-democracy technics, will definitely want to stick with Machiavelli.  There's no guarantee at all that humans will achieve anything close to a sustainable technology system that doesn't kill off all biological life on earth, and some people hate anything that isn't guaranteed.  However, there is also no guarantee that we won't, and some people like what isn't guaranteed just fine.

It's up to each one of us whether to believe it, or believe it's possible, and if we do that, to decide to take it or not, but either way it is LEONARDO'S ANTIDOTE.

Max Herman
February, 2024


Bonus material for February:

Excerpted from 2022 MS, Commedia Leonardi Vici, Book III: River and Bridge, Chapter IX; prefatory canzone plus fragment of accompanying essay (full MS available free in PDF format on request):

There’s a word for passing in zen, forgotten now,

Yugen?  No, passing’s aware, bittersweet.

Yugen means ghost, the careful hidden feet

Of what you cannot see, no matter how.

A bridge fords rivers with its stony prow

Unmoving, centuries past and hands compete

For what the crossings’ ethos may secrete.

The wheel of angels turning never bow

To just one place or anything that’s still.

Amid Parisian quintessential weight

“De l’eau ancien” departing in a breath

The portrait I have flown to see – fulfill –

May not be anything, much less a gate

Of diastole emerging out of death.



      What I thought originally might be an “L” at the end of several of Leonardo’s Paris manuscripts (like M) is now, I see, a “Q” matching the symbol for quintessence.  Whether to care I cannot decide.  This essence is however clearly fabric-like and tangent to the bridges we engineer.  For example, think in terms of landscape – bridge – garment – sitter.  Cusanus wrote of many things Leonardo also did: “the earth is a star like other stars, is not the centre of the universe, is not at rest, nor are its poles fixed.”  He invented pulse-checking by use of klepsydra; he acknowledged the consent of the governed; he respected “the coincidence of opposites” and how “figures may be deformed and transformed” i.e. geometric morphism.  All of this or most was before Leonardo was born.  Of experiment, Cusanus wrote: “A conjecture is a positive assertion in alterity that uses truth as a participator.”

      What Jung called “the bridge of the spirit,” about ten artists and scientists who survived over the morass of history’s ignorance, reflects the “extraordinary overtones” Mazzotta knew Dante ascribed to the word esperienza.  And exactly when art and science began to emerge as peers equal to church and state their suppression also emerged, from Archimedes’ death to the alleged poisoning of Mirandola by the restored Medici.  How could one clearly or loudly say we should follow Esperienza, experience and experiment, as teacher, guide, and maestra in such hostile terrain?  Doing so caused ethical dissonance for those who viewed science and art as threats to church and state, tempting death.

              Leonardo thought money mostly waste, for fillers-up of privies thinking luxury made them more acceptable to divinity.  Real value accrued in things of the spirit, in works of art and science which did not “die with the worker.”  Our transformation to valuing art and science as equal peers of state and church is not complete and won’t be so even after we name the bridge-garment-experience allegory of La Joconde.  Yet with unveiling the destination will be possible, and without it hopeless.  Gödel and Habermas knew modernity’s incomplete.  Cusanus also discussed the harrowing of hell, tour of afterworld, descensus as a process of intellect, the inner bridge.

              Under a view of the universe as metamorphoses everything has a before, during, and after.  The bridge in the Mona Lisa is not alone; it emerges out of nature, crosses a river, and then becomes the garment.  It points, the bridge, to related ideas elsewhere in Leonardo’s writing but is also a pure form operating within the composition’s geometric and color transformations.  When it becomes the garment, which is also ethics, we feel it as a worn fabric as closely as can be.  Like ancient Greek sculpture, the fabric articulates the primary joints and posture of the figure; we become and experience the allegory immediately.

              I cannot experience this for you visually, verbally, analytically, or physically.  All I can do is point to it.  I almost always feel I must do more than this but thankfully not quite always.

              Bensimon in describing Bosch says “consciousness links together the heterogeneity of life’s events through ceaseless circular movement” then quotes Cusanus: “Movement (‘the connexion between form and matter’) is compared to ‘an intermediate spirit’ called ‘atropos, clotho, and lachesis.’”  Leonardo calls Esperienza “the interpreter between nature and the human race” and Cassirer says “A glance at the early passages of the Idiota will show just how close Leonardo was to Cusanus in the formulation and foundation of his methodological principles.”  Capra wrote “meaning is experience of a context.”

              Campbell states clearly the danger of repression which attended certain explicit statements in Giorgione’s studiolo same as in the coffeehouses of 1750.  One must temper one’s ambitions.  Further, since all ethics is choice each person can only do their own and even that not all the time.  Rapidly running out of time in this book perhaps pointing quietly, like La Gioconda to her garment, is the best kind of bridge.  Yet absent persecution ought we fawn over secrecy?  If yes how much?  Naming Esperienza constricts the painting no more and no less than does naming Apelles’ Calumny.  Remember not a single scholar in the last five centuries has proposed this title, not a single one in all this time, bridge and garment aside!

              Conservative and progressive, experimental and orthodox, both must settle downward into the portrait’s reality, its “necessità.”

              Decretals certainly will occupy the most of us, and often perhaps like gossip that’s completely OK.  But it’s not always.  There’s an opposite to the little dram of eale, and unless you want the latter’s results you must seek out the former by choice.  History has both but it sometimes seems like more of the eale than the other.  Transitology, or the study of how nations move from one kind of government to another, is a term I learned lately.  Perhaps authoritarian states can somehow embrace democratization as a win-win, prudent yet noble too?  That’s like a dream come true.  They view democracy as a trick though, a ruse, and monarchy (or more monarchic monarchy) as simple defense, honesty, and love.  Other things can be learned too though.       

+++  (Wootton)  (Mansfield)

Mazzotta, G. (1993). Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledge. Princeton University Press.

Bensimon, M. (1972). The Significance of Eye Imagery in the Renaissance from Bosch to Montaigne. Yale French Studies, 47, 266–290.

Capra, Fritjof.  Learning from Leonardo.  2013, San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler.

Campbell, S. J., & Giorgione. (2003). Giorgione’s “Tempest,” “Studiolo” Culture, and the Renaissance Lucretius. Renaissance Quarterly, 56(2), 299–332.


# distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
# <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
# collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
# more info:
# contact: