One of the things that Ecologies of the Moving Image has left unresolved, and left me needing to think more about, is the extent to which my Peircian “triadism” holds up.
Philosophically, the case for some sort of triadism as a way of getting around dualisms is, at first blush, appealing. But there are triads, and there are triads.
A triad can be static: three elements that make up the universe, like the Holy Trinity: irreducible, primary, originary, their interaction some magical (yet unchanging) function of the nature of things. Or it can be a glorified dialectic — thesis-antithesis-synthesis — a form of dualism opened up to time and process.
Or it can be genuinely trialectical, a triadism of elements that are not simply responses to each other, but that deny the sufficiently of a single response to anything: there is always a third, a shadow that haunts, whose effects play into the relationship between any duality. And the relationship between the three is always changing. (It seems to me that Henri Lefebvre’s “trialectics of space” vacillates between each of these: wanting to be a processual trialectics, but sometimes folding back into a static set of 3 elements or a 3-term version of Marxian dialectics.)
A triad can be simultaneously logical and processual, so that the three elements are not merely an irreducible three, but their inter-involvement is part of an open and dynamic process: 1 comes before 2 which comes before 3, but 2 is both the sum of two 1’s (points, uniquenesses, singularities, haecceities) and qualitatively different, as it involves the encounter of two distinct 1’s, not merely a continuous growth from 1 to 2. Three is different again, combining difference (2) with unity/uniqueness in a way that makes relational pattern possible. This is Peirce’s triadism, which is formal, mathematical, logical, and progressive all at once. Three, for Peirce, is the minimum, and the optimum, for a universe like ours: everything above 3 is reducible to 3, but if you try to reduce 3, you get a reduced universe.
And then there are triads that are deepened forms of dyads, continua with two ends and a third that is somewhere between them. When a continuum is let loose, set into motion, allowed to grow, then that growth can be led by a point anywhere on the continuum. The result is that the line becomes an ever changing triangulation of forces, with the forward point of the triangle moving somewhere on the line between the two ends, and thus being never predictable, and with the two ends also evolving and changing as they grow. They aren’t ends, then, so much as they are points of forward movement whose relationship is affected by a third point which is the point at which their relationship moves through at any given time. (Multiply that by infinity and you get the universe.)
While I’ve tried to follow the Peircian line in my three cinema triads, one of them is really closer to the “deepened dyad” model that I just described. This is the triad of the film-world as simultaneously geomorphic, anthropomorphic, and biomorphic.
The geomorphic has to do with the formation, or morphogenesis, of ground; the anthropomorphic (for humans) with that of figure. A useful analogy here would be that from developmental psychology: geomorphism is about the development of “object constancy”; it is the recognition that things stay the same over time. It names the way in which a world keeps producing some “ground reliability,” a sense that there is a background that is stable and given, an environment that we can respond to, affect, reshape, without making it completely unrecognizable.
Anthropomorphism, on the other hand, deals with something like what developmental psychologists call “theory of mind.” A child, at X number of months of age, begins to realize that some of those she interacts with — mother, father, other others — have the capacity to feel and desire things, and to decide things and act on those decisions, in the same way that the child herself comes to experience herself as doing. The cool thing about being human, as a friend of mine tells kids, is that we get to make decisions. The how of doing that is where mind happens.
The human piece, as I’ve described before, is a movable point on another continuum: we could be talking about dogs, and about canomorphism; or Belugas and belugomorphism; or amanita muscaria, and amanitomorphism; or maybe pencils and pencilmorphism. Each of these is a plateau, an outward-pushing point on the expanding circumference of the universe, and there’s no telling where it will go or at what point it might stop being identifiable as the “anthropomorphic” (or “canomorphic”) and become something altogether different. But it is a leading edge, and therefore one end of a many-ended, multi-pointed continuum. At the “other” end, if there is an other end, is the dead object, the thing that’s just there, settled, given, the thing we are moving away from, the objectivity that is always withdrawing.
The biomorphic is really “where everything happens”: it’s the place of activity, mobility, prehension, translation, along which the formation of the other two relata proceeds.
But even that is not quite right. If the anthropo- (etc.) -morphic is simply the actualization of “theory of mind” — the recognition of freedom, agency, the capacity to act and change things — extended in the way that we recognize as “ours,” then there is always also a beyond to that, a point at which the actor is no longer human but something more, something trans-, something, well, divine. At the opposite end from geomorphism, then, there is theomorphism, where dwell the gods and powers that lure us forward (which may be something like Whitehead’s “eternal objects”).
Our society isn’t particularly keen on talking about divinities, and when it does it talks only about one such megadivinity. But on a grander historical scale it’s been pretty common to imagine that there are those who are more agential than us, more powerful, more capable of ordering, disordering, and redesigning worlds. A process-relational view simply clarifies that these are relata, lures for our passions.
Yet even that’s not quite right. Some of them concern themselves with us; others go about their own business. Just as there are chunks of the electromagnetic spectum that remain invisible to us but are visible or audible to bats and other creatures, so there are divinities that are neither known to nor concerned with us.
Yet there are times when our sight is so blinded we forget there are deities at all. Heidegger’s statement that “only a god can save us now” was precisely this kind of recognition that human skills alone will not get us out of the circle that our technology and instrumental reason have gotten us into. We need to listen and hear the whispers of the appropriate deities. Which raises the question of our deity-literacy (and Heidegger was not a good guide in that).
Where am I going with this? That in an open, processual universe, three is the minimum for understanding processual complexity; it opens our understanding to nonlinearity. But it must be a three that is genuine — three autonomous terms — and that is continuous at the same time, in that the three aren’t pre-defined; they take on new qualities as they interact with each other. They are not a trinity of forces located outside the world, but an immanent trinity whereby the world itself is actively poised between what it pushes against (and away from) and what it is pulled by: between the past and the objects thrown up by it, and the open future with its potentialities emerging around us as we move.
Or something like that.
Thanks to Bugman for the images.