Lines of Resistance: Vattimo and Weakening Philosophy

white cloud marble
White Cloud marble: lines of resistance in nature

Gianni Vattimo is an Italian philosopher who has written on modernity and the metaphysics of being. A Festshrift for Vattimo recently appeared under the title of Weakening Philosophy (2007). Although Vattimo’s philosophy seems heavily indebted to the Italian tradition, including its entanglement with Christianity, his ideas can be used to open up some new considerations on art in contemporary context.


The publisher’s blurb says:

Moving away from Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionism and Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics, and building on his experiences as a politician, Vattimo asks if it is still possible to speak of moral imperatives, individual rights, and political freedom. Acknowledging the force of Nietzsche’s “God is dead,” Vattimo argues for a philosophy of pensiero debole or “weak thinking” that shows how moral values can exist without being guaranteed by an external authority. His secularising interpretation stresses anti-metaphysical elements and puts philosophy into a relationship with postmodern culture. 

Vattimo’s core idea is that although metaphysical power has been weakened under modernity the post-metaphysical world is not completely free and arbitrary. His thought leads away from arguments for absolute randomness, unstructured chaos and indeterminacy. These are important issues for contemporary philosophy, for example in recent thinking on aleatory materialism and radical contingency. No matter how apparently free-flowing thought and moral values might seem, there are lines of resistance which introduce a kind of structure of their own, even though it is not the product of a metaphysical intention (eg the mind of God). These ideas offer interesting perspectives on contemporary art among many other things.

Dense bark on old trees: lines of resistance as protection

We can take his idea of “resistances” and think about the emergence of global art movements, for example. As the signs carved out and organized in different forms by different cultures have been loosened from their previous determinants (beliefs, practices, cultural conditioning) they have begun to deposit a kind of magma which determines their possibilities of flow. Just as the grain in wood or stone makes the material easier to cut in one direction rather than another, so does thought and human expressiveness develop in ways which create a certain conformity even though this is not intended or in any way “planned”. It is a kind of neutral determinism.

If we follow this line of thinking, we might consider that the condition of being human, with all the animal and cognitive capacities this implies, always/already creates the possibility of flows of thoughts, ideas and interpretations, and the existence of deep structures in language makes this even more likely. This argument is notably contra the spirit of Deleuze and Guattari in Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972) and, by extension, much contemporary postmodern thought which argues against any form of “determinism”.

Lines of resistance creating the landscape: Yangpo River, Tibet.

Lines of resistance do not imply that universal laws exist (although at the deepest material level they may do). The productions of human action in whatever form create ebbs and flows which are self-reinforcing, just as a small trickle of water can cut out a creek-bed and finish up as a river. Being should not be thought of as a one-way street, but rather a network of freeways, roads and by-ways which travel in more than one direction. Some result in dead-ends, others become more and more essential, until they dominate the options for existence. But this does not mean that they cannot come to a sudden end. There is no better indication of this than the many recent discoveries of versions of archaic humanity which seem to have appeared, flourished, and then disappeared without trace.

“Hobbits”: reconstruction of hominids found in Indonesia, half human size, long extinct

We can no longer think of the emergence of humanity as a single unified sequence of development with a logic of constant progression and improvement. Rather it seems to have been a winding inconsistent process of genetic networks and climatic outliers only some of which led to the present condition of the species, more or less by accident. But there are species continuities: the recent discovery of a new hominim species in South Africa (named Naledi) seems to have ritualized the disposal of the dead, maybe 2.5 million years ago. But everyone seems to forget that elephants also dispose of their dead, or at least attend the funerals.

mourning elephants

Vattimo’s is a radical critique of universalizing metaphysics like that begun by Heidegger, though in a very different time, context and technological capacity.

Nietzsche, considering European nihilism in the summer of 1887 said that under conditions of post-metaphysics those who will emerge and flourish are the most moderate, who have no need of extreme articles of faith, who concede and even embrace contingency and nonsense, who do not need to ascribe overwhelming value to human Being but do not diminish or belittle its significance.

One very interesting connection with art under modernity is the idea that the weakening of metaphysical power in the West was in a way announced by or even presided over by the withdrawal of apparent communication in the realm of art in modern times. Vattimo speaks of Kandinsky in this regard, but a better example might be Rothko. Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’s discussion of Rothko in their book The Arts of Impoverishment (1993) opens up these horizons (to come in a later post).

Mark Rothko
Rothko Chapel, Houston

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