The Unconscious


Detail from Art crafts for amateurs, Fred Miller, 1901

by M. Munro


The extraordinary efficiency of the fish as a swimming device is partly due, it now seems, to an evolved capacity to couple its swimming behaviors to the pools of external kinetic energy found as swirls, eddies and vortices in its watery environment (see Triantafyllou and G. Triantafyllou 1995). These vortices include both naturally occurring ones (e.g., where water hits a rock) and self-induced ones (created by well-timed tail flaps). The fish swims by building these externally occurring processes into the very heart of its locomotion routines. The fish and surrounding vortices together constitute a unified and remarkably efficient swimming machine.

Now consider a reliable feature of the human environment, such as the sea of words. This linguistic surround envelopes us from birth. Under such conditions, the plastic human brain will surely come to treat such structures as a reliable resource to be factored into the shaping of on-board cognitive routines. Where the fish flaps its tail to set up the eddies and vortices it subsequently exploits, we intervene in multiple linguistic media, creating local structures and disturbances whose reliable presence drives our ongoing internal processes. Words and external symbols are thus paramount among the cognitive vortices which help constitute human thought.[1]

We must begin somewhere where we are […] Somewhere where
we are: in a text already where we believe we are.[2]


On “the Resonance among Things”

Inconspicuous perceptions constitute the obscure dust of the world.[3]

From the inconspicuous he hits upon brightness.[4]

“Thinking,” Paul de Man is reported to have said, “is finding a good quotation.”[5] What makes de Man’s line a good quotation? The questions it raises. To wit: What does—what might—thinking have to do with quotation? But also, and above all: What does it mean to “find” a good quotation? What is it one perceives, and how does one make it out?

“When the enemy first approaches,” writes Song dynasty military strategist Hsü Tung,

if the dust rises in streams but is dispersed, they are dragging brushwood. If it rises up like ears of grain and jumps about chaotically, chariots are coming. If the dust is thick and heavy, swirling and turbulent as it rises up, cavalry are coming. If it is low and broad, spreading and diffuse as it rises, infantry are advancing.

When the army is small and the dust is scattered and chaotic, it means the units are not closely ordered. If the troops are numerous but the dust clear, is means the units are well ordered and the general’s commands systematic. If the dust rises to the front and the rear, left and right, it means they are employing their troops without any consistent method.

When the army moves and the dust rises in streaks without dispersing, or when the army halts and the dust also stops, it is because the general’s awesomeness and virtue have caused the units to be strictly ordered. If when they decamp or set out their deployments dust rises up and flies off, mount defenses against those places where it originated because enemy forces will certainly be approaching in ambush there.[6]

What the author of the Huling Ching describes in the chapter titled “Analyzing Dust” is what he elsewhere calls “the acumen of strategists”: “penetrating the subtle amid unfolding change and discerning the concordant and contrary.”[7] Or, as one commentator has glossed it, “Penetrating the subtle—seeing a lot in little things. Discerning the concordant and contrary—knowing the resonance among things, and how to amplify or dampen emerging tendencies.”[8] Or again, “It is only when I look at the text with a certain inattentiveness, or when somebody else points out a phrase to me, that I am stopped short—as I finally notice and recognize the brilliance.”[9]


On the Bridge over the Hao River

An army or a herd, or a river full of fish.[10]

So in a river there are many fishes and the liquid in each fish is, in turn, a certain kind of river which contains, as it were [in quâ velut], other fishes […] to infinity.[11]

In Being Singular Plural, Jean Luc-Nancy defines philosophy as “surprised thought.”[12] It’s a surprising definition. What might it be for thought to be surprised? What might it be for thought to be something susceptible to surprise? And what might that mean for philosophy?

“Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the bridge over the Hao River,” begins a famous episode from the eponymous Taoist classic. “Zhuangzi said, ‘The minnows swim about so freely, following the openings wherever they take them. Such

is the happiness of fish.’

Huizi said, ‘You are not a fish, so whence do you know the happiness of fish?’

Zhuangzi said, ‘You are not I, so whence do you know I don’t know the happiness of fish?’

Huizi said, ‘I am not you, to be sure, so I don’t know what it is to be you. But by the same token, since you are certainly not a fish, my point about your inability to know the happiness of fish stands intact.

Zhuangzi said, ‘Let’s go back to the starting point. You said, “Whence do you know the happiness of fish?” Since your question was premised on your knowing that I know it, I must have known it from here, up above the Hao River.’[13]

Whatever else might be said about the dialogue, Zhuangzi’s right: Everything turns on “the starting point,” and so on the question, in Brook Ziporyn’s translation, “Whence do you know the happiness of fish?” Lucas Klein has suggested an alternate translation, at once more colloquial and more concrete: “Where do you get that, that the fish are happy?”[14]

Where does Zhuangzi get that, that the fish are happy? Where might you get that philosophy is “surprised thought”?

Somewhere unexpected—somewhere no more expected, that is, than that ingeniously pointed out by Zhuangzi in answer to an incredulous Huizi, stopped short, as if by an eddy of inattention, there where the two no doubt believe they are. Somewhere, reliably, “here,” as it were (in quâ velut),[15] already on the argument’s lead: “following the openings,” happily singular plural,[16] “wherever they take us.”



[1] Andy Clark and David Chalmers, “The Extended Mind.”

[2] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 162. Author’s emphasis. Translation modified in accordance with that suggested in Geoffrey Bennington, Legislations: The Politics of Deconstruction (New York: Verso, 1994), 16.

[3] Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 90.

[4] Proverb, quoted and translated in Barry Allen, Vanishing into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015), 2.

[5] Paul de Man, quoted in Ian Balfour, “The Philosophy of Philology and the Crisis of Reading: Schlegel, Benjamin, de Man,” in Philology and Its Histories, ed. Sean Gurd (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010), 210n40 [192-212]. Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988), 29: “Immanence is the unconscious itself, and the conquest of the unconscious”: “When ordinary people write, they begin from the outside and fight their way in; when I write, I start from the middle and fight my way out. I go straight for the enemy’s defenses and moat, eat his grain, and command his troops; then, when I level my attack, I leave him utterly shattered. In this way I do not expend so much as a whit of my own energy and naturally have powers to spare. This [strategy] applies to everything: why should writing be an isolated case?” Li Zhi, A Book to Burn and A Book to Keep (Hidden): Selected Writings, eds. and trans. Rivi Handler-Spitz, Pauline C. Lee, and Haun Saussy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 245. Brackets translator’s. “The unconscious is not some darkened realm of forbidden items over which a brave reflective consciousness casts its beacon. Indeed, it often makes itself manifest most clearly in moments”—not unlike quotation—“when reflective consciousness is itself disrupted, thrown out of joint. By the time reflection can step back from this experience to consider it in its standard fashion, it has itself already been transformed by the disruption. […] The question then becomes how to live well with this unusual form of self-development.” Jonathan Lear, A Case for Irony (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011), 65-66.

[6] Hsü Tung, quoted and translated in Ralph D. Sawyer, The Tao of Spycraft: Intelligence Theory and Practice in Traditional China (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), 451-2.

[7] Hsü, quoted and translated in Sawyer, The Tao of Spycraft, 454.

[8] Allen, Vanishing into Things, 3. Author’s emphasis. Charlotte Joko Beck, quoted in Sean Murphy, One Bird, One Stone: 108 American Zen Stories (New York: Renaissance Books, 2002), 215: “With unfailing kindness, your life always presents what you need to learn.” The question is, “What will you let yourself know?” Alexander Chee, quoted in Holly Willis, “What Will You Let Yourself Know?: Alexander Chee and Jenny Boully Write About Writing,” Los Angeles Review of Books, June 4, 2018,!.

[9] Steven Shaviro, Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009), 161-2. In a stray remark, but one made more than in passing, Giorgio Agamben equates thought and politics. Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose, trans. Michael Sullivan and Sam Whitsitt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 98: “Thought – that is, politics.” Elsewhere Agamben has elaborated: “Every line of thinking, however pure, general or abstract it might endeavor to be, is always marked by its historical place, by signs of its times, and thus always engaged in a strategy and motivated by a sense of urgency.” Giorgio Agamben, quoted and translated in Leland de la Durantaye, “The Paradigm of Colonialism,” in Agamben and Colonialism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 231 [229-238]. One of Agamben’s most astute commentators discusses these remarks sensitively at some length before concluding: “If thought is politics, then the freedom and potentiality which are the highest values of thought are also the highest ones of politics. For Agamben, it is thus in the name of this idea of politics that a strategy is to be formed whose aim is an ‘ungovernability’ which is our first home and true heritage.” de la Durantaye, “The Paradigm of Colonialism,” 237.

[10] Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Philosophical Essays, eds., trans. Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1989),  142. I have substituted “river” for “pond.”

[11] Leibniz, Philosophical Essays, 105. I have substituted “river” for “fish pond.” For the Latin, see A. Foucher de Careil, Nouvelles lettres et opuscules inedits de Leibniz (Paris, 1857), 322.

[12] Jean Luc-Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne (Palo Alto, Ca: Stanford University Press, 2000), 165.

[13] Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, trans. and ed. Brook Ziporyn (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2009), 76. Ziporyn’s emphasis.

[14] Lucas Klein, “Anarchist Anthropology, Happy Fish, and Translation: Where do you get that?” Paper Republic: Chinese Literature in Translation, February 11, 2014,

[15] Fred Moten, Stolen Life (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018), 227: “Intellectuality is fugitivity.” William James, quoted in Jim Holt, When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 213: “The connecting is the thinking”: “Like fish swimming in a medium of which they are unaware but that allows them to dart nimbly from one spot to another in the vast briny depths, we human beings float, without being aware of it, in a sea of tiny, medium-sized, and large analogies, running the gamut from dull to dazzling. And as it is the case for fish, it’s only thanks to this omnipresent, unfelt medium that we can dart nimbly from one spot to another in the vast ocean of ideas.” Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, quoted in Noah Roderick, The Being of Analogy (London: Open Humanities Press, 2016), 252.

[16] “Plato’s Socrates bequeathed at least two compelling ideals to the Western philosophical tradition. On the one hand, there is the ideal of following the argument where it leads. On the other, there is the ideal of appreciating the extent of one’s own ignorance, the respects in which one’s current knowledge and understanding are subject to profound limitations. These two ideals can interact in interesting ways.” Thomas Kelly, “Following the Argument Where it Leads,”, 19.

About the Author:

M. Munro is author of the open access chapbook, Philosophy for Militants (punctum books, 2017).