The Face of a Contracting World

By Nyasha Chiundiza

October 16, 2020

Peter Apian, Cosmographicus liber (1524, p. 6). Courtesy of Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.
—Paul the Apostle, Epistle to the Romans, 8:22.

Giordano Bruno’s cosmology destabilizes the Platonic and Aristotelian cosmologies that Medieval Europe inherited from the Greeks. In this inherited cosmology the chain of being was interlinked through a hierarchy, in which the order above caused the order below.

In Bruno’s account, based on Copernicus’s remapping of the cosmos, what is above, the first cause, is no longer priority in terms of agency. The cosmos is filled with agents—a chain of beings.

Bruno’s cosmology is pantheistic or rather more concisely, it is pandemic, and places the notion of contraction, ontological unease, as central to the understanding of how beings emerge from being and live within it.

To ascribe the term pandemic to our ontology and biology may appear at first hyperbolic. Naming something “pandemic” in such a moment as this could be construed as unthoughtful—a shallow use of metonym. As with the word virus, there is always this option of instrumentalizing our experience of such a crisis—for example when we use a useless phrase like “human beings are a virus to the planet”—mining it for pathos for the mere sake of intellectual and academic industriousness. The quick and easy enthusiasm around the term virus (e.g. “virality”) is precipitated by its indication of something subversive that undermines, and so to speak, “jams” the system. In both these popular uses, the visceral and shocking, agonistic and dynamic habits (habitus) of a virus are elided. The gravitas of this agonism that is both physiological and psychological, real and imagined, is due not only to what it does to nature, to our bodies, but also to what it does to our thinking. The philosophical sense of these terms (ontology and metaphysics) are in fact activated by this awareness (of pandemic, virus and death). Faced with this sort of horizon we can perhaps submit ourselves afresh to an actual state of meditation. In almost Buddhist first principle fashion, we are summoned by life to its most fundamental makeup—a state of contraries in perpetual flux.

It would be useful for a moment to consider the term pandemic. It is constructed from the Greek pan (all) and demos (people). In contrast, epidemic, is constructed from epi (upon or above) and demos. In these two etymologies we see two different formulations of agency in how a virus spreads. In the latter, epi describes a somewhat singular and top down agent acting on the demos. In the former, pan indicates an unclear pervasive agent or agents acting on the demos. It becomes difficult to distinguish between cause and beginning. We are caught in the flux of being and beings.

At the heart of Bruno’s topsy turvy cosmology is the notion of “contraction.”[1] This term I believe opens up a field of inquiry in which we can recognize the filial relationship between Being and beings, life and death, a cell and a virus, and an image and non-image. Leo Catana describes Bruno’s use of the term contraction, in the ontological sense, as describing “how the universal, infinite and singular substance relates to individuals entities dependent upon it.”[2]  In an ontological sense contraction is “movement from unity to multiplicity.”[3] In other words, how does the “all” produce individual entities?  Contraction is also a way for Bruno to account for the individuation of these “individual entities.” To become an individual nature or person one must contract. One of the goals of Bruno’s project “is to console mankind by working out an alternative notion of the origin and nature of the human soul in order to eliminates…[a] fear of death.”[4]

Bruno mounts a criticism of Aristotle’s conceptualization of substance due to the fact “substances individuated according to Aristotle’s schema are subject to dissolution, and, accordingly are not eternal and permanent.”[5] Aristotle merely conceives of substance as “something ‘accidental,’ in the sense that it has a corruptible and dependent existence, rather than being a self-subsistent entity.”[6]  For Bruno, the form of a thing or a species is not immanent to the species as Aristotle would have us believe, but rather is immanent to what he describes—and takes from the Neoplatonist—as the World Soul.

The World Soul is a universal principle which endows an individuating form to the infinite matter of the entire universe but without itself becoming limited to individuated entities. It therefore remains unaffected by the decay of individual entities.[7] Bruno’s formulation is further complicated by the fact that what this World Soul acts upon—matter—makes an individual entity actually equal to the World Soul. Matter, in Bruno’s understanding, is as eternal as the World Soul. According to Catana, Bruno takes great care “to formulate the respective roles of matter and form in way which does not reduce matter to passive potentiality formed by the World Soul, but prefers, instead, to assign to matter active potentiality too.”[8] Rightly Catana acknowledges that the co-eternity of the World Soul and matter has profound theological implications.[9] While Bruno “assumed” the view that “there is one and only one ultimate cause for the entire universe,” according to Catana, he wants to make a distinction between a cause and a beginning.[10] “A cause is that whose presence results in the existence of something” while a  beginning “is the first thing from which something either exists or comes into being or becomes known.”[11] There is a slight hierarchy to be acknowledged between cause and beginning and yet it appears Bruno identifies the normative value recognizing their co-function in the fate of life.

Illustration from Thomas Digges, A Prognostication everlasting, 1576. The first publication of the Copernican heliocentric model in English. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As Bruno states:

Furthermore this form [World Soul] is defined and determined by matter because having in itself the capacity of constructing particulars of innumerable species, it becomes contracted and constitutes an individual. And, on the other hand, the potency of indeterminate matter, which can receive any form whatsoever, becomes restricted to a species. So one is the cause of making the other definite and determinant.[12]

Individuation for Bruno is a double contraction, where form contracts and matter contracts. There is an indeterminacy between these two entities that pervades the makeup of being. Nature, life in the biosphere, is made of contractions as well.

To understand our susceptibility to a virus is first to recognize the pandemic makeup of life. Consider an anthology of cosmogonies, and note how often we are confronted within these mythologies by bacteria, sperm, vaginal fluids, mucus, spit, excrement, fungus, and mud. Is the death of the offspring of the gods at the hands of other gods just in fact the pandemic of creation? And consider the “creation of the world.” How many times must be the world be born to be truly born? In some creation accounts four times, in others, at least seven times.

When we consider Bruno’s doctrine of vincule (bonding) it is important to recognize how it corresponds to the contractive nature of nature, where things are made up of other things, where at times causes and beginnings (e.g. nature selection) are difficult to distinguish from each other.

By making form pervasive and invasive of matter and vice versa Bruno destabilizes the given central feature of the classical cosmos, where there is a recognizable agent of causations to what happens in the world (cosmos). No longer is matter inert and form the only actor. A dynamism is introduced into the phenomena that must be accounted for. Nature and the temporal composition of its phenomena thus must be understood contractively as well.

For Bruno contraction here is also something physiological, not just ontological as I have discussed. The Latin “contractio derives from the verb contraho” and “ultimately from the verb traho” which “denotes a process of drawing together or compressing.”[13] It also has a psychological meaning—contractio animi, designating “dejection or depression.”[14] The distinction between the ontological contraction and physiological and psychological contraction is significant. Ontologically speaking, contraction is the process of unity becoming multiplicity. Physiologically and psychologically speaking, contraction is a process of expanding or shrinking natural phenomena within natural phenomena. Contraction in the form of nature—the human and animal and other bio-bodies—conveys susceptibility, of phenomena pulled in different directions. Speaking of how bonds are made of contraries, Bruno states that, the bonds of love can seem to be “both a fire and snare at the same time.” They “drive one to shout and to be silent, to joy and to sorrow, to hope and to desperation, to fear and to boldness, to anger and to gentleness, to weeping and to laughter.”[15] Thus it is not only that things are finite or impermanent but rather that things are made up of contraries: the material and the ephemeral, the seen and the unseen. This is what produces the susceptibilities of love. And perhaps love is susceptibility.

Bruno introduces asymmetry into the makeup of the biosphere as a principle: there is always tension between contracting phenomena that makes a thing, a person, and an event. Beings-in-contraction beings are susceptible to various enchaînements or enchantments—or bonds (vincule). Bonding is a manifestation of the ontological contraction, but in the subtlest sense. Bruno identifies nine agents that participate in this process of bond-making: God, demons, souls, animals, nature, chance, luck and, fate.[16]

As we can see from this list of agents, hierarchy has been leveled: God, among other agents, has the power to create bonds. Furthermore, the unseen and unknown are also introduced as substantial agents. Notice how chance, luck, and fate introduce more complex phenomena into the bonding nexus than one would expect. Not only are these experiences—chance, luck, and fate—between phenomena they are the product of thought in contraction. The mind becomes susceptible to varying epistemological methods in order to determine what is chance, what is luck and what is fate. Thinking and imagining can be also be identified as contracting phenomena that must engage something outside of thought and imagination. What exactly is the being of chance, luck or fate?

Covid-19 Map generated by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins University, October 2020. Courtesy of John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

This map generated by the John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, provides a clear example of the enigma of the inherent instability of thought and imagining—sites of contraction—when confronted with real-time global contraction. It maps out for us a geography of “where” the coronavirus has spread. Through the scale of red dots we can recognize and identify in some very general sense where the virus is located. Yet at the same time we cannot truly identify these locations. The image does not provide enough information—the sort of information demanded by our own mental contractions—to know where the virus is, and its fate in relation to our fate.

In a way a map of a virus is iconoclastic unto itself. The mind and the imagination wander out beyond the image’s parameters. But the beyond now is a void, almost cosmic, because there is no fixed thought or imaging that adequately computes the existential and ontological global contraction underway. In both solitary and distanced spaces we face an unknown within ourselves and within others. It’s in the air, it’s in everything we touch. It’s in what we see and what we don’t see. And it all dissolves into fate, luck, and chance, as if no virus existed, as if no pandemic was underway.

In the “as if,” a cough, a fever may be a symptom. It may not be. A dream may be a hallucination. Or just that, a dream of a hallucination. In a sense there is tautology in saying there is a pandemic to a biosphere composed of contractions. We are dealing with the double of cell life that only animates when in contact with a cell—the living-dead within life.  The image is lost, made inoperative, because in a sense what we are trying to wrap our minds and imaginations around is not the Being of a being—a feat in itself—but the Being of a non-being.

[1] Which he explores in the texts Cause, Principle and Unity, The Seal of Seals, On the Shadow of Ideas, and De Magia Mathematica 

[2] Leo Catana, Concept of Contraction in Giordano Bruno’s Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2017. 52.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Ibid., 55.

[5] Ibid., 57

[6] Ibid., 57.

[7] Ibid. 58.

[8] Ibid. 57.

[9] Ibid., 58.

[10] Ibid., 58.

[11] Ibid., 58-59.

[12] Ibid., 64.

[13] Leo Catana, Concept of Contraction in Giordano Bruno’s Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2017. 158.

[14] Ibid., 158.

[15] Giordano Bruno, Cause, Principle and Unity, Essays on Magic, trans. Robert de Lucca and Richard J. Blackwell. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004. 148.

[16] Ibid., 145.

Nyasha Chiundiza, a native of Harare, Zimbabwe, is a writer pursuing an MFA in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts, with a background in Medieval Theology and social theory. He teaches Comparative Religions and Ethics at Bard Microcollege in Brooklyn.

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