Scopic Vision and Operativity

November 2, 2013

This paper proposes that a new methodology of reason is needed to overcome the mode of operativity provided by capitalism, and its manner of harnessing the peculiarities of the limits of the default transcendental condition as described by Kant. It develops the analogy of the rifle scope and the telescope in accordance with Wilfrid Sellars’ distinction between the Manifest and Scientific image to argue that by radicalizing the framing of access introduced by Kant, we may set our scope of operativity to a new magnification, and thereby move beyond the myopia of capitalism.

Operativity is often a term used to contest the modernist legacy, and its enlightenment ideals. The architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri, used the term to challenge the teleological tendency of modernism, whose instrumentalization of history smoothed over historical contradictions and produced ideological bias in its attempts to realize the future. As he defined it, “[O]perative criticism represents the meeting point of history and planning. We could say, in fact, that operative criticism plans past history by projecting it towards the future. “ [1] For Tafuri, this was a dangerous move, as the errors of the past were subsumed in a utopian zeal that overlooked the contested discourse of a complex historical reality that did not progress in a simple and linear path towards a better tomorrow. The rationalism that he saw underlying this movement lead directly to the fascist politics that came to dominate his years in the academy in Italy. Much of Tafuri’s work, then, is concerned with proposing a kind of meta-discourse to the form of operative history he saw at work in the modernists, by attempting to develop an alternative model of architectural history.[2]

I wish to revive the term operativity, not however, in the merely in the negative sense that Tafuri saw it — as a historical distortion — but in terms of a kind of scenario thinking . Operativity allows us to reassert the capacity or craftsmanship of future planning, where the meta-conditions of its thought are regarded as an integral component of that capacity. In this respect, the reflexive criticality of operativity is itself an important functional component of its own process of construction — for, in committing to a course of action, we may ask, what are the conditions of knowledge upon which we base this action? Operativity is a form of design planning, not just in terms of its teleology, but also in terms of its epistemic enquiry. In setting out what is to be done, we must first look to the scope of the problem at hand.

If Tafuri was critiquing a simplified and dogmatic history which formed what he saw as the basis of the fascistic architectural process, we may find in Kant’s critical attitude towards the metaphysics of his day a similar impulse. I believe the lesson that we can take from Tafuri’s return to history as a critical mode of investigation, is not to deny reason, but like Kant awakened from his dogmatic slumber, a return to reason which questions its own conditions of possibility.

Kant’s approach attempts to reveal the transcendental conditions that make up the possibility for our experience and express how it is we are able to have understanding of our experience. Kant’s position is often considered Copernican, because rather than focusing upon how the subject revolves around the object, he focuses on how the objects of thought revolve around the subject. [3]

Kant argues that the faculties of intuition allows us to have a sensibility of the world around us, while the faculties of cognition provide an understanding of this sensibility. [4] These faculties are given to us a priori — they pre-exist our conception of them, and form the basic conditions for our thought. He is careful to distinguish between the intuitions, which he orders under space and time, and cognition, which concerns the empty formal and abstract categories of thought and the faculty of judgement. This distinction is driven by a fundamental asymmetry between our ability to conceptualize intuition, and the space or objects of intuition, which are not exhausted by our conceptualization of them.

Cognition works in tandem with our sensibility, and orders the phenomena that are presented through a synthesis of imagination into the unity of the manifold. Judgment, which is an operation of cognition, allows us to produce potential syntheses and render them as workable propositions by reflection. There is then, a constant back and forth between intuition and our conception of it. We consistently test the cohesion of our concepts in respect to new objects of sensibility, which must either be synthesized into our existing conceptual schema, or our conceptual schema alters in respect of new content which does not accord with existing conceptions.

The importance, in this distinction between the cognitive and the intuitive, however, is the way in which the faculties relate to the world. While Kant is always careful to maintain a separation between the thing-in-itself, or the objects of our perception, as distinct from our perception of them, the separation of abstract operation of thought upon sensibility is distinguished by the critical judgement which allows us to test the traction of our representations in respect to the world. For, if our sensibility, though distinct from the world, in some way corresponds with it, we through the judgement of reason are then capable of determining in what respects it aligns with it.

In his second critique, Kant describes the imperatives, which form the basis for our value judgements, and allow us to make decisions upon which we take action towards the future. [5] He calls the imperatives which form a universal basis for our actions, and are necessary, the categorical imperatives. He identifies these with the human as the ultimate end of all our actions, because it is the finitude of human intuition with is the ultimate limit and end of our reason, and the particular space within which all action may be adjudicated. Essentially, Kant proposes a form of operativity, or future planning, which is regulated by the human capacity for reason, and the ability to conceptualize our intuitive space such that our future actions are in accordance with our conceptualization of that space at the limit of its knowledge and in respect to other rational beings.

If Kant recognizes that conceptualization occurs in respect to an asymmetry toward intuition, our intuition maintains an asymmetrical relationship with the real, identified by the empty conception of the noumenal (thing-in-itself) as a transcendental object that remains always beyond the horizon of total conceptualization. In other words, the the thing-in-itself is the idealized real, which we can only define asymptotically through the gradual progress of reason, but which is also regulative of our reason. It rests always outside the limit of the finitude of human knowledge, and so is in some way unknowable. For some philosophers following Kant, this ostensible limit of human reason proposed a closure of the human capacity, around which reality itself became indeterminate. This tendency is recognizable in Tafuri, who saw that his peers only judged history according to the limit of their present conceptualization, and so called for a critical return to the past in terms of a vigilant skepticism. It is the hypostatization of this finitude, which forms the basis of a Kantian humanism, that we will seek to critique later.

Kojin Karatani reads Marx with Kant to in an attempt to show how capital operates according to the transcendental mechanism that makes up the heart of Kant’s third critique. [6] Under Karatani’s description of Marx’s model, the operations of pricing and credit become the mechanisms by which surplus value arises from the universal exchange system that describes domain of capital. All exchanges are mediated by money, which expresses the universal value form and allows the equivocation between distinct forms of use value. This structure itself has an empty, but infinite extensibility, in which anything that may be exchanged, can be exchanged, so long as the value that is proscribed to it passes through the structure. Credit, for instance, operates under the faith that its value will be returned with profit. So long as the financier can lend credit, the return is calculated with its profit, and the possibility for further lending is extended. The value of the debt derives not from its specificity to the individual and their form labour in working it off, but rather the surplus value that is extracted from the disjunction between the lender’s initial investment in a particular space and time, and that of the debtor’s use of that value in his or her own space and time. It is therefore this profit extracted from that disjunction which ultimately describes the limit of capitalism; so long as profit may be extracted from an exchange, capitalism may continue indefinitely. [7]

Profit, therefore, is the imperative value under which the capitalist tests the exchangeability of some term within the system of capitalism. With pricing, the capitalist estimates potential surplus value based upon the risk inherent in passing the term within the system, a means of testing the disjunction of some particular finite element against all of the possible infinite terms of the system. Or, to put this another way, she asks, “Under what conditions might she know that value can be extracted from some possible exchange?” Just as Kant asks, “Under what conditions can we have experience?”, this question brackets the field of exchange to a particular domain of known terms, from which one can extract an operation. Under capitalism, profit conditions all of the known terms, in respect to an intuition of the space and time of the market.

Just as the Kantian attempts to form a rational space of action with respect to the limits of intuition, which Kant ethically defines according to the human measure, the capitalist produces a measure of the market with as exacting of a conception that the finitude of their own intuition will allow.

In certain neo-liberal economic theories, such as those of Friedrich Hayek [8], the intuitive limit of human intuition in respect to the market allows one to form arbitrage with respect to distinct limitations of each of the players, whose intuition in space and time is contingently limited by their position, yet supposedly equality of conceptual capacity. In contemporary finance, this arbitrage is often leveraged with the aid of computers, allowing for the extraction of further abstract value from information asymmetry.

However, the ability to quantify markets through computation itself produces an information asymmetry amongst the various players within the market. In financialization, contrary to classical and neo-classical economics, it is not the case that all players begin with an equal capacity for conceptualization, and then are capable of producing greater efficiency from a similarly contingent position. Instead, primary production is subordinated to the abstract conceptualization of the operation of value in the market, which means that the more information one begins with regarding the scope of the market, the more one is capable of capitalizing on the information asymmetry, because one is better capable of setting pricing in respect to the limits of the market. [9] The scope of intuitive space, and the ability to quickly conceptualize it according to the profit function is increased beyond the bounds of normative capacities.

Arbitrage financialization succeeds precisely by overstepping the finitude of human intuition, through computational quantification of the market. However, the ideology of capitalism in liberalism, especially understood in terms of neo-liberalism, proposes an equality of ability according to exactly this measure of human finitude which places all actors on similar footing when approaching markets. In addition, financialization is used to extract profit value, without actually producing any more primary production, thereby siphoning value from from ever more exact quantification into the hands of the few who have the tools to enhance their measure of the market.

I now want to turn from Kant and Marx to Sellars. Wilfrid Sellars bracketed two ways of perceiving the world, which he called the manifest image and the scientific image. For Sellars, the manifest image might be considered the philosophical image of man according to the way that he views himself in the world. [10] For Sellars, this is not a naive view, but rather a considered perspective whose representative image derives from a development of thought about man’s being in the world that he derives from two related discourses – the historical development on man’s originary image of himself and its empirical refinement. He traces these discourse in through the development of philosophy, characterizing them through the tradition descending from Plato, and revolving around an image of the world as a projection of ‘spirit’. This spirit is not a ghostly one, but rather a way of explaining objects in the world as projections of being as being is a projection of the human.

Sellars challenges this correlation between the human image and the world by juxtaposing it with another another view, which he calls the scientific image. The scientific image is distinct from that of man in that it is composed of a representation of the world derived from the claims of science, such as relativity, quantum mechanics, neurophysiology, etc., as they are discontinuous from the common-sensical and phenomenological intuitions of the manifest image. This is to say, the center of the scientific image is not man, and his — its truths do not rest upon what people may think of them, but in what its methodology reveals about the world. For Sellars, the scientific image was an attack on what he called the myth of the given, or the default intuitive space of sensations as experienced by man.[11] He felt that through the methodological rationality of science, man could come to realize that his intuitive perception of the world was not equivalent to it. Intuitive sensation was not some imminent experience of the world in-itself, but one mode of registering it for us. Only through the rigorous conceptual bootstrapping of of the scientific image, could we move beyond the naive perspective of the manifest image.

While Sellars acknowledges that for us, the manifest image is a precondition of the organization of the scientific image, he does not agree that the one is logically dependent upon the other, and that the intersubjective methodologies that support the Scientific Image produce a view of the world that is substantially different in the types of claims it makes regarding the world. He is careful to note the inadequacies of the manifest Image, and the impasse that descends from Descartes regarding the difference between thought and the world. [12] The manifest image is dependent upon its introspective character, and as such identifies its thoughts about the world, with the world. But, we know that our perception of the world is not the same as the world. My sensation of the color red is not the same as the waves of light that bounce off of an object at different lengths from a red ball, and though the same physical phenomena may interact with the nervous system of another person, they may have distinct sensation — especially if they suffer from color blindness. There is, then, a way in which the scientific image is capable of explaining a spectrum of distinct local phenomena and their sensual interpretation that is distinct from our individual perception of it. In addition, though this work is far from complete, the methods of the scientific image has the capacity to link higher and lower level physical phenomena as a part of the same continuous image. For instance, the same system which describes the interaction of small-scale atomic physics, applies equally to oxygen binding to hydrogen to form water, and is also expressed in the higher level activity of a dog catching a scent, though the behavioral activity operates at a different scale of complexity. The scientific image is panoptic as opposed to the more specifically perspectively situated manifest image then, which views things through the human scale.

Consider, for instance, a rifle scope. The optics of the rifle scope narrows vision to a single point in the immediate distance. The rifle scope does not point beyond the horizon, but within it, bringing closer to me what is immediately apparent in my field of vision, but allowing me, through the instrument of the rifle to bring the target into submission and make use of it at a distance. The scope collapses a local space for me, allowing me to grasp at what is not immediately at hand, but to anticipate the distance and use it for my own purposes. In this way, it is a mere extension of the optics of the eye, but one which rests comfortably upon its geo-planar line-of-sight, to bring the immediate distance into focus.

Now, think of a telescope. I turn it towards the stars and find a distance whose depth cannot be collapsed into my immediate use. I look beyond the horizon and into an abyss of stars whose points form a remote cartography, of which our own sun is but a small and provincial village. Unlike the rifle scope, which follows the line of the ground, the telescope drops the ground beneath our feet, unmooring it in an abyssal space. Rather than situate the world for me, it de-centers me in relation to it. Through a careful study of this map, I come to realize that some of those distant lights are the burned out husks of cities so far off that all I may ever grasp of them is the plume of smoke carried across the void and signaling nothing more than their long ago expiration.

This final point, the extinction broadcast from billions of light years away, is not just the truth of some far off place, but as Ray Brassier argues, an inevitable fact of our own existence. [13] We are, as he says, already dead. Following Meillassoux’s logic of the Arche-fossil, a thought experiment that supposes the pre-existence of reality to any thought that might correlate with it, Brassier extends this lesson to the final extinction of all organic and inorganic matter. [14] Based upon our current understanding, billions and billions of years from now the universe will expand to such a point that heat-death will begin, and the interactions between all the particles of the universe will cease, eventually atoms themselves will decay resulting in a total asymptopia of all that ever was or will be. Of course, far before this, our own sun will have gone supernova, destroying the planet and any living things within the vicinity of our own solar system.

For Brassier, this extirpation of all life represents a truth regarding the import of the Manifest Image and correlation with the universe. It reveals the abyssal character of the real, and indexes the otherness of the real in terms of a formal negativity. For us to gain purchase on this abyss, it is only through the reciprocal process of inferential exchange, through an autonomous program of reason, that we can come to have some understanding of the world. But, because reason is not guided by any human end, but the demand towards truth, it sheds human prejudice as it develops. That is, many of the assumptions of the Manifest Image, and its anthropocentric focus, will have to be discarded in the face of a greater truth, one that does not rely on the limits of human intuition, but is in accordance with the reality of the universe itself. Despite this thought of the universal arising from the platform of the Manifest Image, the truth of a universe without knowledge-for-us proposes a distinct epistemological status from that of the epistemological status of access provided by the Manifest Image itself. This is the truth of the in-itself, which for us is indexed by the regulative status of the (transcendental) real. A real which is an aspiration, never exactly what we see.

This means that the image of the world that is provided by default by the Kantian manifold and its categorical imperatives, will have to be overcome. The a priori manifold of appearances, as described by Kant is intimately tied to the human perspective. Basically, this manifold operates along the lines of a functional and standard phenomenology which re-inscribes the encounter with nature in terms of a contingent evolutionary system of perception. Its focus is tied to a particular magnitude of vision, whose compression of the infinite into a particular finitude is reflective of what was a necessary accident of survival for the human species. The limit of human reason is a limit that is constantly overcome by the resources of reason itself, which consistently reflects upon its own concepts in respect of the regulative truth of the real.

Capitalism is a specific value function which piggybacks upon the evolutionary shortcomings of this system. It is able to use profit as a means of organizing operativity just beyond the human scale and collapse the limits of the immediate horizon into an eminently graspable mode of instrumentality. In this respect, it operates like the rifle scope, targeting the distance and bringing into an immediate ambit for consumption. Principally, it functions upon the same lines of sight as the human, but accords it with just enough depth to make additional use of that which is immediately beyond it, while ideologically positing the human perspective as the ineluctable ground of all its action. The problem it faces is one of the magnitude of its scope, and that it can only operate within the value for seizing its prey, or in terms of capitalism, profit. Through the rifle scope, everything becomes a target, the sole trajectory guiding the line of sight is the path of the bullet.

Overcoming this problem, however, does not mean discarding Kantianism, but radicalizing the operations of reasons that its framework provides. To return to the scope analogy, both scopes operate according to a similar mechanism of optics, but the mechanisms which organize those optics allow one to see into distinct depths, and thereby focus on different images. The limits that these mechanisms circumscribe are not presenting something that is true about the world, but is true about the way in which the scopes themselves bracket the world. To think about this in terms of Kant, the way in which the conditions of the manifold organize the world for us presents not a truth about the world itself, but about how we perceive the limits of the manifold itself. This is not to say that the way the world appears to us through the manifold is in no way connected to the world, but that its a priori configuration is opaque, or the connection itself is unconscious to our understanding. When I look through the scope, I do not see the lenses which bring the distance into focus, the mechanism appears transparent until I arrive at the limits of the mechanism itself, at which point the image becomes blurry. However, depending upon the mechanism, whether I am looking through a rifle scope or a telescope, the limits of the device allow me to focus on distinct and discrete distances.

The operativity of both a regressive humanism and the ideological power of capitalism rest upon maintaining the theoretical limit of human finitude. As Brassier argues, it is not that we need to throw out Kantianism, but to extend its operations by recognizing the epistemic status, or limit of the human manifold, or manifest image. [16] In recognizing the conditioning effects of the mechanisms, the peculiar optics that produce the subjective perspective, we recognize that it is not the only scope of view into the world. The analogy between the two scopes that I have been developing allows us to see that there is a generic space between the two scopes, what we might call the global space, in which the two local limits of the scopes operate, and may even overlap. What Sellars’ differentiation between the Scientific and Manifest Images highlights, is that a distinct methodological reasoning, with a different epistemic access can be built upon the rational cognitive resources of the manifest image, without being dependent upon its own methods and modes of appearances which define the world in accordance to the limitation of our intuitive grasp of phenomena. This is a relativizing operation, placing distinct lines of sight in relation to one another, allowing me to clarify new perspectives, and critically reintegrate them with my current position, so that I may abduct my current understanding and bring forth new operative capabilities beyond those of a single line of sight.

By gauging the world with the telescope, rather than the rifle scope, we set a new line of sight that whose ambition reaches beyond the merely predatory. We must navigate through the optics of the eye, and its regressive anthropomorphism, and beyond the rifle-scope of capitalism whose fulcrum rests upon the presumed limit of human vision. Through a methodological extension of reason we propose a operativity that goes beyond the capitalist, beyond the merely human, and sets the trajectory towards the cosmic.

What is to be done? Lenin’s question is the hard problem that always lies at the end of a theoretical prospectus such as this — how do we turn our theory into some form of praxis? It is not within the ambit of this paper to make detailed proscriptions, but a suggestion: In some ways, the ability to recalibrate our instruments already lies within our grasp. The tools of computational finance already seek to evaluate the rationality of markets beyond the scope of merely human calculation and quantification. Unfortunately, as noted, their purpose is not attuned to a project of liberation, but towards the profit value. As Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams suggest, it may be possible to turn the end of these instruments away from pure abstract value production and towards the production of primary production — a system for tracking the allocation of resources not according to the limit of human perception, but towards a global optimization and tied to a project whose purpose seeks to move beyond the bounds of the earth. [17] It is the wasteful limit of capitalism, that it can only see its own meagre line of sight as the ultimate limit of human activity. Nevertheless, without an alternative vision, the capitalist construction of the future will continue to dominate. Rather than return to a past we may never reconstruct, like Tafuri, we must imagine a form of operativity whose scope is focused beyond both a myopic sentimentality and the limits of the present.


1. Manfredo Tafure, Theories and History of Architecture, Translated by Giorgio Verrecchia.
2. Ibid.
3. “Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but … let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition.”, Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason.
4. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason.
5. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason.
6. Kojin Karatani, Transcritique, Translated by Sabu Kohso.
7. I owe a great deal to the elucidation of this thought on Karatani’s reading of Kant and Marx to the short discussion found on Steven Shaviro’s blog. (Steven Shaviro, “Transcritique (part 2: Marx)”, The Pinocchio Theory).
8. Friedrich Hayek was a 20th century neo-liberal economist, who epitomizes the extreme trend of market-place fundamentalists. He felt that the market place could spontaneously self-organize much of human society, and that government interference often inhibited these organizing principles. Thus government was to steer clear of the market, and should only intervene to enforce the rule of law. (“the principle of distributive justice, once introduced, would not be fulfilled until the whole of society was organized in accordance with it. This would produce a kind of society which in all essential respects would be the opposite of a free society.”, Friedrich Hayek, The Mirage of Social Justice) He also believed in absolute individualism based upon the limits of human knowledge, which was foundational to the axiomatic sense of equality he saw all players having with the marketplace. (Friedrich Hayek, Individualism and the Economic Order). While Hayek did believe in some forms of social responsibility, and even advocated a minimum income (“There is no reason why in a free society government should not assure to all, protection against severe deprivation in the form of an assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need descend.”, Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty), current neo-liberal doctrine almost entirely omits these palliatives in favor of a purely market-driven society.
9. For example, the New York Times reported on a recent case in which Goldman Sachs was caught manipulating the aluminum market, by purchasing warehouses and shipping aluminum through the its various properties to delay its release on the market, thereby raising the value for Aluminum on the futures market. This practice actually favored increased inefficiancy over production in favor of profitability. (David Kocieniewski, “U.S. Subpoenas Goldman in Inquiry of Aluminum Warehouses”, The New York Times).
10. Wilfrid Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”.
11. Wilfrid Sellars, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind”.
12. Wilfrid Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”.
13. Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound.
14. Brassier has developed his position to further distinguish himself from Meillassoux’s, and has instead focused on an epistemological realism, as opposed to an ontological realism. Most recently, a succinct expression of his position can be located in “That Which is Not: Philosophy as Entwinement of Truth and Negativity”, Stasis Journal 1.
16. Ibid.
17. Both Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek have expressed some version of this in greater and lesser forms of detail. See: Nick Srnicek, “Navigating Neoliberalism: Political Aesthetics in the Age of Crisis”, Alex Williams, “Escape Velocities”, e-flux #46, and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “#ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics”, Dark Trajectories: Politics of the Outside.