Hylomorphism and Pedagogy: Plato’s Technical Political Physics


In this first installment of my serial essay on the generation of the child, I undertake a focused reading from John Protevi’s wonderfully synthetic and comparative work, Political Physics (2001), which evaluates the differing strengths of Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze (and Guattari) for thinking the body politic.  If we understand a “body,” after Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche, as a composition of unequal or differential forces, then an analysis of what Protevi incisively terms “forceful bodies politic” (emphasis added) requires a “political physics,”

so that the constitution of physical, chemical, biological and social bodies can be thought politically (in terms of the law of their ordering of force relations), while the constitution of political bodies can be thought physically, chemically, biologically or socially (in terms of the forces involved in their ordering of laws).  Forceful bodies (persons, families, groups, parties, gangs, corporations, races, sects, nations, worlds) are thus particular force-arrangements of the chemical, biological and social bodies, themselves force-arrangements: they are forceful bodies politic. (3)

I don’t have the space here to do justice to the scope and breadth of the entirety of Political Physics, but one of Protevi’s central concerns is the hegemony of hylomorphism in Western thought, upon which he brings to bear first Derrida’s deconstructive project resulting in a notion of force and signification in a general text and then Deleuze’s positive account of material self-ordering, especially through complexity theory.  Hylomorphism refers to the presumption of a distinction between passive matter and a transcendent force giving form from without to said matter.  It is Protevi’s chapter on Plato’s technical political physics to which I turn, in which a hylomorphic body politic of the infant as tabula rasa for proper pedagogy and training according to the laws of the philosopher is compromised by the positive somatic knowledge of childrearing, especially that which is instituted by the relation of slavewomen to infants.  My isolation and reading of this section of Political Physics is useful as a starting point in this serial essay for two intertwined reasons: first, it outlines the hylomporhic dimensions of infants as “blanks slates” for proper formation through the technical project of pedagogy at the foundation of Western philosophy and political theory; and secondly, the method of political physics, in executing its Deleuzian critique of hylomorphism, also affirms a positive dimension for the infant in its own generation on the level of somatic knowledge.  This affirmation of the positive contributions of infants and children in their processual generation is an important dimension of what “Regarding the Generation of the Child” sets out to accomplish.

Plato’s Technical Political Physics

Plato’s body politic is hylomorphic in an architectonic sense: arche here having the sense of the transcendent, a force exterior to the organic body that orders it, while techne refers to the processes themselves that are meant to form and direct the organic body and soul, including pedagogy and education, the two fields on which I will dwell (119).  Protevi provides us with several crucial insights into how the Platonic body politic is a question of technics.  “Since the grasp of the form is the hallmark of techne,” (121) there is a continuum of “technical production” in Platonic thought (Protevi’s key texts here are the Gorgias, the Laws, Timaeus, the Republic, and Statesman) from the craftsperson to the pedagogue.  Indeed, the way Plato grounds what qualifies as techne in logos is through the ability for it to be taught as a form of replicable rationality; hence, the craftsperson who builds furniture undertakes a technical production by imposing form on the passive materials of his work through a rational arche-design, something he can teach an apprentice (121).  The key here is the rational form-giving of logos, the imposition of form onto matter by the technical producer is a “compelling,” an ordering of the indeterminate (121).  This hylomorphic concept of technical production dovetails all the way up to the philosopher guiding the formation and direction of the souls of the city—that is to say, the philosopher governing the souls of others rationally.

The suggestion that techne is characterized by its teachability is the transversal connection of this example of the technical production of the body politic to the question of the infant, the child, and education.  To be clear again, though, “teaching” here, Protevi points out, is of the order of a “command,” a rendering determinate of indeterminacy, “the characteristic relation of master to slave” (131), a hylomorphic distinction, but one that will be undermined by the non-technical knowledge and practices expressed in the slavewoman-infant relation.

Somatic Knowledge: The Slavewoman-Infant Relation

In the Republic, Plato makes rather clear the hylomorphic body politic with which the governance of children is bound from the start, even before formal education for those who are considered worthy of it:

When the children play the right games from the start, they absorb obedience to the law through their training in the arts, quite the opposite of what happens in those who play lawless games.  This lawfulness follows them in everything, fosters their growth, and can correct anything that has gone wrong before in the city (Plato, Republic, 425b, cited in Protevi, 138-39).

This is a pretty linear account of the governance of children through a forceful imposition of law to structure their indeterminacy while at play.  Protevi also explores the account Plato gives of childrearing in the Laws, in which the positivity of somatic knowledge in the practice of affective attunement pokes holes in this hylomorphism.  Childrearing is best understood as an “artisanal labor,” he notes, which means it does not qualify as a form of technical production—raising a child is still meant to be additionally directed from above by the guidance of the philosopher, even if he cannot legislate explicit law on matters that take place in the private space of the home (133).  Protevi’s fascinating example is the lullaby: slavewomen’s lullabies sung to infants are recognized as soothing and hence in some vague sense an “ordering” somatic practice that helps mold the infant, who is presumed otherwise to be an indeterminate tabula rasa.  The contradiction here is that Plato is actually unable to explain what it is that is so valuable about the lullaby, or how it works, since it is not a form of techne and is an embodied practice of the somatic knowledge of slavewomen who are subordinated organs in the Platonic body politic; Plato uses the word “guesswork” to describe the process through which slavewomen sooth unruly infants and hence prepare them for eventual technical instruction in the supposedly transcendent form of logos by the enterprise of philosophical governance (134-45).  A similar looseness is present, notes Protevi, in the cases of musical and gymnastic instruction for children (119).


As Protevi’s work details, then, the hylomorphic concept of an orderly body politic formed out of a technical pedagogy is undercut by its own prior reliance on non-rational, somatic knowledge and affective practices of attunement in the slavewoman-infant relation.  There is a positivity of matter suggested here by the fact that it is the bodies of the slavewoman and the infant, two supposedly passive bodies in the Platonic world, that in their relation produce something nonlinguistic and ordering: musical and affective attunement.  This exemplar, I would argue, in order to conclude my reading of Political Physics in the context of my larger essay project, provides an account of the asymmetric, but relational generation of the child that offers us an affirmative role for the infant.  It is not just the parent, slavewoman, or pedagogue that forms the child out of its chaotic nothingness, impressing onto a blank slate the ideal form of the human to be realized in the child’s development; rather it is a onto-culturally prior somatic practice of affective attunement that first produces the infant out of its maternal relation, before education.

As we will see next week in my reading of Jean Laplanche’s recent work on attachment, the intensive phase of infant-parent/caregiver relationality suggests that the hylomorphic body politic of classical education and molding of children is undercut by its own nonlinguistic, nonrational, and embodied grounding.  The implications of this critique and affirmation are, therefore, vast: it asks us to reevaluate the presumption that infants and children are mere blank slates awaiting programming by adults, or that the transmission of attributes and modes across generations is a linear, one-way process.  If infants and children are still somatically dependent on adults, though, then how do we evaluate the qualities of their positive contributions to their own generation? The answer to this question remains the task of the four essays to come.



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