Words and Things

Larval Subjects has a great response to the ongoing discussion between Harman and Shaviro here. (Note to self: definitely part of the SR class I’m teaching in the Spring will have to take up the form of argumentation used, in particular the use of blogs, which means finding a way to make LS‘s stuff part of the course without wholly taking it out if its ongoing, experimental space.)

 

Let me dip my finger in here somewhere...

Let me dip my finger in here somewhere...

Now, if I can use of one of the terrible analogies that bring my classes to screeching halts, if the people doing SR are potters dutifully working away at their clay wheels on certain problems spinning past them, then I’m more like the person who comes by, tastes the mud, and offers a non-sequitur about the taste. But let me say that though I agree with about all that LS has written in his post, though I won’t step into the subject of Whitehead (what matters more, anyway, is less the reading of Whitehead than what LS and Harman are trying to argue through him). But let me cite a passage where I would take a pause:

If you find yourself immediately talking about language, signs, subjects, co-constitution, power, the nature of inquiry, etc., then you are an idealist. There is no ambiguity here. The implicit thesis in all these moves that the being of being cannot be even entertained independent of the human. …All philosophical questions do not revolve around the human. Nor is there any conflation of questions of access in Whitehead with questions of ontology. The question of how we have access to such and such a being, say a rose, is irrelevant to the question of what constitutes the being of beings. I find myself utterly baffled as to why philosophers seem to have such a difficult time distinguishing these two issues…

As I noted here, I think LS is right about access, since once one asks about the being of that access itself (this is the move of Meillassoux) then the epistemological question “how do you know the real?” moves to the background. There is a conflation of the epistemological and the ontological in the name of an idealism that goes by another name (I think that Hallward is right that there is a slight of hand move in Meillassoux on this, but that’s something I discuss quickly in my Pli article). But the linguistic turn was not wholly concerned with access, and where it was it ended up being a neo-Kantian schematism. In fact, it’s not an accident that the same people getting vapors over SR and the non-human are also likely to be heard railing against discursive systems, linguistic structures, and other marks of the end of what Foucault called “man” (the doublet of thinking being and being). One need not take on Foucault’s account—I don’t—to say that (a) linguistic questions do abound when we talk about questions of power, about articulations of onto-theology, and so on. Nietzsche, to cite one figure mentioned by SR, was clear, since this desire that SR discusses manifested itself in the oppositions of metaphysical language, (b) beyond this political question, this view of language as a wholly human artifact appears rather unsubtle. This, at least, I think is behind some of the work I’ve read at Fractal Ontologies.

 

This is why I tend to read back through SR in terms of Nancy’s work since I think it’s not enough to give a non-human account of the real, but what is truly interesting about work in OOO or OOP is a non-human account of the sense or meaning of being. This is not to say that language is our access to being. Let me repeat that: this is not the new linguistic schematism. (This is why codeFoucault, for those interested, took time out in two lecture courses to argue against “social constructivism.”) But one doesn’t need to believe that universe is one large mechanism for the transfer of information (variations of string theory and even evolutionary biology have this idea), which only shows how we tend to transfer the later technologies to our metaphors for the universe, be it the watch of modern philosophy or the computers of today, to think that language is not a wholly human province. (Which is Heidegger’s argument and Agamben’s in the Open.

So, ok, you might say with that last point: critiquing Agamben and Heidegger, you can expand language to animals, but that still leaves us with philosophy as explaining the being of beings as it is to the living. But if language is an object among others (I mean this not as an artifact, but in the larval sense), then why not think the sense that passes between each object and the object that is language? Why think language as a mere human artifact? It’s not a question of access. But it is a question about the non-human dimension of language, which is one I’ll come back to, filling this out better with quotes from LS and OOP that show this isn’t a lazy insertion of the human back into SR.

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5 comments on “Words and Things

  1. Great post, Pete. In the passage you quote above, I’m speaking a little sloppily. The issue isn’t whether one speaks about language, but rather whether or not one thinks we must always refer to some human phenomena whenever discussing being. Within the framework of my ontology, languages, signifiers, signs, etc., are also objects. In other words, it’s an absolutely flat realism. One of the features I find most attractive about OOO is that, to paraphrase the old expression, it allows you to have your neurology and your semiotics too. So although you have to modify Derrida, Foucault, Barthes’, etc., nonetheless you get to retain many of their concepts. There’s a delicate balancing act going on here. On the one hand, it’s necessary to avoid the reductive or eliminative materialism of other realist approaches that would only treat particles and neurons as real. On the other hand, it’s necessary to avoid the eliminative idealism of the linguistic and semiotic turn that would only treat signifiers and signs as real. The ontology must show how both things like quarks and neurons are real and things like signs, signifiers, and power are real, while also arguing against any sort of reductivism whether from the materialist side or the idealist side.

  2. Scu says:

    I’m not much of a de Manian, but Paul de Man certainly engages with language in ways that escape the normal anthropocentrism of language. Filled with grammar-machines and the inhuman, he certainly opens one way to see language outside of the human.

    • philosophyinatimeoferror says:

      Yeah, de Man was certainly working on a materialism of language, but on the other hand, I was at a de Man conference in the Spring and I remember thinking that there was no real outside of language for him. So on the one hand, his metaphors were apt, but on the other he merely replace humanism with linguisticism. But I’m open on that claim.

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