Elden on Bennett and the History of Ideas

i’ll just post what he put up on his blog last night:

As I said I have read the book and found it very interesting, beautifully written and full of ideas.

The question I have is an odd, and perhaps indulgent, one because it focuses on how the book should impact on my own work. I’m also thinking of the blurb for The Speculative Turn that says “the new currents of continental philosophy depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself”.

I’m well aware that I have a tendency to focus on texts and not things, whatever kind of work I do. Given that most what I do falls under the broad banner of ‘history of ideas’ this is perhaps not surprising. Nonetheless I’m increasingly interested in the relation between words, concepts and practices, and the interplay that that produces between the semantic, thought and materiality, but in historical work I’m finding it hard to see how that can be done without mediation through texts. The big project I am currently working on is a history of the concept of territory, where the main focus is a rereading of Western political thought with a focus on the question of the relation between place and power.

If I am looking at objects such as an astrolabe, Gunter’s chain or a compass, and seeing how those made possible particular ways of thinking about land or made possible political control of land, then even though I could look at the material object in a museum, the way into thinking about them would always be mediated by texts talking about their design, their use and so on. This historical question seems to be different from Jane’s own encounter with the objects in the storm drain (on p. 4).

In terms of books, the materiality of their production is something that is of interest, especially in terms of the shifts to knowledge when printing became possible. Then there are discussions of particular landscapes or battle terrain—I have a reading of Caesar’s De bello gallico on this, for instance—but what we know is through the medium of a text. Similarly even though we know that certain rivers or mountain ranges formed borders between kingdoms or tribal areas, there is a necessary distance between them as historical objects and the way we can experience or speak of them today. I can see the point when Jane claims that the ‘territory of Iraq’ is an actant (p. 81), but even if Gaul or Germania were too, do we have the same mode of access to them?

I suppose a similar question could be asked for what we know of the body historically. In the case of Foucault’s reading of Damians or Herculine Barbin, for instance, this is through what written records exist. So, though the body is the focus, it is mediated through a text.

I wonder if similar issues came up for Jane when she was reading Aeschylus on matter, or when she was tracing the history of some of the ideas she discusses in the book. I liked the mention of the traffic jam occasioned by Bergson in NYC (p. 64), but I wondered how the material aspect of the history of ideas complicated the stories she told.

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