In response to my recent post, “The Fate of a Signifier“, my interlocutor Dan writes a kind yet critical response worth discussing in detail. Hopefully my response will do Dan’s post some justice as I’m pretty tired and emotionally worn down this evening. Dan writes:

You say, ” The problem emerges when the person arguing in this way shifts from the thesis that our access to the world involves language to the thesis that language makes the world what it is.” I think I agree with this though I might qualify it a way that I think you could accept with provisos, something like “language can be one of the things that makes the world what it is.” I am less sure if you would accept that ” language is a thing that sometimes predominates in human interactivity with other things.” This last is not, I think, your focus since I think OOO wants not “decenter” but — what? — un-center (or a-center) discursive and philosophical practices that were “humanistic.”

Quite the contrary. I don’t at all deny that language is a thing that often dominates in human practice. Moreover, part of my ontology is designed to take account of semiotic entities as real actants in the world. First, I see this as an issue for regional ontology, i.e., how one particular ontological domain (language) translates another. Second, and perhaps more prosaically, I see the focus on language as a covert or implicit Cartesian holdover in the tradition of philosophy. In other words, what we’ve done is replace one “immanence” (immanence to consciousness as in the case of Descartes) with another immanence (immanence to language). What we haven’t thought is immanence as such, or something akin to Spinozist, Bergsonian, or Deleuzian immanence where we don’t have one actor in the field of being hegemonizing the rest, but rather we just have the field of actors within being altogether such that that field is composed of actors like language, consciousnesses, trees, rocks, etc.

read on!

Although I’ve could give, and have given, strictly ontological and epistemological arguments as to why I think this is mistaken, I’ll opt for a normative argument this time around. In my view, this move is premised on a will to mastery on the part of folks belonging to the world of cultural studies broadly construed. Descartes’ desire for “immanence” was premised on the desire to master or prevent anything from escaping. I see something similar at work in the shift towards granting language hegemony with respect to the world. Here I get by with a little help from Bourdieu. Those of us in some branch of the humanities or cultural studies tend to deal primarily with texts and to engage in “talk about talk” or the analysis of how others discourse about the world. As a consequence, our tendency is to reduce the world to text, treating text, the signifier, language, as what is “really real”. As Bhaskar puts it, there is no one who isn’t a realist in some respect or capacity, where people differ is in terms of what they treat as primordially real. One sort of “realist” wants to treat something like subatomic particles as the only real thing and to show how everything else is an epiphenomenon of subatomic particles. Many in the humanities want to treat texts, language, signs, and signifiers as the only real things, and show how everything is an epiphenomenon of these entities or actants. The appropriate response, when confronted with these idealisms, is Latour’s in his article “Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?” (.pdf), where we reject all these idealistic reductivisms (reductivism of any sort always being a reductivism).

As I see it, this tendency towards textual materialism/idealism issues from two sources: On the one hand, it is a peril, completely unconscious and thoroughly structural, of the position one occupies in the academic system such that we tend to treat as real only that with which we engage as the object our investigation. For those of us in cultural studies, this would be texts. On the other hand, it is a will to power or mastery in the sense that were the world reducible to text it would 1) grant the cultural theorist a privileged place within the social order as we would be masters of textual analysis, and 2) would render the opacity of the world masterable as it could always be traced back to text which we cultural theorists have the tools and techniques to analyze. With respect to this second point, the textual turn– or what my rhetoric friends call the “rhetorical turn” –would be a way of undermining the alterity of objects, their, to take up Bogost’s nice label, alien phenomenology, so that we have to deal with nothing but texts and are thereby aptly defended against any aleatory difference that might arise from something other that text. The point then is not to banish language, semiotics, textual analysis, but to practice a double operation where its pretension, in both the sense of pretentiousness and presumption, is blunted and neutralized, while simultaneously allowing these forms of analysis to have their proper place in a meshwork that acknowledges the contribution of difference from a variety of domains both linguistic and non-linguistic. Should one think only in binary terms that grant only the option of either “textuality” or “natural being”, this move will appear incomprehensible as one is here not adopting the stance of a pluralistic ontology, but instead practicing metaphysics in the bad Derridean sense where the aim is to raise one element of the chaosmos to the status of ground for all the rest. And that is precisely what linguistic idealists try to do, even as they rant and rave about metaphysics.

I’ll leave off for the moment as I think this much makes clear that for me what is at issue is the multiple contribution of difference, and that so long as language or consciousnesses are treated as ground, this cannot be accomplished.

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