In relation to my post on Speculative Realism and Scientific Naturalism, Deontologist and I have been having a stimulating discussion on the ontological status of signs. I advocate the thesis that symbolic entities have real existence and are entities in their own right. Deontologist holds that this is a “trivial”– a truly unfortunate use of language –use of the term “existence” and that only material or physical beings can be truly said to exist.
The discussion began as a discussion about the ontological status of fictional entities like Harry Potter. I hold that fictional entities like Harry Potter are real. In making this claim, I am not making the absurd claim that there is a material referent to the novels depicting David Lewis where a physical Harry Potter exists in one of David Lewis’ possible worlds. Rather, following basic principles of phenomenology, I contend that Harry Potter exists qua fictional entity. Harry Potter is real as a fictional entity. The important caveat here would be that where phenomenology might make this entity dependent upon a sense-bestowing intuition issuing from the cogito— at least in the Husserlian formulation –I hold, following Harman, that Harry Potter, as an object, enjoys independent existence once he has come into existence. To be sure, Harry Potter had to come into existence through the agency of an author, but once he has come into existence his existence is as independent as any other entity that might exist.
We could similarly draw on Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” and Limited Inc. to make this point. In these texts Derrida arrives at conclusions that are surprisingly congenial to object-oriented ontology. Meditating on the conditions under which the grapheme or sign are possible, he notes that in order for a grapheme to function as a grapheme, it must be iterable. As he works through the logic of iterability, he shows that it follows that the being of the grapheme or sign cannot be dependent on the intentionality of the person that uses it or enunciates it. In order for the grapheme, mark or sign to be iterable, it necessarily, as its condition of possibility, presupposes the absence of both the speaker, the referent, and the addressee. Derrida puts this point dramatically, remarking that every grapheme, text, or sign presupposes the death of the subject insofar as it is iterable beyond the intentionality of any subject or any context in which it might have been produced. Thus, like Kant’s famous glove turned inside out, the object-oriented ontologist need only give positive formulation to Derrida’s negative thesis. To say that the grapheme, sign, or text presupposes the death of the subject and absence of the referent is to say that the being of the sign, grapheme, or text is that of an independent and real object that is irreducible to the intentionality of the person that employs the sign or the referent to which the sign refers. Neither concept, context, intention, idea, or referent, the grapheme enjoys an independent existence tracing its course throughout the world in excess of any relations it might happen to enter into. Hopefully I will be forgiven for considerably condensing Derrida’s transcendental argument here.
Where I contend that Harry Potter, being a graphematic entity, is therefore real, Deontologist contends that this is a loose way of speaking that fails to look carefully at how we talk about Harry Potter. When we say Harry Potter exists, what we’re really saying is that it is as if Harry Potter is real within the framework of the novel. Yet Harry Potter only subsists in relation to the author that produced him (and who Deontologist, contrary to most literary and aesthetic theory, holds has authority over the character) and the readers whom he impacts. Yet this stance confuses the being of Harry Potter with, on the one hand, the conditions under which Harry Potter came to be produced (through the agency of an author) and with the effects Harry Potter has on the reader. The being of Harry Potter as a graphematic entity is independent of whatever contexts it might happen to fall into.
Now, this entire discussion can easily appear rather silly. Why should we care, we might ask, whether or not Harry Potter is real? It is not whether Harry Potter is real that is at issue here, but about the ontological status of symbolic entities in general. Fictional entities are but an extreme example or limit case of this broader category of entities. Where we come down on these issues, I believe, will have a significant impact on how we investigate the world around us. In other words, ontology makes a difference in how we approach the world. Thus, over the course of the discussion, I shifted gears and instead began discussing the ontological status of things like cities. In a manner similar to fictional entities, I contend that the cityness of a city consists not simply in the material entities (buildings, roads, telephone lines, water supply, etc.), but also in these strange symbolic entities. Without this dimension of the symbolic, I contend, the city would not be a city. Thus, it is perfectly appropriate to investigate all of these material elements– this is one of the reasons I’ve been pushing Braudel so much –but we also need to understand the role played by this incorporeal dimension of the symbolic. It is important to emphasize that in referring to the symbolic as incorporeal, the point is that the symbolic is not a physical thing like a tree or a building. To be sure, symbolic entities require material entities like brains, sound waves, paper, computer memory, and so on to subsist, but in their being qua iterable, their proper being cannot be exhausted by these media in which they reside.
In response to this thesis, Deontologist writes:
I will question one thing you say here though. You claim that a city is a symbolic entity, and I’m having a great deal of trouble trying to understand what you mean by that. Surely (as Jacobs tries to show) cities (with their characteristic people flows and such) will have formed before we explicitly recognised them as such, before we had any way of dealing with them symbolically. In precisely the same way as economies existed before Adam Smith came along and we started representing them symbolically. I find it hard to see how the cityness of cities essentially involves their symbolic character anymore than the economyness of economies.
The only sense I can make of the claim is that cities involve symbolic interaction, i.e., communication amongst the individuals within the city is an essential part of it. But I can see no reason why this makes a city ethereal or immaterial in any way. Ant colonies involve communication amongst the individuals that make them up, and they are perfectly material.
Can you explain why exactly a city is a symbolic thing?
I see a few problems with this view of both cities and economies. Putting the matter in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s ontology, as I see it the sort of analysis Deontologist is proposing reduces the being of the city to the plane of content and the machinic assemblage or relations among bodies, ignoring the role played by the plane of expression or collective assemblages of enunciation. Those collective assemblages of enunciation belonging to the plane of expression play a key role in the existence of cities, nations, institutions, economies, and so on and function according to principle different than those of the machinic assemblage. The concept of machinic assemblages is just a sexy term for relations among physical bodies or all those things that Deontologist refers to. By contrast, collective assemblages of enuniciation refers to the domain of signs and incorporeal transformations that are attributed to bodies. When one person says to another person “I love you”, this statement belongs not to the machinic assemblage or the relation between their two bodies, but is an incorporeal transformation of their relation to one another. Nothing physically has changed in their bodies through a cause and effect relation, but everything has changed between them in this incorporeal event. The point here is that the cityness of a city, while requiring all the bodies referenced by Deontologist in discussing the machinic dimensions of cities, nonetheless requires the plane of expression and collective assemblages of enunciation to exist.
It seems to me that it is misleading to suggest that cities exist prior to being recognized as such. I’m fine with the obvious point that at a particularly important cross-road an inn gets built, then a stable, then a general store, then a church, and so on. But this is not yet properly a city. At some point an incorporeal transformation takes place where a new entity comes into existence over and above all the elements that compose that entity. Just as my status as a professor is nowhere to be found as a physical property of my being, nor, in any particular skills teaching or intelligence I might have where research is concerned, but revolves around an incorporeal transformation that takes place in being granted a degree and in being hired by an institution, so too in the case of cities.
The problem with reducing things like cities to machinic assemblages can be illustrated with reference to Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind. In his famous example of a category error, he relates the story of a foreigner visiting Oxford. They show this foreigner the library, the dorms, the various buildings where classrooms are held, and so on. As the day concludes, the visitor says “all of this is very nice and you’ve shown me many fine buildings, but where’s the university?” The visitor here is making a category mistake similar to the one Deontologist is making, confusing the machinic assemblage of bodies with the university. In this regard, I suspect that Deontologist would benefit from reflecting on the critical conditions of his own project or what it is that renders his own project possible so that he might speculate in the right way. If such a reflection on the conditions of ones own discourse and their ontological discourses is so crucial, this is so that we don’t just sloppily fall into wild speculation in a way that lacks rigor and that arbitrarily endorses a particular ontological position based on, for example, an arbitrary decision to advocate materialism as a result of folk ontological prejudices characterizing our pre-ontological comprehension of being. For example, such an error would be made were one to believe that talk about how we “talk about” is somehow a tribunal against which ontology should be measured.
The being of the university, while certainly related to the buildings, is nonetheless not something that can be found in any particular building. It is another sort of entity entirely, just as a nation, while inseparable from a certain geography, nonetheless is something other than that geography. The point is the same when it comes to economies. At the level of machinic assemblages, we can, of course, say all sorts of interesting things about the emergence of markets. However, we should not forget that wherever there are market relations, the exchange of one good for another good is something different than the bodies composing the material assemblage and refers to something incorporeal. The fact that so many pounds of cotton comes to be treated as equivalent to so many yards of fabric is not a property that can be found in the bodies that are exchanged. Nor is it something simply in the mind, as Marx demonstrated, of those involved.
Rather, the value that allows the exchange to take place is another type of entity. Does it relate to humans? Sure. Would it exist without humans? No. Do these incorporeal entities require material substrates to exist? Yes, but they are no less incorporeal for all that by virtue of their iterability. Can it be reduced to minds or agents? Absolutely not. It is a collective entity that is neither a physical object nor an idea in a subject, which is organized according to its own principles. And without such entities things such as values, nations, cities, marriages, contracts, money, and, yes, fictional characters, could not exist. And they do exist in an entirely non-trivial sense that has all sorts of important impacts on the world. It will be objected that nonetheless these objects cannot exist without humans. Yet once again, all things being equal, stars are dependent on atoms, but the proper being of the star as an object is something other than these atoms that make it up. So too in the case of incorporeal entities like signs.