A friend of mine and reader of The Democracy of Objects recently expressed displeasure over the harsh treatment I give to Lacan over the thesis that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric.”. My friend’s rejoinder was that Lacan maintains a place for the real and is merely pointing out that we must relate to the world through language. This point is so fundamental and so basic that nothing about what motivates the new realisms can be understood without understanding it. The new realisms are not charging correlationisms with not believing in and independent real. With the exception of Berkeley who claimed that being is perception and Hegel who claimed the identity of substance and subject, such a thesis is exceedingly rare. Rather, correlationisms argue that we can only speak of the being of beings in terms of our modes of access to beings. In this regard, Lacan is an arche-correlationist. What Lacan teaches is that we cannot speak of being as such, but only of signfiers that express beings. Indeed, Lacan repeatedly refers to any reference to the pre-symbolic as mythological and Zizek refers to the idea of the real apart from the symbolic and the subject as a fetishistic illusion. While Lacan clearly endorses the existence of a real apart from language (and is therefore Kantian), Zizek goes all the way with Hegel’s absolute idealism. Both positions are correlationisms.
Rorty famously said that a number of philosophical problems are never really solved, but rather we just cease asking these questions. No philosopher has yet refuted the solipsist, nor has anyone ever refuted Berkeley. If you’re worried about how we can escape language perhaps you should just stop asking the question and move on. More importantly, you should attend to the methodological consequences that follow from a gesture like Lacan’s. If it is the signifier that falls into the marked space of your distinction, you’ll only ever be able to talk about talk and indicate signs and signifiers. The differences made by light bulbs, fiber optic cables, climate change, and cane toads will be invisible to you and you’ll be awash in texts, believing that these things exhaust the really real.
Anyone who knows me also knows that I’ve learned a lot from Lacan and wish to retain a rich place for talk about talk and the analysis of texts. However, Lacanianism and it’s linguistic idealist cousins needs to be castrated. We need forms of theory and practice capable of both talking about talk, signs, the signifier, narrative, and discourse capable of indicating the non-semiotic and approaching the non-semiotic on its own terms as best we can. Absent this we are missing a massive dimension as to why our social world is as it is. If your first instinct is to talk about talk, text, narrative, signifier, and discourse, it’s likely you’re a correlationist. If you speak of the real as resistance or a twist in the symbolic, it’s likely you’re a correlationist. What we need is a realist rhetoric. For me, it’s not so much Kant that is the enemy, but the linguistic and semiotic turn. I wish to retain a place for these things, but to overcome the hegemony they currently have in the world of Continental theory. Reference to the real does not a realism make. It is only when you abandon the thesis that any entity constructs another entity that your position is deserving of the title of realism.