Vitale has another post up responding to recent discussions. There Vitale, echoing Ivakhiv, remarks that, “Like Adrian, I believe that OOO and procesurralism-relationalism-whateveryouwannacallit are like two sides of the same coin…” For Ivakhiv, the differences between OOO and his process-relational approach are merely differences in nomenclature or vocabulary. This is a pleasing development because apparently it means that there will be no further frustrating debates over these issues given that Ivakhiv and Vitale now claim to accept the basic premises of OOO.

All this aside, on a few occasions now Vitale has expressed concern about SR and OOO rejecting the linguistic turn. Unfortunately, however, Vitale hasn’t articulated just what he understands or means by “the linguistic turn”. As far as I’ve been able to tell, it’s an empty and floating signifier within his discourse, having something vaguely to do with signs and language and questions of “who gets to decide”. I’ll have more to say about this question of “who decides” in a moment, but for the moment it’s worthwhile to articulate what I understand by the linguistic turn to see whether Vitale and I are talking about the same thing. The wiki article on the linguistic turn more or less outlines what I take the linguistic turn to be. As the article remarks,

The view that language ‘constitutes’ reality is contrary to intuition and to most of the Western tradition of philosophy. The traditional view (what Derrida called the ‘metaphysical’ core of Western thought) saw words as functioning like labels attached to concepts. According to this view, there is something like ‘the real chair’, which exists in some external reality and corresponds roughly with a concept in human thought called “Chair” to which the linguistic word “chair” refers. However, the founder of structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure, held that definitions of concepts cannot exist independently from differences between words, or, to put it differently, that a concept of something cannot exist without being named. Thus differences between word-meanings structure our perception; there is no real chair except insofar as we are manipulating symbolic systems. We would not even be able to recognise a chair as a chair without simultaneously recognising that a chair is not everything else – in other words a chair is defined as being a specific collection of characteristics which are themselves defined in certain ways, and so on, and all of this within the symbolic system of language. Thus, everything we think of as ‘reality’ is really a convention of naming and characterising, a convention which is itself called ‘language’. Indeed, anything outside of language is by definition inconceivable (having no name and no meaning) and therefore cannot intrude upon or enter into human reality, at least not without immediately being seized and articulated by language.

The linguistic turn is that position that argues that language constructs reality. Although a wiki article, this is nonetheless an accurate picture of the linguistic turn. See, for example, Lacan’s discussion of the two doors in his “Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious” in Ecrits for a variation of this thesis. As such, the linguistic turn is a variant of correlationism. Here there would be a weak and a strong variant of linguistic correlationism or the linguistic turn. The weak version would acknowledge that there is something other than language, while arguing that we can never say anything about what this non-linguistic existence might be insofar as all our experience and cognition is mediated by language. The strong version of linguistic correlationism would argue that there is nothing other than language and that reality is linguistic through and through. This would be the linguistic variant of absolute idealism.

The practical outcome of the linguistic turn in either of its variants would be the conclusion that we can never investigate the world as such, but only discourses about the world. For example, when discussing the bombing of Hiroshima the advocate of the linguistic turn is committed to the thesis that we aren’t talking about the city of Hiroshima, bombs, humans, dogs, cats, trees, the radioactive decay of atoms, etc., but are really analyzing a discourse about Hiroshima, bombs, the radioactive decay of atoms, people, animals, etc. Because language can only ever refer to language it follows that discourse can only ever be about discourse.

Now clearly no variant of SR or OOO could accept such a thesis because it shackles all of being to language. Vitale is thus quite right to point out that SR and OOO rejects the linguistic turn, for the linguistic turn is the core variant that correlationism takes in contemporary philosophy. As a consequence, OOO is obligated to take account of the reality of language and signs, while rejecting the thesis that language and signs structure all reality. I have done a lot of work contributing, I hope, to precisely this project.

Now, returning to Vitale’s monotonous question of “who decides”, I have always gotten the sense that he is an outlier in the debates between me, Graham, Bogost, Shaviro, Morton, and Ivakhiv. The six of us have been involved in an ontological discussion. All six of us are engaged in the question of how best to characterize true reality. And insofar as this debate is genuinely ontological, it hasn’t been a question of how we know or perceive but of how things really are. Is reality better characterized as relations, events, and processes (Ivakhiv, Shaviro), or is reality better characterized as objects independent of relations (Morton, Bogost, Harman, Bryant). I suspect that it wouldn’t occur to Ivakhiv or Shaviro to ask who decides whether a mouse as a mouse because they understand themselves to really be talking about the being of mice (whatever that might be, we all concede we’re not sure), rather than about human representations of mice. And since the sixth of us understand our questions to be ontological and therefore independent of the existence of humans– which are contingent –we all recognize that questions of how we represent the being of mice is secondary to these ontological questions.

By contrast, it seems to me that Vitale is asking a very different set of questions. When Vitale asks who decides that a mouse is a mouse it’s clear that he hasn’t understood the nature of the debate and therefore is no participating in the discussion but is off dealing with some other set of issues. Here I’m reminded of a remark that Robert Duvall’s character makes in The Road. Viggo Mortensen and Duvall are talking about the horror of being “the last man” in the post-apocalyptic world in which they live. Mortensen’s character, echoing Vitale, asks “how would you know if you’re the last man?” To this Duvall’s character responds, “you wouldn’t know, you would just be the last man” (Shaviro, Ivakhiv, Bogost, Morton, Harman, Bryant).

This is what Vitale keeps missing, this difference between being and knowing. As such, his questions are always posed from the outside looking in, and never from the standpoint of the being itself. His philosophy unfolds within the field of an objectifying gaze, always reducing beings– whether they be events, processes, objects, or all of the above –to beings-for-gaze. Thus, in his follow-up post today, he will write,

Here’s what I know. Firstly, when I pick up a mouse, I link a lot of sensual qualities together (furriness, tail, ears, sniffing) together at one space-time durational juncture. What’s in my hand is relatively distinct from the rest of what is in my perceptual field right now. I also know that in my culture, this thing is called a ‘mouse.’ We could have chosen another word, like meece, if we wanted. We could also call it a ‘gray’, and link it as one huge hyperobject with every other gray thing in the world, ‘oh, this is a gray’!.

This is how it always is in discussions with Vitale. The question was never about what we perceive, but about what objects are.” The question of how Vitale grasps the mouse is irrelevant to the question of what the mouse is. And the question of what the mouse is is the topic of the debate between Ivakhiv, Harman, Morton, Bogost, Shaviro, and I. It’s difficult to have a discussion with someone who doesn’t even understand the issue being discussed.

Now predictably Vitale will ask what allows me to decide what the mouse is. Why, he will ask, is my word or the biologists word more valid than the word of his eight year old nephew. Again, however, this question will reflect that he’s failed to both understand the debate and my own philosophical position. I have never claimed to have true knowledge of the mouse. Indeed, I argue that such knowledge is impossible because objects withdraw. I have only spoken of the being of withdrawn objects. I have also argued that all objects translate one another in their own peculiar way (a dimension of OOO that Vitale conveniently ignores again and again). In this regard, I claim no greater validity for my perspective, the biologist’s perspective, or Vitale’s nephew’s perspective. They are all translations. All I’ve ever argued is that beings cannot be reduced to their translations.