For some time now I’ve been tormented by G. Spencer-Brown’s theory of distinctions. Anyone who has attempted to read his Laws of Form will know what I’m talking about. Spencer-Brown’s thesis is that in order to indicate anything we must first draw a distinction (depicted to the right above). The bar that cleaves the space is the distinction. The unity of marked and unmarked space with respect to a distinction is what Spencer-Brown calls a distinction. What falls under the bar is what can be indicated once the distinction is drawn. Insofar as every distinction cleaves a space (whether conceptual or otherwise), the unmarked space of the distinction is what becomes invisible when the distinction is drawn. Every distinction thus has two blind spots. On the one hand, every distinction contains the unmarked space that disappears when the distinction is drawn. With a distinction, a boundary is drawn, but that which lies on the other side of the boundary disappears. However, on the other hand, the distinction itself disappears when drawing a distinction. When a distinction is drawn what comes to the fore is the marked space or what is indicated, not the distinction itself. The distinction, as it were, withdraws into the background.

In light of the foregoing, we can thus call distinction the transcendental and what is indicated under a distinction the empirical. If distinction is the transcendental, then this is because no indication can be made without a prior distinction. Distinction is the condition under which indication is possible. Indication, of course, can be anything. It can be what we refer to in the world, how we sort things, what we choose to investigate, etc. In order to indicate or refer to any of these things, I must first draw a distinction. As a consequence, the distinction is prior to whatever happens to be indicated. For example, if I wish to investigate the pathological, I must cleave a space (conceptual or otherwise) that brings the pathological into the marked space of the distinction. It is only on the basis of this distinction that I will be able to indicate the pathological. Part of what is interesting in all of this is that the marked space of the distinction– and recall it’s always withdrawn from any and every indication such that it’s invisible –is like a Mobius strip, attached to its unmarked space in much the same way that the front of a page implies its back. The pathological never innocently indicates the pathological, but rather presupposes an unmarked space of the “normal” that structures and organizes the pathological. In other words, the conditions under which any observations are possible are those of a prior distinction.

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The key point not to be missed is that every distinction is contingent or capable of being otherwise. All distinctions are motivated, but there is nothing in reality that motivates any particular distinction. In other words, distinctions can always be drawn otherwise. As Canguilhem showed us, for example, it is always possible for the distinction between the normal and the pathological to be drawn differently. And here, following Laruelle, we need to take great care in attending to the examples theorists use in the development of their theory as symptoms of the distinctions that they’ve drawn. It is for this reason that Spencer-Brown’s theory of distinction provides us with the formal matrix of all deconstructive thought (a point which Luhmann makes to great effect in his essay on deconstruction in Theories of Distinction, and that Cary Wolfe develops in great detail in What is Posthumanism?).

Following the arguments of Luhmann and Wolfe, deconstruction amounts to second-order observation. What deconstruction observes is not indications, but rather the distinctions through which observations become possible. Let’s return to the example of the normal and the pathological. A deconstructive analysis does not get involved in the debate of whether x is truly pathological (the mark of naive realism), but instead investigates the transcendental or distinctions which allow this sort of observation to be made at all. Where a first-order observations will get in a debate about whether or not x is truly criminal or pathological or good or scientific, etc., a second-order observation will be an observation of “how the observer observes” or the distinctions that allow the observer to indicate in this particular way.

In engaging in second-order observation or the observation of how observers observe rather than what observers observe, the second-order cybernetician will thus reveal two things: the blind spot of the distinction or the other side of the mobius strip (the unmarked space that structures the marked space), and the contingency of the distinction or the fact that it can always-already be drawn otherwise. In the process, it will open an interrogation of what motivates the distinction. If, for example, one endlessly talks about crime, sin, truth, heterosexuality, values, norms governing discourse, etc., we will now be able to ask not whether these positions are right or wrong, true or false, scientific or unscientific, but rather what might motivate one to cleave the world in this way. Here we will be discussing something that precedes indication or the very thing that renders these indicates possible. Given that other distinctions are possible, we might ask what desire or frame motivates this way of indicating or drawing distinction. What we get here is a sort of Husserlian transcendental epoche. It’s also worth noting that every foundationalist project of knowledge and every self-grounding epistemology here encounters its ruin. If these projects are structurally impossible from the outset, then it is because any critique they might offer or develop, any project they might unfold, already presupposes a prior distinction that they cannot themselves ground, that they must presuppose, that they cannot domesticate or swallow, governing the project in which they engage. If this is so, then it is because the distinction upon which any indication is possible is always already contingent and necessarily ungrounded. One can always attempt to ground such distinctions, yet such will only be possible on the grounds of a further distinction that is itself ungrounded and contingent. This, no doubt, is why we always sense the jouissance of anger and frustration among all epistemologues, as they somewhere realize that their positions can only ever be founded on interpellation rather than grounding. Hence the air of policing– and subtle rhetorical violence –that always accompanies such inquiries.

One will now wonder why an avowed realist might write about something as anti-realist as a constructivist theory of distinction based on contingency and the absence of all grounds. In Tarrying with the Negative Zizek argues, following Wagner, that we are healed by the spear that smote us. In other words, the very thing that we saw as a limitation and the impossibility of realism is the solution to realism. Where someone like Laruelle argues for a Real and One beyond all determination, my move is instead to argue that distinction is the very reality of objects. What we must not forget is that the system drawing a distinction is itself something. We have focused on how systems “see”, ignoring that there is something that sees. To be a being is to be a system or object is to be a being that has evolved a particular way of drawing distinctions. Without this the entire thesis of second-order observation falls into incoherence. The consequence is that what is observed cannot be reduced to a mere construction, but rather withdraws from the manner in which any other entity comes to indicate it. As Harman would argue, every entity caricatures every other entity and truth can only ever be alluded to. As in the case of Lacan’s discourse of the master, we get a realism of the residue or excess, where every entity withdraws from every other.