After a rocky start which is my fault– I really hate it when I behave like a jerk towards others online (unless, of course, they’re creeps) –Nick and I have been having an interesting discussion on whether or not incorporeals should be admitted into a materialist ontology. As a materialist, I want to argue that only matter and the void exist. Consequently, for me anything that is must be material in some way. Symphony’s, for example, must have some sort of material embodiment whether it be in sound waves, pieces of papers, brains, computer data banks, etc. I’m not suggesting that the symphony is identical to its transmission through sound waves– I think all sorts of other material processes and interactions have to be involved in order for a symphony to be a symphony –only that there has to be material embodiment and material processes for that symphony to be real. Even the thought of the symphony later is, for me, a material process.
Nick thinks something important is lost in denying the existence of incorporeals; and here, admittedly, I’m very sympathetic to Nick’s concerns and want to take into account his worries. I certainly don’t, for example, wish to reduce symphonies, signifying systems, etc., to neurological events. As I’ve argued in our discussions and elsewhere, neurology doesn’t tell us a whole lot about a signifying system because it’s a different level of materiality. It’s necessary to study material phenomena at their appropriate level. Just as we can’t understand hurricanes by investigating individual water and ice particles, we can’t understand signifying systems by looking at individual brains. At most brains put constraints on signifying systems. They don’t get at the features of signifying systems themselves. This is why theories of emergence are so important to me: it is not just the parts that are important, but the interactions or relations between the parts that are important as well.
At the end of the day, I really don’t think that Nick and I– and, for that matter, Jeremy and I –are that far apart in our concerns and what we wish to preserve. With Jeremy, for example, I am vehemently opposed to eliminative reductionism, though I do want to make room in the humanities for discussions of biology, neurology, and so on. This is one reason that I’ve spent so much time writing about issues of scale and mereology. So why, then, don’t I just bite the bullet and call things like signifying systems “incorporeal” and be done with it? I would certainly avoid all sorts of headaches as far as having to make all sorts of qualifications go. Perhaps one of the central reasons that I’m so insistent on the materiality of things like discourses, signifiers, signs, and so on is that emphasizing this materiality allows me to underline the fact that ideas, signs, meanings, signifying systems, cultural practices, etc., have a spatio-temporal geography. One of the central features of material entities is that they are situated in space and time (though here it’s necessary to specify what the nature of space and time are, which this post won’t do). I am here, on my back patio, not in Amsterdam. I am at this time, not that time.
It’s my view that in drawing attention to the materiality of all those things we often think of as incorporeal– signifiers, signifying systems, discourses, cultural practices, etc. –a whole set of issues come into relief that we, in cultural studies, would not ordinarily notice. We come to recognize the temporal and spatial features of discourse, ideology, signifying systems, etc. This is one of the reasons that I have, for many years, said “texts aren’t simply about something (representation), they are something (ontology).” If the representational function of discourse or text is our sole consideration, if our focus is solely on content or “aboutness”, then we treat this discourse as if it is everywhere in the world. We thus miss what Hasana Sharp has referred to as the “vitality and life” of ideas and ideologies. We miss questions of where ideas are effective, where they live, how they proliferate throughout a population, what strategies they employ in ensuring that other ideas don’t gain prominence or presence, how they are transmitted, etc. Answers to these questions require a different sort of analysis, where we temporarily bracket questions of representation or content, and instead approach ideas through methods of epidemiology and ecologically. What, then, are some of the questions that arise when you approach ideas in an epidemiological fashion, emphasizing their materiality?
1) Populations of Ideas: If ideas are material things, then they won’t exist everywhere at once, but will have a geography in time and space. They will be located. In the humanities and much of the social sciences we have scarcely begun devising techniques for where and when particular ideas exist. Like ecologists, an epidemiological model of ideas would lead us to investigate how ideas are related in a population, which ideas are dominant, what strategies ideas use to eradicate or diminish the existence of other ideas (autoimmunity), etc. Just as members of a species are not located everywhere, but have their own geographical regions of existence, and just as members of a species act in all sorts of ways to diminish the existence of other species, the same happens with ideas as well.
The absence of an epidemiology of ideas– which arises, I believe, from treating ideas as incorporeal –has all sorts of damaging consequences for cultural studies. Good cultural studies is a war machine. As Marx said, it’s aim is not to represent the world, but to change the world. Yet if we do not have a good epidemology of those ideas participating in the glue that participates in cobbling together hominid ecologies, then how do we know whether our critiques and constructions are addressing anything that’s really present in the particular hominid ecology we wish to affect? Similarly, how do we know whether we’re merely referring to our own ecosystem (fellow academics) or whether we’re referring to ideas that populate the broader ecosystem of the social system? Luhmann is good at explaining how this myopia arises through the autopoietic closure of discourse systems and their functional differentiation (academia ends up only referring to academia), but we need techniques for disentangling these things if our interventions are to be effective. This requires population thinking, where ideas are approached not solely in terms of their content, but as large or small populations within a particular geography. This is something that’s very difficult for those of us in the humanities and social sciences who have been trained to focus constantly on representation or content. An aphorism here might be: “treat ideas as populations of a species.”
A good example of just how much representational thought renders us blind to ideas as a population might come from a standard rejoinder we hear in the development of new theories. It is not at all unusual to hear guardians of the academy say to another theorist “didn’t [great historical white male] already say x?” This move is always designed to defuse anything that steps out of the bounds of reigning orthodoxy or autopoietic self-reproduction of a particular academic hegemony. It’s message is always “something like x has already been said by [great white male] R, so we don’t need to attend to x.” What this misses is the point that the field of discourse or ideas at any given point in time are an ecosystem where certain ideas are dominant or hegemonic, and where other ideas are barely present or existent for that set of institutions and that population at all. In other words, it misses the point that ideas exist in a field of institutional power, that gives certain ideas pride of place and places others in oblivion or invisibility. Again, “texts aren’t just about something, they are something” and in being something, some ideas are more present than others. The fact that R said something similar to x has no bearing on just how present idea x is in a particular institutional network of power. But it requires a materialist thinking about ideas to even begin discerning this.
In Seminar XIX, Lacan says “…what is proper to a new discourse is to renew what is lost in the dizziness of the old discourses…” (3/8/72). Often the fact that someone else said it is not what is important. What is important is how that which had been bred out of existence by the dominant “dizzy discourse” both renews that which was eradicated and renews the discourse allowing it to move in new directions that haven’t hitherto been possible because of the hegemony of the reigning ecology of discourse. Those that say “didn’t R say x” are trying to halt and stave off those new vectors of thought and the interventions they render possible. Traces of the new will always be found in the old, but what is important is not so much whether they were present in the old but rather what new possibilities these renewals render available and how they act on the reigning hegemony. Again, one must think ecologically about ideas to see this.
2) Paths: Just as we seldom think ecologically and geographically about ideas, we seldom think about the paths through which ideas travel. This, again, is an effect of thinking in terms of representation and content, and thinking in terms of ideas as incorporeal. If ideas lack a material body, why would we worry about the paths along which they are transmitted? An incorporeal needs no path. We thus get legions of self-avowed “radical” political theorists who claim to be intervening in various hominid ecologies to change them without attending to whether or not the claims they are making are even traveling to these destinations. Given such a phenomena, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that these political positions are more a matter of an occupational requirement than something earnestly adopted to produce real change. The leftist theologian, for example, tells us that he’s against the oppressive nature of the fundamentalist church yet gives us no picture of just how his ideas are traveling throughout the broader social world to transform what is dominant in the American ecology of religious ideas. Why should we take him seriously and not see him rather as a crypto-defender of the very thing he claims to be against by virtue of not directly and in a materially efficacious way trying to act on it?
What are the paths along which the idea is traveling? Is it traveling on paths that will reach its destination or is it on paths that keep it within the halls of the academy or the “radical” political group? The question of paths also raises all sorts of questions of mediums. What is the medium that carries the idea? Air as in the case of speech? Journals? Published books? Blogs? What kind of blog? Television news shows? Academic conferences? OWS rallies? What are the mediums? Each medium, as McLuhan teaches, will have an impact on the message, but it will also have constraints and open possibilities for affecting the hominid ecology you wish to act on. And what are the impediments to making use of various paths? If you’re not thinking about paths and mediums, then perhaps you should. It gets tiring listening to so-called “revolutionaries” who never both with such things or think about such things as it’s clear that they’re not serious, but are like kids wearing Che shirts. This also raises all sorts of questions about the role played by all sorts of nonhuman entities in carrying messages such as various technologies, roads, rivers, boats, planes, animals, etc.
3) Channels: As materialists we’re unable to labor under the assumption of an ideal audience or subject of reception. No, we must raise questions of transcendental aesthetics or the ability of an audience to receive our message. Just as dogs can only see certain wavelengths of light, and bees can see wavelengths of light that we can’t see (infrared), not all messages are receivable by all audiences. What are the conditions under which a particular idea or text can be received? What sorts of interventions are required to render a message or text capable of resonating with an audience? Here, perhaps, onticological materialist theories of communication converge most with traditional rhetorical theory as a theory of persuasion (Aristotle) or identification (Burke). What must be done to prepare an audience for a text, to create an audience, or to make a text capable of resonating with an audience outside of academia? This is something that drives me insane with a number of Marxists I encounter. They claim they want to change the world but the audience they seem to address is that of fellow Marxist scholars. Who are they talking to? How do they plan to change the world when no one outside their specialized knowledge is capable of receiving their message? They have not made the leap to observing how their addressed observers perceive. And maybe that’s what they want. But if that’s what they want they should cease claiming they want to change the world as they’re not addressing the world but a particular functional system.
I’ve heard a lot of theories as to what object-oriented rhetoric (OOR) might be. One theory has it that object-oriented rhetoric is the investigation of the rhetoric of object-oriented ontology. This strikes me as a particularly stupid and uninteresting project as who cares about the rhetoric of object-oriented ontology? All this is, is an attempt to integrate the theses of OOO into a traditional correlationist framework and issues of persuasion through language. While I have no desire to dispense with the discoveries of figures like Burke and Aristotle, if OOR exists I think it’s up to something else. I don’t suggest that this post is exhaustive of what that “something else” ought to be, but I do think that minimally if there is to be something like OOR, it will consist in breaking the bad habit of a focus on representation, persuasion, and identification, and will necessarily consist in drawing attention to the materiality of speech acts, communications, texts, and signifiers. It’s not that OOR, if it comes to exist, would give up on these things, but that it would become a little less representational, a little less “decoding”, a little less interpretive, and far more material. It would become a little less focused on what things are about and the pathos, logos, and ethos that animates them, and a bit more focused on what texts are. I think that our revolutionary practices can only become enriched with such a move, even if they require us to make a sacrifice of narcissism and our desire for imperialistic mastery.