A couple of weeks ago my friend Aprell and I got in one of those “what is the point” discussions about object-oriented ontology over at my friend Tim Richardson’s house at dinner. I gave my standard spiel. In my view, Continental theory and philosophy has been overly dominated by a focus on text and the lived experience of human beings, ignoring the role played by nonhuman entities in social assemblages. This, at least, was the conclusion I had reached by the end of my graduate education at Loyola University of Chicago. My courses were dominated Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas, as well as Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Gadamer, Lacan, and Zizek. There was also a strong ground in the history of philosophy focused on Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. Some of my classmates would joke that I was permanently living in the “transcendental epoche” bubble, as I was, after an obsession with Heidegger, intoxicated by the thought of Husserl. Later that obsession shifted to Derrida, Lacan and Hegel, and I spent a tremendous amount of time exploring the French structuralist semioticians as well as the semiotics of Charles Sanders Pierce (the latter, much to the dismay of my Continental colleagues). Among these thinkers, Deleuze was the only outlier, the only thinker that didn’t seem solely focused on the signifier and the lived experience of the subject, exploring vistas beyond the human and culture such as the world of the tick and the morphogenesis of crystals. Occasionally, when no one was looking, I would read Dennett, Dewey, Andy Clark, and Lucretius under my sheets with a flashlight.
Deleuze and Lacan were my master-figures throughout all of graduate school, and remain my master figures today alongside Luhmann who I discovered in my third year when exploring systems and complexity theory. I read Lacan through Deleuze and read Deleuze through Lacan. I still remember discovering Zizek in my first year. He felt like the holy grail of theory. I had struggled with Lacan’s Ecrits, making little headway, had made a little more progress with Encore, but devoured Zizek’s Sublime Object of Ideology like a pulp horror novel, suddenly feeling as if I was “getting it”. My axioms during this time were “the universe is the flower of rhetoric” (Lacan, Seminar XX), and “there is nothing outside the text”. In other words, I was a thoroughgoing structuralist semiotician that believed that language diacritically structured everything, and deeply impressed by Lacan’s analysis of the structuring function of language in “The Agency of the Letter” in Ecrits. I believed that it was solely the signifier that introduced difference into the world, that partitioned the world, not anything in the world itself. Hjelmslev was an important influence here as well, as was Levi-Strauss. And, of course, there was Blanchot. Just as Derrida said at the beginning of Of Grammatology, and as Foucault said in his own way in The Order of Things and The Archeology of Knowledge, I believed the world could be read as a fabric of signifiers, as an effect of discourses and Heidegger’s “language as the house of being”. To be sure, there was the Real, that which always escapes the signifier, but as Zizek argued, this was itself an effect of deadlocks inherent to attempts to totalize the universe of signifiers.
So what happened? First there was my encounter with DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy and A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, both of which brought non-signifying differences and material processes to the fore and led me to read Deleuze in a very different way. I was spitting mad and simultaneously fascinated when I encountered these books. Was he really arguing that ocean currents and wind patterns (non-diacritical, a-signifying differences) played a key role in where European and American cities developed? Preposterous! But he got me reading the historian Braudel and his dry as dirt yet magnificent Capitalism and Civilization. I then encountered Harman’s Prince of Networks, which attuned me– contra Koyre and Bachelard –to the importance of lab equipment and the materials worked with, the experimental setting, etc. (again things that were not of the order of the signifier). Meanwhile, another friend had me reading Havlock (Preface to Plato), Kittler, Ong, McLuhan, and Haraway, all of whom emphasized the materiality of media, its non-signifying dimension, what a monumental difference writing technologies and inscription systems make, and what differences technologies contribute. Later there would be encounters with the “poor-man’s” Braudel in the work of theorists such as Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, who would thoroughly demolish biological and cultural racisms through their analysis of geography or the material features of the environment in which people lived, as well as other historians like William McNiell. I add cultural racism, because text-based/signifier-based theorists are thoroughly unable to explain why certain cultures rose to prominence in the world without appealing to something “superior” in the signifying-systems of those cultures that rose to dominance. We see it, for example, in Zizek’s claim that there’s something superior in the European, Christian legacy that gave them dominance. Theorists like Diamond, McNiell, and Braudel are thoroughly able to demolish this cultural racism, this idea that there was something “special” about the Greeks, by analyzing geography, the prevalence of domesticatible animals and plants, available metals, growing seasons, etc. For them it wasn’t the culture, but the geography; and this based on the axiom that peoples always make maximal use of the resources available to them because, well, folks are smart wherever they live. Again, non-signifying differences, non-rhetorical differences. These were material differences that were more Marxist than the Marxist (Marx himself excepted).
So my universe, my universe structured by the fabric of the signifier, was collapsing. I could no longer claim, as Barthes’ claimed in The Fashion System, that language, the signifier, was a “primary modeling system”, i.e., a system that diacritically structured everything else. I had learned many truths from the Marxist critical theorists, the semioticians, Lacan, Barthes, Pierce, Levi-Strauss, etc. I wanted to and want to preserve these things. But I needed a theoretical framework strong enough both preserve these things and take account of these non-signifying entities such as writing technologies, ocean currents, satellites, microbes, the growing cycles of rice, high energy diets, etc. That required realism and a flattening of the world. The problem with my earlier orientations wasn’t in the recognition that the signifier produces the difference between a men’s room and a lady’s room, but in believing that the signifier functioned as a hierarch or sovereign that structures everything else. The problem lay in the refusal to recognize that sometimes the placement of a river or a mountain range makes a tremendous social difference. In this respect, only a realist/materialist approach that simultaneously recognized the reality of the signifier and a-signifying entities would give us the analysis required. It’s never been a question of rejecting analysis of the point of view from which a claim is made, text, narrative, and signifier, but always been a question of multiplying the factors that go into producing a social assemblage.