In the next year, I have a lot coming out on what I’m calling “borromean critical theory” (BCT). I introduce the concept in Onto-Cartography, discuss it a bit in “Speculative Realism and Politics”, coming out in Speculations, and discuss it in the next issue of theory@buffalo in an article entitled “The Body of the Sign” (it’s for their Flesh of the World issue). The basic idea is more organizational than anything else (though hopefully it will become something more over time). My thesis is first that what we call “critical theory” (broadly construed), has been largely correlationist in character and has dominantly taken one of two forms. On the one hand, there’s been what might be called “phenomenological critical theory” (PCT) represented by figures like Sara Ahmed and Sandra Bartky, among many others. Here the aim is to investigate the lived experience and embodiment of subaltern bodies. On the other hand, there’s been what might be called “semiotic critical theory” (SCT), where the focus is on the semiotic and semiological structuration of the world. This orientation would be exemplified by historical materialists such as Horkheimer and Adorno, Zizek, Derrida, Barthes, Baudrillard, and so on. I’m sure people will object to characterizing historical materialists or the heirs of pre-Habermasian critical theory and the Althusserian school as “semiotic”, but please note that the basic operation of these orientations of thought consists in showing how the reigning ideology of the time structures knowledge formations and politics (e.g., the claim that x reflects object-oriented program, which in its turn reflects capitalistic, neoliberal ideology). Despite its claim that it focuses on practice, this critical procedure is thoroughly discursive and idealist in character. Finally you get the outliers: Marx himself (not so much his heirs), Latour, the new materialist feminists such as Braidotti, Alaimo, Bennett, Barad, Bianco, the speculative realists, the object-oriented ontologists, media theorists such as Kittler, Ong, McLuhan, Parikka, DeLanda, Deleuze and Guattari, and so on that focus on materiality as materiality or the difference that physical beings make in social assemblages. These figures are giants in fields such as science and technology studies and media studies, but get short shrift in literary theory and philosophy. As an aside, just because you call yourself a materialist it doesn’t follow that you are a materialist. The only legitimate materialism descends from the atomistic tradition of Democritus. If you aren’t talking about physical stuff and the difference that physical stuff makes, you just aren’t a materialist. That’s okay. Just be honest. Sorry Zizek, you’re not a materialist!
Borromean critical theory (BCT) recognizes there’s something right in each of these orientations, but that the claims of each are exaggerated and inflated. It is thus both synthetic (it wants all these orientations) and deflationary (it wants to deflate the imperialistic claims each makes). If you want to have your Uexkull (PCT) and your Barthes (SCT) and your Latour too, you’re an advocate of BCT. A BCTer thus both carries out a critique of the excesses of each orientations (deflation) and strives to integrate them. This is where Lacan’s borromean knot becomes helpful as an organizational and critical tool. In the first three phases of his teaching, one of his three orders dominated and structured the other three orders. In the first phase, the Imaginary dominated and was understood to structure the Symbolic and Real. In the second phase, the Symbolic dominated, and was understood to structure the Imaginary and Real. In the third phase of his teaching, the Real dominated, and was understood to structure the Symbolic and Imaginary. The fourth and final phase of Lacan’s teaching departs from all this. Now we are supposed to think all three orders as equal and mutually interpenetrating, without one structuring the others. In the third phase, we must simultaneously think how the three orders relate, what each order specifically contributes, and to do so without one overcoding the other two.
BCT tries to do something similar. The three orders are phenomenology (or the Imaginary), semiotics (or the Symbolic), and the material (or the Real). Phenomenology or the Imaginary investigates the lived experience of human and nonhuman entities such as bats, octopi, computers, queer bodies, and so on. It investigates the openness, through channels, of various beings to a broader world. Semiotics explores various structures of coding where they exist. Materialism and naturalism (the Real) investigates the features of materiality and how they influence assemblages (natural geography, physics, neurology, the speed at which communications can travel, the calories needed to live and work, and so on). Within BCT, the Real thus takes on a different signification than it has in Lacan. In Lacan, the Real is a formal deadlock or knot in the Symbolic. For example, the paradox of the Barber of Seville is an example of the Lacanian Real. “If the Barber of Seville cuts everyone’s hair except for those who cut their own hair, who cuts the Barber’s hair?” If the Barber cuts his own hair, then he violates the rule of cutting everyone’s hair except their own hair. If someone else cuts his hair, then he violates the requirement of cutting everyone’s hair. Clearly at the level of material or physical reality, nothing prevents the barber from getting a haircut or going to another barber. It’s only at the level of the Symbolic that this paradox can arise (and these paradoxes can really fuck with the unconscious). Noting this, what Lacan calls the “Real”, better belongs to the Symbolic than the order of the Real. The Real is, in BCT, the order of materiality or the physical.
With BCT we thus get three reductions (in the Husserlian sense), because certain things can only be understood within each of the three orders. With the Imaginary we get the “phenomenological reduction” which consists in observing the observer, or how particular entities such as tardigrades, wolves, rocks, and satellites encounter the world about them. With the Symbolic we get the “semiotic reduction” which attends to how discourse, narrative, language, signs, and the signifier structure the world. Here we bracket the referent (the Real) and the lived (the Imaginary), and instead just attend to the diacritics of language in parsing the world. Finally, we get a “naturalistic reduction” in the domain of the Real that brackets meaning and the signifier (the Symbolic) and lived experience (the Imaginary), instead adopting what Husserl called the “natural attitude” and attending to the constraints of chemistry, physics, neurology, physiology, natural geography, and so on. There are certain things that can only be understood and know within the natural attitude, which is why we must here bracket lived experience and semiotic analysis. Paradoxically, we today live in a theoretical context where we need the resources to return to the natural attitude to discern the power that materiality exerts on life.
Bracketing is not reduction. The semiotic reduction brackets the referent and lived, phenomenological experience. The phenomenological reduction brackets semiotic structuration and materiality (sorry folks, talk of the “lived body” does not a materialism make; the material body is never experienced, nor can it be subjectivized; we only encounter its effects). The naturalist reduction reduces the semiotic and phenomenological. Each has their place and there are things that can only be discovered through these three reductions. Ultimately, however, the aim is to thematize how these three orders interact and influence one another, so as to better understand the dynamics of power and to better develop strategies of resistance.