October 2013


TempoBowlMiniOT8In a comment responding to my last post, Matt writes:

I wanted to ask about your interpretation of Peirce as an anti-realist. He may not be your kind of realist (which means materialist, as I understand you), but he is a realist in many other senses of the word. But then that’s the rub, isn’t it? What the hell does “real” mean? Why am I even asking? How can I even ask? These are transcendental questions. But all is not lost. Here we are using words as if they were somehow separate from but subject to an objective reality, capable of reflecting it, reasoning about it, signifying it… Surely we know this framework is bunk and these questions are pointless. Worse, they are nihilist. They lead precisely nowhere, to nothing.

Better, I think, to adopt the pragmatic realism of Peirce, where construction goes all the way down since every being continues to exist only because it articulates itself successfully in relation to the many other material-semiotic beings co-constructing its habitat. Articulates itself to who? Certainly, not necessarily to any human being. Photons articulate themselves in relation to atoms. Stars gravitationally and photonically communicate with the planets orbiting them. These exchanges are meaningless mechanism, you say? Its all just efficient causes, just clueless colliding? If you say so, but then we are right back to playing word games, pretending we could designate something undesignatable. That’s pointless, if you ask me. Less toss transcendentalism and get on board with a regulative synechism.

First, I offered no “interpretation of Peirce” in my last post.  I referenced him in contrast to Saussure.  In Saussure you only have signifiers, language, and therefore your semiology is restricted to humans (since as far as we currently know, only humans have language).  With Peirce you have icons and indexes in addition to symbols, and therefore can speak of semiotic systems or sign-systems for non-humans such as cats and ticks and tardigrades.  Nowhere did I suggest that Peirce restricts us to language.  However, this isn’t the issue I was discussing in my post.

Causal relations aren’t semiotic relations.  In this regard, Matt’s making a fundamental category mistake– or drawing a poor analogy –when speaking of quantum interactions as semiotic interactions.  To be sure, semiotic relations can be entangled with causal relations– clearly electro-magnetic waves must emanate from the pattern of the butterflies wings to reach the eyes of the bird and signify “predator” –such that wherever there is a semiotic relation there must also be some sort of physical, causal relation.  However, the reverse isn’t the case.  There doesn’t have to be a semiotic relation in order for there to be a causal relation.  All sorts of causal interactions can take place without any semiotic dimension whatsoever.  Suggesting otherwise is just confusing different types of relations.

In order for a relation to qualify as semiotic, two interrelated conditions must be met:  1)  The sign must be capable of referring in the absence of that to which it refers, and 2) the sign must be capable of telling a lie or deceiving.  Neither of these conditions are met by causal interactions.  Causality can’t take place in the absence of the causal factor.  For example, when you reading the writing on this page you’re not somehow causally impacting this writing, nor are the wavelengths of light reaching your eye the sense or meaning of these words; however what these words signify need not be present for them to signify.  Similarly, people can have all sorts of relations to signifying phenomena pertaining to God and the gods despite the fact that neither God nor gods exist.  With causality, by contrast, the causal condition has to be present for the effect to be produced.

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fire-shutter-copyAs I reflect on the looming deficit ceiling crisis I find myself thinking about what it might be that came to attract me to ontological realism.  I confess that I still have deeply ambivalent feelings towards both epistemological and ontological realism, and have been disturbed by much that I’ve seen arise out of both speculative realism and the new materialisms (though I feel that the latter have been much better about these issues).  I wasn’t always a realist, and even now I’m a realist in a very limited sense.  Throughout graduate school, I’d classify myself as a fairly militant social constructivist and linguistic idealist.  My work on Deleuze, I suppose, had realist-materialist tendencies– in particular, I was interested in deconstructing the subject of phenomenology to uncover a more primordial ground of being in what Deleuze called the “transcendental field” or “immanence” –but for a long time I was all signifier/sign all the time.  I lived and died by Lacan’s thesis that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric” and Peirce’s thesis that the universe is a semiosphere where even “man” (as Foucault nicely demonstrated in The Order of Things) is a sign.  In short, I held the view that all of being is a semiological construction– which isn’t to say that there isn’t something else, just that we can never know anything of it –and that these semiological constructions are variable from culture to culture, group to group.

I believed this thesis– and with qualification I still do today –to be emancipatory for two reasons:  On the one hand, if true it reveals the fundamental contingency of every social formation and set of social identities– I take this thesis of contingency to be axiomatic for all genuinely critical or emancipatory theories –opening the possibility of things and identities being otherwise.  In this regard, the rise of neo-essentialism in some circles of speculative realism has been extremely distressing and disturbing (at least to me).  It’s difficult to see how the return of essences, no matter how weird and withdrawn, can’t eventually function as an apologia for certain forms of social oppression and stratification.  On the other hand, I found this anti-realism to be emancipatory because it prescribes the possibility of self-creation (as opposed to what we might call “typification” within the Great Chain of Being where every social subject has its “proper place”).  However, I came to have doubts.

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Britney Spears is a Proud Soccer MomThe question of when objects are is crucial to any ontology that claims being is composed of units, substances, or entities.  This question takes roughly two forms:  On the one hand, it’s the question of the relation between the material parts of an object and the totality that is the object.  I say material parts as I’m committed to the thesis that there is no entity that is not physical (here we also need to specify what matter or the physical are; connotations of language are no guide or authority where philosophy is concerned).  The question of the relation between parts and totality or community– units are “communities of parts”, though it’s possible that there are elementary, indivisible parts such as strings –is that of whether an object remains that object when it gains or loses parts.  It is a question of what individuates an object as that object.  Here it must be understood that the principle of individuation sought is not an epistemological principle– “how do we identify an object as that object?” –but is rather an ontological principle:  “what makes that object that object?”  Such a principle would be operative in units regardless of whether or not any sentient beings existed to know objects.  Here, then, what’s being asked is whether or not an object becomes another object when it gains or loses parts (this, incidentally, is why questions of mereology are central to questions of objecthood).  Jennifer Wang illustrates this problem beautifully in her discussion of the Ship of Theseus Paradox (seriously, watch this, it’s awesome):

The second question is how we distinguish genuine objects or units from social and psychological conventions.  Put differently, how do we distinguish between what is only a unit for an observer and what is a unit in itself?  A unit that only exists for an observer would have no existence of its own.  For example, I suspect that it’s unlikely that there is any entity corresponding to the category “Soccer Mom”.  If true, while there are many soccer moms, “Soccer Mom” would be a construction for a particular observer (political pundits and statisticians), with no substantial existence of its own.  As philosophers of science like Ian Hacking have argued, this category, of course, can affect soccer moms– they might begin to embody behavior formulated by the pundits, or to repudiate the characteristics attributed to them –but the point is that prior to the formulation of this category there was no unit out there in the world existing in its own right.  “Soccer Mom” is a convention, not something out there in the world (if this is true, Latour’s Principle of Irreduction is wrong).  How far do we go with this?  For example, if it is the parts that make the Ship of Theseus the Ship of Theseus, then the gain or loss of a part means that the Ship of Theseus is no longer the Ship of Theseus.  If that’s true, then our continued reference to the Ship of Theseus as the Ship of Theseus is a mere convention, a pragmatic fiction, not something grounded in reality.  By contrast, something is a unit in itself if, like God, it is what it is regardless of whether or not it’s observed.

I won’t attempt to answer these questions here as I have to teach in a few minutes (though I’ve written a great deal about such things elsewhere).  With respect to the first question, I lean in the direction of Jennifer Wang’s fifth solution and reject the notion of substantial forms.   This aside, I think it’s important to raise them as I’ve noticed a rather exorbitant tendency to multiply entities in discussions of objects and actants.  If we treat everything for which we have a name as “real”– in the sense of being a “unit in itself” –I think we pretty quickly run into serious epistemological problems as well as very dangerous implications in our social and political theory.

In Seminar 11 Lacan develops a very different account of transference.  Under the traditional account, transference is a repetition of past feelings and behaviors towards someone in the present.  For example, your boss somehow resembles your father and as a result you end up repeating something like a “behavioral script” with him, defying him as you did your father, interpreting all his actions and words as abusive, seeing him as a protector, and so on.  Under this concept of transference, we think the issue is one between ourselves and our boss, we see things as issuing from our boss, when in fact our behavior and interpretations have little to do with our boss at all, but rather are ghostly repetitions of our relationship to a person from our past.

While not discounting these phenomena, Lacan takes a very different approach.  For Lacan, transference is not a repetition of a past relationship to another figure in the present, but is instead a relationship between the subject and the Other’s knowledge.  An analysand, says Lacan, is in a state of transference when he supposes the analyst to have knowledge.  The dimension of supposition is crucial here.  It’s not that the analyst has knowledge.  It’s not that the analyst has demonstrated his knowledge to the analysand.  It’s not that the analysand has seen evidence of the analyst’s knowledge.  No, in a transference relation it is instead merely that the analysand supposes the analyst to have knowledge.  Despite all evidence to the contrary– analysts are, after all, mostly silent in the clinic –the analysand in a state of transference nonetheless attributes inscrutable knowledge to the analyst.

In this regard, transference is similar to the sublime.  In Kant’s account, the sublime is something that exceeds our capacity for representation such as when we look up into the night sky and attempt to imagine the enormity of the universe or when we encounter a massive hurricane.  The sublime outpaces our ability to think or know what is presented to us.  This is how it is with the analyst’s alleged knowledge from the analysand’s perspective.  The analyst is experienced as possessing a mysterious knowledge that is capable of peering into the heart of the analysand.  Think, for example, of how many people react when they meet a psychotherapist at a party.  Upon being introduced it’s not uncommon for people to say “I better be careful about what I say!”  This is an instance of the transference at work.  The person supposes that the analyst has a secret knowledge that allows them to lay bare the truth of the subject; and this in the absence of all evidence.  It’s that experience of mysteriousness, secretiveness, and inscrutability that is the dimension of the sublime in the person of the analyst.

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