In a manner that resembles Derrida, the mathematician G. Spencer-Brown argues that in order to indicate or refer to anything we must first draw a distinction. We can’t, as it were, point at the world, but must always cleave the world in two that a region of being might come into relief or focus. The consequence of this is that indication or referral always contains two blind spots. First, insofar as the world has been cleaved in two by the distinction, something falls away or disappears from view. We get a sort of “reality-effect” where what is indicated seems to be all that is the case, forgetting that there is an unmarked space of our distinction that we set aside to render this referral possible. Second, the distinction itself becomes invisible, giving us the impression that the indicated is itself a “given”, all that is, while causing us to forget that the distinction is what allowed the indication to come into relief in the first place. It should be noted that all perception and cognition essentially has this structure. The analysis of the umwelt of an animal or the philosophy of a thinker consists in analyzing both how they draw distinctions, what these distinctions bring into relief or allow to be indicated, and, if one is engaged in a project of critique, what they render invisible. In discussing this, Niklas Luhmann argues that whenever we see we are not seeing because the distinction that allows our vision to be possible contains a constitutive blind-spot or unmarked space, and that we cannot see what we cannot see because we necessarily have to deploy distinctions to see at all. However, we can nonetheless engage in “second-order” observation, observing how we draw distinctions and how others and other beings draw distinctions, marking their blind spots and raising the question of how the world would appear differently were we to make the unmarked space the marked space, or observe the marked space from the vantage of the unmarked space. Here it can be seen that where communicative and cognitive systems are concerned, there is a politics of distinction. For it is not simply the case that distinctions, at this level, render things visible or thinkable; but rather, distinctions are also selecting among what is to be thought and seen, what is to be attended to.
In this regard, writing and citation are no different. Citations in an academic text implicitly presuppose a distinction functioning as a selection mechanism or machine, defining what is to be included and what is to be excluded. The distinction underlying citations for a particular text is also a statement of value, of what is worth thinking, of who is worth attending to, of who is worth hearing. I emphasize that these distinctions are implicit because, after all, one attends to what is indicated, not the distinction that allowed the indicated to be indicated. Distinctions, as it were, disappear in the act of being used. In other words, we shouldn’t begin with the premise that the person has malicious intent in distinguishing as they do. While they do indeed use the distinction, that distinction is invisible to them. This is why critical work revealing distinctions that underly a particular form of indication are valuable.
Of course, where citation is concerned, some of these distinctions are specific to the discipline and subject matter. Disciplines must deploy distinctions to specify their subject and what is relevant to their field of inquiry. Literary theory, for example, cannot make quantum and mechanics and neurology a central focus of its inquiry without losing its own specific object, “literiness”. Similarly, every specific article and book must draw a distinction that allows it to indicate the problems and questions it will address, while setting others aside. Without such distinctions, without plunging other things into the unmarked space of invisibility, nothing could be said or thought. And here, of course, it’s always valuable to remember that there’s a temporality of writing, speech, and thought. What is not said, thought, and written now can nonetheless be taken up later and elsewhere, or perhaps has already been taken up on other occasions. All too often, at academic conferences, we encounter the criticism that you’re not asking the questions and doing the research in the area the respondent would like to do, as if everyone is able to say everything and do everything.
Of course, while that style of criticism is often uncharitable– “why aren’t you talking about what I want to talk about?” –there is a real set of political issues here. Why are these questions, problems, issues, and themes being put on the table and not others? Foucault and Canguilheim did a brilliant job revealing just how important these questions are in fields like medicine and the social sciences. One should not see a conspiracy behind every choice to focus on this rather than that, but we also shouldn’t assume that these choices are innocent, that they don’t reflect value judgments and judgments about what is legitimate and illegitimate. I suspect, in a rather inarticulate way, these are the sorts of questions people are raising about SR in wondering about the rise of the new realisms.
Setting aside the necessity of distinguishing so as to render disciplines and subjects possible at all, there is the issue of those texts that are relevant to the subject of research and how selections are made as to what gets cited and what doesn’t. One cannot read everything, even in one’s own rarified subfield, yet much of what is out there is relevant to the issue being discussed in ones research. We have a duty to engage with that research that is relevant to and convergent with our own research, yet it is today impossible to cover everything that is written on any particular subject. There are always those who have said something similar in the past. For example, Augustine said something very similar to Descartes’s cogito and “I think”. There’s always one working on a similar project.
Often the failure to cite is just plain ignorance of this work. However, that explanation will only take us so far because we have a duty to acquaint ourselves with world being done in our area. Oversight itself is, as it were, a product of distinctions. Yet again, today it is impossible for anyone to master all that has been written, even if ones own subject area. The archive has truly become Borgesian. The challenge then is that of how we can balance charity or the recognition of human finitude with our duty to cite and recognize the convergent work of others. However, the issue is not as simple as this, for when we look at patterns of citation– especially in a discipline like philosophy –we often see that it does not seem to be simple oversight that leads the work of other thinkers not to be cited, but that there appears to be a more fundamental, far more political, set of distinctions at work functioning to select who is cited and who is not cited. In a male dominated field like philosophy, for example– and it is endemic throughout the entire discipline on both sides of the divide –we witness a tendency towards the erasure of the voices of women and minorities (something similar seems to take place in the hard sciences). This raises the question of whether or not there is something at the heart of philosophy itself that promotes this erasure, or whether this is simply a sociological phenomenon. Is there something about philosophy that promotes this erasure, or is this a contingent history of philosophical institutions? This would apply not simply to women, but also questions of what nationalities are cited, what topics are selected as worthy of thought, institutional affiliations, class and all the rest. That which is absent speaks.