In response to a post I wrote a number of years ago, someone asks:
Dear Bryant, perhaps you have already heard/read Michael Pollan’s book ‘The botany of desire’. If not, please do read it… I have been trying to develop a new metaphysical perspective in which ‘entities’ do equally exist yet differ from each other in terms of their capacity to affect and be affected. I mostly aggree with you as regards OOO, yet I still need an answer: Do you think that 1. A discourse (say Feminist discourse) exists?, 2. It exists in the same sense with concepts of any kind? 3. the difference between the way a feminist discourse exist and any other things exist is not a matter of kind, but of a degree? All the best.
I have, indeed, read The Botany of Desire and enjoyed it quite a bit. In fact, for a time I considered writing a book very much in the same vein entitled The Domestication of Humans, where I intended to explore the way in which various nonhuman beings, both technological and organic, have used humans as media to advance themselves. Sadly that project never came to fruition. Who knows, maybe I’ll take it up again. At any rate, it’s likely that a search of the blog will reveal references to Pollan at various points.
The questions that this poster asks are very complex. It could be said that the basic orientation of my thought is Spinozist. When I describe a commitment to Spinoza as an orientation, I am not claiming that I follow his philosopher to the letter as a scholar or disciple might. Rather, I am saying that I am inspired by a certain Spinozist intuition or vector of thought. In particular, I am oriented by Spinoza’s naturalism (but what a strange naturalism it is!) and his monism or model of immanence. While I don’t share Spinoza’s view that there is only one substance– though that depends on whether one takes him to be claiming that numerically there is only one substance or one takes him to be claiming that there is only one kind of substance as Lucretius claimed with his atomism –I do share his rejection of the existence of transcendent beings. That is, I take Spinoza to be claiming that there is nothing “out of field” such as a transcendent God or a subject that is not of the order of nature or eternal being.
No, there is only the field of immanent being in which all things dwell or exist. In my past work I referred to this sort of ontology as a flat ontology. Where vertical ontologies posit the existence of transcendent beings that are outside of the universe, flat ontologies hold that there is only the plane of nature. These beings, of course, differ from one another in terms of their degrees of power and how much they affect one another, but they nonetheless exist. In my most recent work I’ve tried to represent this schematically using a sort of hybrid of Lacan’s borromean knot (though no knowledge of Lacan is required to understand how I deploy it) and Venn diagrams:
There are material beings or physical things (R), there are discourses about the world (S), and there are agents or subjects that act in the world and experience the world (A). All of these things are contained in nature; hence the fourth circle. The symbolic or discourse (and myths, norms, laws, films, novels, poetry, etc.) is not something “out of this world”, out of nature, but is something that also populates nature (which I prefer to write as
nature, for it is a very strange nature perhaps foreign to traditional naturalisms). There is thus a way in which my circle of the material or real (R) is counted twice. It is counted once as one of the three orders of RSA, and a second time as nature, for discourses and agents are also real, material beings. As a consequence, even where a discourse (S) is false as in the case of the theory of the four humors in medicine, or even where something that arises in the symbolic is a fiction as in the case of a novel like the Left Behind novels of LeHay and Jenkins, these symbolic entities are nonetheless real beings in the world. A symbolic entity is both something that is about something and something that is something. So in response to your question, yes, I believe that feminist discourse is something that exists.
What interests me in the Lacanian connection to the borromean knot here– and this really is as far as it goes –is that the knotting of three rings provides a post-correlationist model of being in which the three domains– the symbolic or discourse, the real/material, and the domain of the agent or subject –provides a model for thinking both the relation between these domains, their knotting, but also their independence. The three orders can be related, but are nonetheless independent. In the topology (?) of a borromean knot, no ring is directly tied to the other. Consequently, if you sever one ring the other two separate. While it might simply be a thought-heuristic, it seems to me that this is important for avoiding that theoretical gesture that sees being as always implying thinking and thinking as always implying being. Post-correlationist thought requires a framework that simultaneously honors the fact that there are real things in the world that are independent of culture and thought, that there are discourses, and that there are agents and subjects.
However, from another perspective it will be noted that these three rings also form a Venn diagram. In Aristotlean logic, Venn diagrams are visual models for thinking about relationships of belonging and exclusion between three categories.
Thus, for example, were we to place an “x” in region 2 of the diagram above, we would be saying that there is at least one being that is both material and symbolic. This is what Andy Clark investigates in books Being-There when he explores the impact of writing– the sheer materiality of the written word, its inscription on paper –discussing the role that plays in cognition. Clark’s thesis is that the materiality of writing itself, its inscription, is not merely some prop or detour for thought, but plays a key role in what is thinkable for certain types of minds. The paper allows me to do things with thought that I couldn’t do with thought alone. Imagine attempting to engage in the sequence of reasoning of Hegel’s Science of Logic in your head. Not only does the paper allow you to turn abstract concepts such as “being”, “cause”, “ground”, “nothing” (!!!), “difference” into abstract objects for thought, but the paper preserves chains of reasoning so you can return to them later in your reasoning and use them as steps in new sequences of thoughts. As Clark puts it, we “offload” our memory onto the paper so we don’t need to constantly keep it in our head. This is rendered possible not by the content or signified of our thought (S), but by the materiality of the systems of inscription we use, the paper, the graphite or ink, and so on. Perhaps with each new medium of inscription new forms of thought, subjectivity, and social relation emerge.
Here we should think of the three rings as oriented. We have the order of the real or materiality (R) acting upon the order of the symbolic or discourse (S), precipitating changes in the order of the symbolic or what is thought. The invention of writing functions as a catalytic operator that, over time, generates a profound shift in the nature of the symbolic or discourse both in terms of what we think about. Gradually we think less and less of stories learned from sacred stories characteristic of oral cultures, for example, and we come to think more and more about very abstract, rule based forms of value reasoning such as the Just, the Good, Right, etc. Writing has functioned as a sort of attractor that leads to a sort of self-organization at the level of how discourse or the symbolic is structured. In other words, the oriented relation between the the real and the symbolic which might be depicted as (R –> S) is highly dynamic, initiating a process that has all sorts of effects at the level of what is thought, discoursed about, how we relate to one another, and if McLuhan is to be believed, even how we experience space.
We can think of another orientation in region 2 where the relation is one where we have the symbolic acting upon the real or material (S –> R). Discourses, symbolic systems, are not nothing but, as thinkers such as Maurizio Ferraris has suggested in works like Documentality, have a certain reality to them and exercise a certain force regardless of whether they are true representations of reality. A nice example of this might be the impact that deciphering the genetic code has had. Our knowledge of the genetic code is a discourse, a symbolic system. Through this discourse we have been able to transform the very fabric of materiality (R) through genetic engineering. The creatures we’ve produced through genetic engineering are not phantoms of the symbolic, but are material beings out there in the world. It is here that we encounter Latour’s “quasi-objects” as outlined in We Have Never Been Modern. Baudrillard famously suggested that the world has been “de-real-ized”, that it has become a series of simulacra, in Simulations and Simulacra. However, the opposite is true. The material inscription of something we say on twitter or write in a blog post or a video recording make things more real than they have ever been. We must live with the perseverance of these “simulacra”. Every author has perpetually faced this endurance of the trace with a sort of horror that often renders it very difficult to write. Or again, a dietary code, whether of a religious nature or whether based on the science of nutrition has material effects on what my physiological body will become.
In this connection, I find myself particularly interested in the processes and events, oriented in both directions, that transpire and unfold in regions 2, 4, 5, and 6. What is it that happens in this points of overlap? What forms of being are precipitated in these encounters. How do they affect and modify one another? What happens when we take flat ontology or immanence– themselves symbolic formations –seriously?
With respect to whether a discourse like feminism is a real thing like an octopus or the moon, I don’t know. I certainly believe that discourse is real, but if I think about the symbolic in region 3, outside the domain of the agent or subject that discourses and outside the domain of materiality– which is to say, when I attempt to think the symbolic in its pure essence –it seems to me that it has properties that are different from those of the oak tree outside my window (though cloning complicates this). There is something incorporeal, something ideal, about the symbolic. We can iterate or repeat a mathematical equation or Kafka’s Trial as many times as we like without it losing its identity. The tree, by contrast, exists in this place and time; though, as Whitehead would say, it is not “simply located” but rather pervades a much broader universe in order to exist. Likewise, causality in the symbolic seems to function differently. Sven’s poisoned frittata directly impacts my body at a physical level (R), whereas legal regulations defining where I can go function differently. Is this a difference in kind or degree? I don’t know, I’m still thinking about it. Much to my surprise I increasingly find myself sympathetic to Spinoza’s doctrine of parallelism on such matters, though I’m not at all sure how to develop such thoughts ontologically at the level they require.