Is it our fault if the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society?

~Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 6

Perhaps it could be said that a central motivation behind the rise of the new materialism and object-oriented ontology was a discontent with a focus on the discursive or semiotic in cultural theory and the more critically minded social sciences.  To be sure, there were exceptions to this– there always are! –and both of these traditions have learned and drawn deeply from these exceptions, but it is no exaggeration to suggest that a focus on the semiotic was hegemonic in continentally inflected theory up through the 90s.  In the world of philosophy, phenomenology, with its focus on lived experience, was the dominant theoretical framework.  We also had the much less dominant thought of the critical theorists, post-structuralists, and postmoderns, with their talk about talk about the world.  I’ve always felt that Lacan summed this style of thinking up best when, in his late seminar Encore, he declared that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric.”  It is not just the unconscious that is structured like language, but reality is also structured like a language.  We throw the web of signs and signifiers over the earth, categorizing and sorting things in innumerable ways that are deeply consequential to all life on the planet.

This point is dramatically driven home in “The Instance of the Letter”, when Lacan points out that it is nothing about the doors, nor the rooms behind them, that makes one a lady’s room and the other the men’s room, but rather it is the agency of the semiotic or the intervention of the signifier that creates this partition that then becomes normative in the lives of people.  While the structuration of gendered restrooms is rather minor– though we can see how heated this issue has become in American debates over which restrooms trans people can use –it becomes far more consequential when we are speaking of identities and what makes a person the sort of person they are.  What makes a man a man, a woman a woman, someone a person of color, or the very distinction between the human and the animal?  The greatness of the social constructivist and linguistic turn was to both diagnose a sort of illusion whereby we see the properties of the thing as itself dictating its identity in a signifying assemblage, and to show how these were effects of language and society.  In this respect, the linguistic turn and social constructivist critique very closely resembled Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism.  In the naive position, value seems to be something that resides in the commodity itself.  What Marx so brilliantly showed was how value is not a property of the object itself– say the chunk of gold –but instead arises from social relations that, in their turn, veil relations of domination and exploitation.  When we pierce the illusion of the commodity, the possibility of emancipation opens as we can then discern these social relations.  Likewise in the case of the signifying apparatus and the way it structures identities, the world, and social relations.  We can see, for example, how very different the phenomenon of addiction might look when we no longer understand it as being merely a condition a person suffers from, but a performative discourse by which people name themselves as addicts and doctors, experts, a legal apparatus, and institutions classify people as such.  All sorts of new questions emerge.

read on!

For my part, I’ve never questioned the general framework of social constructivism, nor the linguistic turn; and have always thought that there was something of tremendous importance and great emancipatory potential within these theoretical orientations.  As I argued in a previous post, theory matters.  Those who have passed through the crucible of the linguistic and semiotic turns will ask different questions and will not take categories and the stories we tell at face values as innocent descriptions of the world.  They will be particularly attentive to how signifying assemblages and the stories we tell constitute their objects and our attitudes towards the world around us.  It makes quite a difference whether homosexuality is classified as a mental illness as it once was by the American Psychological Association, or whether it is signified as an ordinary possibility of human life.  It makes quite a difference whether homosexuality is treated as a transhistorical identity that has always existed, or whether it was constituted as an identity by a medical and legal apparatus around the 19th century.  The linguistic and social constructivist turn raises all of these questions.

For a long time, I was completely on the bandwagon of the linguistic turn.  My mantra was that the universe, down to its tiniest detail, was the flower of rhetoric.  However, my disquiet began to emerge first when I wondered over the implications of this thesis for things like climate change and the theory of evolution, and second when I began to wonder whether there was another form of power, other than signifying power, that functions according to very different principles.  With respect to the former concern, I wondered how I could advocate the reality of things like climate change and evolution if I held that all was a construction of language?  Wouldn’t these merely be ways of narrating the world?  But second, I began to wonder whether there weren’t reasons besides communication and signification that accounted for why the social world is structured in the way that it is?  Didn’t I have to advocate some minimal realism and materialism about certain things?  These sorts of questions generated quite a bit of controversy and acrimony in the world of theory, leading to denunciations like “naive realist!”, “essentialist”, and other ugly things besides.  Somehow the very asking of these questions was seen as both dangerous and offensive.  People seemed to think– no matter how much I wrote otherwise –that such positions meant abandoning the insights of the linguistic turn.  At best they thought these questions were questions of epistemology, of how we accurately represent reality and about championing the truth of science, rather than questions of how power functions and why social assemblages take the form they take.

Yet as I’ve endlessly argued here and in my publications, it has never been a question of abandoning central tenets of the linguistic turn and social constructivism, but rather of broadening our theoretical frameworks.  What we need, I think, is a framework that thinks the knots of the semiotic, material, and experiential, discerning how the interrelate with one another.  All of these thoughts returned to me last Friday as Cecily and I drove to Oak Cliff in Dallas to get tattoos for Friday the 13th.  Unfortunately– or fortunately –I was unable to get a tattoo because we ran out of time.  We ended up leaving later than expected– around 1630 –and the traffic was horrendous.  It took us about an hour and twenty minutes to drive thirty miles.  “My God”, I thought, “there are people that do this every day!”

Here we have an assemblage that is structured precisely as Latour describes in the quote above.  What power something like traffic exercises.  At the level of lived experience, imagine all of the anger that ripples throughout the Dallas area as a result of dealing with daily traffic.  Imagine all of the resentment and frustration that this daily generates.  What unexpected forms does this anger generate?  To be sure, much of it will be anger at traffic itself.  Yet how might traffic contribute to all sorts of resentment of other ethnicities, of government, of women, and all the rest?  At the level of materiality, traffic, no doubt, probably has a real impact on health both due to the pollution, but also the stress and the effects of that stress on bodies.  It probably has innumerable effects on domestic life, contributing to strife between couples and, of course, absent parents will have all sorts of consequences for children.  These things will be effects of the sheer materiality of highways, automobiles, and how they’re all put together and function with one another.  Yet there is a signifying dimension to all of this as well.  Years ago there were discussions of bringing meaningful public transportation to the suburbs.  A plurality of people were staunchly opposed to this as they thought it would bring gangs into the suburbs, bringing drugs, violence, and robberies to these areas as a result.  This is all a narrative or signifying dimension of traffic.  These people would rather drive three hours a day to their jobs, polluting their atmosphere, causing themselves all sorts of stress, harming their health, and impacting their families and relationships in countless ways than risk the presence of gangs in their communities.  The signifying dimension and the material dimension cannot be separated.  The signifying dimension is what led– in part –to the construction of the highways as they are constructed and to the refusal to bring in meaningful public transportation in the form of 24 hour trains that could improve life tremendously in so many ways, but the material reality of roads and automobiles has all sorts of effects as well.  What is needed is a theoretical framework that is robust enough to think these things together, how they fold into one another, and how they interpenetrate and differ.