If it didn’t risk raising the ire of my archeologist friends, I would say that  what I am after—in part –is an archeology of things and matter.  More properly, I am after a theory of forgetting.  However, the forgetting in question here is not an empirical forgetting.  It is not the sort of forgetting involved in misplacing your keys or forgetting what you did on a particular day last week.  No.  The sort of forgetting I’m referring to is an a priori forgetting.  It is a forgetting that is something like a Kantian transcendental illusion, where there’s a certain inevitability to these illusions of thought, and where there’s a sort of inevitability to this sort of forgetting.  In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze argues that philosophy needs to free itself from the idea that the greatest danger of thought is error.  “It is noteworthy that the dogmatic image, for its part, recognizes only error as a possible misadventure of thought, and reduces everything to the form of error” (DR, 148).  He continues,

…there are facts with regard to error, but which facts?  Who says ‘Good morning Theodorus’ when Theatetus passes, ‘It is three o’clock’ when it is three thirty, and that 7 + 5 = 13?  Answer:  the myopic, the distracted and the young child at school.  These are effective examples of errors, but examples which, like the majority of such ‘facts’, refer to thoroughly artificial or puerile situations, and offer a grotesque image of thought because they relate it to very simple questions to which one can and must respond by independent propositions.  Error acquires a sense only once the play of thought ceases to be speculative and becomes a kind of radio quiz (DR, 150).

In contrast to the puerile misadventure of error, Deleuze dreams of misadventures internal to thought such as Kant’s transcendental illusions, madness, stupidity, monstrosity, Hegel’s concept of alienation, the 18th century concept of superstition, and so on.  These are not simple errors, but are things that haunt thought from within.  The sort of forgetting I’m after would fall into this class.

read on!

It is very difficult to put this forgetting into words, and perhaps this provides a clue as to the nature of this forgetting.  Certainly it is to be expected if this forgetting is a priori and has a certain inevitability to it.  In what does this forgetting consist?  This forgetting follows a logic of substitution or replacement.  The thing, in its singularity and irreplaceability, is replaced by the sign, meaning, text, or the universal.  The nature of the replacement depends on context in which we’re speaking.  Take the example of archeology as articulated by Bjørnar Olsen.  In beautiful manifesto In Defense of Things, Olsen discusses how the anthropologist Edmund Leach always insisted that the social sciences must never forget that they are concerned with people rather than things.  In Olsen’s formulation of this position, Leach and those who belong to this school of thought that overwhelmingly dominates the social sciences, “we must never forget the Indian behind the artifact” (37).  In this way the artifact—say an arrowhead –is reduced to a mere expression of meaning.

Take a parallel example.  You sit down to play a game of chess with a friend and discover, much to your dismay, that you have lost one of your bishops.  No worries.  All is not lost.  You replace the missing bishop with a quarter and you can play the game—perhaps (!) –exactly as you did before.  How is this possible?  It is possible because it is nothing about the materiality of the chess pieces that gives them their role and function in the game.  It is their position in a semiotic system of differential relations that defines what they are.  For this reason, any old thing or bit of matter—in this case a quarter –can serve the function of a bishop so long as can be distinguished differentially from the other pieces.  Leach is saying the same thing about the arrowhead.  The arrowhead itself, in its thinghood or materiality, contributes nothing to the Indian.  Rather, it is merely a carrier, an expression, of cultural meaning.  We can therefore quickly move beyond the thing in search of the meaning expressed behind the thing.  And these meanings that are found behind the arrowhead, might be quite remote from the arrowhead; e.g. we can imagine the arrowhead being interpreted as expressive of phallic symbols bound up in the culture’s understanding of kinship relation.  The arrowhead is about anything but what it’s used for.  As Olsen puts it, a reindeer in a work of art can represent anything except a reindeer, despite the central role that actual reindeers play in Sámi life.  The reindeer and arrowhead must always be substituted something else in a system of meaning.  The thing itself is treated as contributing nothing beyond its function as a carrier of meaning.

The point of Symmetrical Archeology—the school of thought to which Olsen belongs –is not that we should ignore the Indian behind the arrowhead, but that we should make a place for the arrowhead.  We should not let the arrowhead be eclipsed or lost behind a meaning, text, or concept.  We should not allow it to be replaced like the bishop with the quarter.  This is equivalent to saying that the arrowhead contributes something.  However, recognizing what the arrowhead contributes requires a different approach than discursive, hermeneutic, or semiotic reason that is perpetually searching for the concept, meaning, or texts that the thing expresses.  Perhaps this could be well expressed by the Greek distinction between episteme and techneEpisteme is that which can be transmitted through speech or text.  It is representational knowledge.  Techne or craft, by contrast, cannot be transmitted by speech or text.  You can’t learn how to play a guitar by reading a book.  You have to pick up the guitar to learn how to play a guitar.  You have to engage with it.  Similarly, to know what the arrowhead contributes, you need to knap flint, hold it, shoot a bow with a flint and wood arrow, etc.  There’s a knowledge here that can only been known in and through the encounter with the thing; and this is because materiality is always animated by singularities that are anterior to and that escape the logic of the particular and the universal, the logic of expression, or the logic of the instance that illustrates the kind.  There’s something here that cannot be expressed in speech or writing.

Yet endlessly throughout the history of philosophy and theory we find an erasure of this dimension of being.  Perhaps it starts—though I doubt it –as Serres suggests in Hermes, Geometry, and Thumbelina, with Plato and the dialogue Meno.  We should not forget the dimension of class in this work.  On the one hand, we have the citizens Socrates and Meno.  As citizens, they enjoy a life of leisure where slaves attend to their needs.  As a result, they are spectators on labor, seeing it from afar (and let us not forget that the term “theory” comes from theoria, meaning spectator).  They watch.  On the other hand, we have the slave who is questioned.  The slave knows how to proceed at the level of practice in finding the diagonal of the square, but cannot articulate his knowledge in speech.  Meno and Socrates mock the slave for his inability to articulate his knowledge, despite the fact that he has procedural knowledge that is able to deal with singularities.  What we get here is an inaugural erasure or forgetting of the material, effaced in the name of the concept or universal.  I would like to claim that this forgetting erasure animates nearly all of theory and thought, perpetually forgetting the materiality that can only be lived without being said.  Indeed, much later we will even encounter Wittgenstein saying that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should remain silent.”  What an odd prohibition!  If one cannot speak it, one is necessarily silent.  Why, then, must that of which one cannot speak be redoubled by a prohibition of silence?  Unless in the silent—practice and lived experience –there is something that threatens the order of the discursive, posing the danger of challenging all of its categories.

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