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Russian POW Camp Oven, Svaerholt, Norway.  Picture by Levi Bryant, August 2018

On Thursday I found myself sitting in my office with a very bright student who is now taking his second course with me.  He sat down and looked at me very intensely and said “I have some questions for you”.  I was, of course, immediately nervous.  There, in his hands, I saw a very marked up copy of my Poland talk, “Domestic Objects/Wild Things” (one class had expressed interest in the talk so I made it available to them).   I was, of course, flattered that he had taken the time to read it, and chuckled a bit at the irony of my talk being covered with red ink.  “Professor Bryant”, he said, “throughout your talk you’re very critical of philosophy and how it converts the thing into the thought-thing or replaces the thing with the thought-thing.  But isn’t the conversion of the thing into the thought-thing a good thing?  Isn’t that how we know things?  If we can’t convert the thing into the thought-thing, doesn’t that entail the ruin of philosophy and science?”

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Fishing Village Beach, Svaerholt Norway.  Picture by Levi Bryant, August 2018

This is a really great question and criticism and I’m not at all sure how to respond to it.  This is a very difficult point to articulate because I am essentially trying to indicate or allude to something that is outside of language, even if it is entangled in language all sorts of ways.  When I make the claim that the cardinal sin of philosophy (and many other forms of theory besides) consists in converting the thing– in its materiality –into the thought-thing, I am trying to articulate the way in which the thing is replaced by the signifier.  Any attempt to explain this is necessarily doomed to failure.  It simply cannot be done because I am attempting to point at something that is outside of discourse, outside of language, outside of conceptuality; yet, in the very act of doing this, I bring thing the thing into language, discourse, and conceptuality.  Hegel articulated the point brilliantly in the sense-certainty section of the Phenomenology.  There he points out that in the shape of consciousness he calls “sense-certainty”, we mean this singular thing here, yet we find that we can only say the universal or general.  I want to indicate this irreplaceable, Stickley mid-century, side-table that my wife inherited from her grandmother, but the moment I say “side-table” I have evoked a general term that applies– in the order of language –to all side-tables.  No matter how much I attempt to enrich my description by multiplying adjectives, I still find myself caught in the order of generality.  Hegel thus concludes that language is more true than what we mean or intend.  Since, no matter how hard we try, we cannot say the singular, the truth of the singular, he argues, is in fact the universal.  We can replace the singular with the universal and get on with it.  It’s a brilliant argument and one that I wish to avoid as much as possible.

read on!

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Russian POW Camp Beach, Svaerholt, Norway.  Picture by Levi Bryant, August 2018

Later in the dialogue, Adorno, in Negative Dialectics, points out the way in which the concept of matter is an inherently fraught and paradoxical concept because it is the concept of something that is inherently a-conceptual.  Our concept of matter, he says, refers to something that is not itself a concept.  For Adorno, this is something to be preserved and sheltered, rather than being grounds for the rejection of the concept.  Indeed, he argues that many of the horrors of the world directly arise from the idealist gesture of believing that because we cannot say the material, the materiality of the thing, we can therefore replace the thing with the thought-thing.  Here, I think, is one of the most powerful lessons of Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology.  People sometimes deride Harman’s argument that in order to truly represent a thing– say a tree –we would have to reproduce the tree in toto in our minds, but here I think he makes a profound point.  While he would object to my emphasis on materiality– he is, after all, the author of a fine book entitled Immaterialism and spent a great deal of time arguing against materialisms –his point, I believe, is that something of the thing always slips away.  It is for this reason that Harman’s OOP cannot be said to be a metaphysics of presence.  Harman never tires of repeating the point that things harbor volcanic secrets that perpetually threaten to surprise us, disrupting our most patient attempts to domesticate and master them.  The thing is never identical to the thought-thing, but rather there is always something of the thing that escapes the thought-thing.  The thing is, to put it dramatically, the ruin of the thought-thing.

isoc_tri_050_36982_mdThis is among the reasons that I’m fascinated with archaeology, and not archaeology as a metaphor found in the valuable works of Freud and Foucault among others.  The thought-thing gives rise to the illusion that we have mastered the thing.  We capture the thing in a system of concepts, distinctions, and discursive differences that give rise to the illusion that we have understood it and that it carries no surprises.  With the thought-thing handily in the grasp of our cognition, we believe that the things themselves have nothing else to teach us.  Often, in a subterranean fashion, our thinking on things is even governed by a subterranean cognitive paradigmatic example that unfolds an entire logic in our thought.  When I’m teaching Plato’s analogy of the divided line to my students, I have them do an exercise to illustrate this point.  In Book 6 of the Republic, Plato argues that dianoia is not the highest form of knowledge due to the fact that it relies on diagrams, writing, and symbols (in my paraphrase, anyway).  Why is this a problem?  Suppose I want to think about “triangleness”, the essence of triangles, or what is common to all triangles.  To assist myself in my thinking, I draw a picture of a triangle on a piece of paper.  The problem is that no matter how much I try to draw “triangleness”, I will only ever draw an isosceles, right, equilateral, or scalene triangle.  I will never draw triangleness, and the paradigmatic example of the triangle I draw might lead me to overlook other variations of the essence.

Everyone knows this, so my students are generally unimpressed.  So next I have them close their eyes.  I ask them to imagine “the human” and tell me what they see in their mind’s eye.  I’m very gentle with this exercise because it can be upsetting.  One student will inevitably say they see Da Vince’s famous drawing.  I gently point out that it’s gendered.  Another will say that they see a brain.  I gently point out that those who have had strokes might therefore seem less human to them.  The point is that there’s a way in which the thought-thing always fails to capture the thing.  The thought-thing has a sort of logic or grammar to it that might, in very subtle ways, lead us to overlook other things and that might code our attitudes in all sorts of ways.  This is among the things that fascinates me about archaeology.  When you’re digging a midden pit or garbage heap– archaeologists spend a lot of time with garbage and for this reason they always find treasure –you are confronted with shards and fragments that defy our thought-things.  The things that you unearth are bewildering, often violate our expectations, and force us to confront the difference between thingliness in its materiality and our thought-things.  We discover that the universe isn’t so tidy, something that we should have known all along but that somehow we perpetually overlook.

marxAt the beginning of Difference and Repetition Deleuze draws a distinction between generality and repetition.  Regardless of what we might think, Deleuze says, repetition is not generality.  Generality, he remarks, is the order of exchange and substitution.  The general is what can be exchanged or substituted, which is to say it is the order of generalized equivalence.  One dollar bill is equivalent to another dollar bill and five dollar bills are equivalent to a five dollar bill and a five dollar bill and five dollar bills are equivalent, perhaps, to a yard of linen.  Repetition, by contrast, is conduct towards the singular and that which cannot be exchanged.  In this connection, he remarks that you can no more sell your soul than you can exchange twins for one another.  Like Kant’s enantiomorphs in the Prolegomena, they might be conceptually identical, yet there is nonetheless something that differs in them outside the concept (I owe Andrew Cutrofello for this observation years ago).

DMR8527WAAAJR-PHere we might imagine a continuum of language ranging from the singular to the utmost generality.  At the latter end of the spectrum, we have mathematics and pure philosophy as attempted by Hegel in the Logic or perhaps Plato’s Parmenides, where we attempt to efface all particularity, while at the other end of the spectrum we have Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.  The latter approaches what the nature of materiality.  We can say many fine things about Joyce’s novel that shed light on what’s going on there, but what we can’t do is replace the novel with a paraphrase or a concept.  Something will always be lost in the paraphrase.  As Deleuze remarks, there’s a reason that the poem must be memorized by heart.  This is how it is with materiality.  There is something about digging the midden or walking Svaerholt that cannot be replaced by the concept.  You learn something by walking this arduous and exhausting landscape, experiencing the water and its difficult weather, that teaches you something about what the Russian POWs, the Nazi soldiers, and the villagers lived that can’t fully be conveyed in speech.

It is for this reason that, in our theorizing, I believe we need to create shelter for encounters with that which is anterior to and other than the concept.  We cannot dispense with theory and theorization– here I think my student is absolutely right –which strives to grasp the thing in thought, but we must theorize in such a way that our thought perpetually marks the difference between the thing and the thought-thing, that refuses the substitution of the thing with the thought-thing, and that calls on us to place us in a space of encounters that require us to encounter the other of thought and that challenge our conceptual encounters.  Like the psychoanalyst who exposes themselves to the midden pit of the analysand’s speech, we must open ourselves to encounters with materiality of all kinds that challenge the reduction of the thing to thought and the false sense of mastery that the thought-thing brings.