hermeneutics


Recently I have found myself wondering if object-oriented ontology does not require something like the destruction of the history of ontology called for by Heidegger in §6 of Being and Time. In the case of Heidegger, the necessity of this destruction arises from the fact that

[i]n its factical Being, any Dasein is as it already was, and it is ‘what’ it already was. It is its past, whether explicitly or not. And this is so not only in that its past is, as it were, pushing itself along ‘behind’ it, and that Dasein possesses what is past as a property which is still present-at-hand and which sometimes has after-effects upon it: Dasein ‘is’ its past in the way of its own Being, which, to put it roughly,’historizes’ out of its future on each occasion. (41)

For Heidegger, the aim of this destruction of the history of ontology is to make the fundamental structures of this tradition explicit. If there is a problem in them remaining implicit, then this is because “[w]hen tradition thus becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it ‘transmits’ is made so inaccessible, proximally and for the most part, that it rather becomes concealed. Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial ‘sources’ from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn (43)”.

For Heidegger, the destruction of this history of ontology does not consist in the abandonment of the philosophical tradition, nor is it a negative project, but rather this destruction is a positive project that seeks to free up possibilities for philosophy by undermining the self-evidence of that tradition but also by disclosing the primordial sources upon which it is based in an “implicit” way. In Heidegger’s thought, the question of being is to be taken as the clue for the investigation of this tradition. As Heidegger puts it,

In thus demonstrating the origin of our basic ontological concepts by an investigation in which their ‘birth certificate’ is displayed, we have nothing to do with a vicious relativizing of ontological standpoints. But this destruction is just as far from having the negative sense of shaking off the ontological tradition. We must, on the contrary, stake out the positive possibilities of that tradition, and this always means keeping it within its limits; these in turn are given factically in the way the question [of being] is formulated at the time, and in the way the possible field for investigation is thus bounded off. On its negative side, this destruction does not relate itself towards the past; its criticism is aimed at ‘today’ and at the prevelent way of treating the history of ontology, whether it is headed towards doxographhy, towards intellectual history, or towards a history of problems. But to bury the past in nullity is not the purpose of this destruction; its aim is positive; its negative function remains unexpressed and indirect. (44)

Clearly the aims and method of object-oriented ontology’s destruction of the history of philosophy will differ from those outlined by Heidegger, yet nonetheless there will be certain similarities. First, like Heidegger’s destruction of the history of philosophy, one of the aims will be to overcome the self-evidence through which which the question of being is formulated today. In particular, the target here will be the subject-object division of being into two incommensurable houses or ontological domains perpetually at war with one another, such that one is offered the stark alternative of either choosing the correlationist route of mind and reducing the object to a carrier of culture, mental categories, language, and so on; or choosing the side of world or object as in the case of materialism and reducing all human actors to effects of matter. The work of Latour already outlines what an alternative to the modernist project might look like in his careful dismantling of the two-world ontology of nature versus culture.

Second, like Heidegger’s destruction, such a project would seek to liberate or render available positive realist possibilities from out of the tradition. Instances of this way of approaching the history of philosophy can be found in both Whitehead and Graham Harman’s work. Readers of Process and Reality will be familiar with the manner in which he approaches the work of Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant. For Whitehead it is never a question of dismissing these thinkers, but of reading their epistemological investigations that revolve primarily around questions of representation and the nature of mind with “realism as a guiding clue”. Thus, for example, Hume’s “impressions” become, for Whitehead, “prehensions”, but prehensions refer not to representations or sensations in the mind, but rather to the manner in which one object grasps another object in the constitutions of its own being. Mind becomes a particular case of a generalized process characteristic of all beings. By treating realist ontology as his guiding clue, Whitehead is able to liberate all sorts of possibilities from the history of philosophy while also escaping the endless epistemological deadlock first inaugurated with Plato’s allegory of the cave and its two-world ontology consisting of the rabble of the slaves and the Truth of the philosopher. Similarly in the case of Harman. When one reads Tool-Being or Guerilla Metaphysics, he very quickly discovers that Harman does not simply dismiss the tradition of correlationism, but that he engages with a series of correlationist philosophers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Husserl, and so on, treating realism as the guiding clue of his investigations and liberating, as a result of this guiding clue, all sorts of insights into the nature of objects that can be found embedded in these texts but covered over by the self-evidence of a philosophical tradition that pitches the question of being in terms of a divided house between the distinct ontological realms of the subject and the object. By reading, to use Zizek’s term, the tradition awry through the lens of realism as the guiding clue, a rich resource of realist insight is made available for thought.

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wild-things-for-webWhen the term “realism” is evoked it often leads to associations with the distinction between nature and culture, the natural and the social, objects and language, the objective and the subjective, world and mind. Under this two-world model, reality is placed on the side of nature, the natural, objects, the objective, and world, whereas meaning, representation, values, and significations are placed on the side of the cultural, the social, language, the subjective, and mind. The natural, it is said, is the domain of the is, whereas the cultural is the domain of the ought. Such is the modernist constitution, so beautifully analyzed by Latour in We Have Never Been Modern, Pandora’s Hope, and The Politics of Nature. Based on this modernist constitution, a matrix of philosophical possibilities emerges. The obvious question, of course, is that of how mind is able to relate to world. If these two houses are so fundamentally different, one containing meaning and normativity, the other composed of senseless objects and causal relations, how do the two come together? Predictably, we get those who strive to reduce the one house to the other. Thus we get the naturalists or vulgar realists who attempt to show how all cultural phenomena are really natural phenomena (think sociobiology), while on the other hand we get the vulgar idealists who attempt to reduce everything to the second house or the world of meaning, intentionality, mind, the social, signification, normativity, and all the rest. And, of course, we get a million variants of intermediary positions that, like Epicurean wisdom, want a little natural indulgence here, a little cultural indulgence there.

When the object-oriented ontologist proudly adopts the term “realism”, it is immediately concluded that she is placing everything in the basket of nature, excluding the domain of culture, mind, signification, meaning, and all the rest. Hence charges of “naive realism”. To make matters worse, it is concluded that insofar as it is nature that the onticologist and ontographer are siding with, the human is being excluded, foreclosed, or disavowed in the name of natural phenomena. However, what this reading misses is that onticology is a flat ontology. What the onticologist asserts is not that there are two worlds, the real natural world and the ideal mental world of meaning, but that there is only one level: reality. Onticology thus draws a transversal line across the distinction between mind and world, culture and nature. Culture is not other than reality or the real, but is an element of the real. Since onticology begins with the hypothesis, wishing to know where it will go, that there is no difference that does not make a difference, it proves impossible to exclude the human. Why? Because humans make a difference. What onticology objects to is not the thesis that humans are elements in the real, but the thesis that every relation is a human-world relation.

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2679320745_92288d6246Melanie, over at the aleatorist, has a post up responding to a recent discussion between Bogost and myself. Melanie’s work focuses on the intersection between technology, media, and literature, tracking the manner in which technological shifts inform, without determining, literary production. In particular, Melanie draws attention to Luddite attitudes she encounters among many of her colleagues with respect to the new media and technologies:

There are many ways to show students that the current way they negotiate texts is not inherently weak. Sure, they might not read the same way as previous generations, they might not enter higher education with all the skills necessary to read critically, but these are skills that they work to acquire in college. As evidenced even in the layout of this neglected blog, I enjoy using concepts such as “constraint” and “play,” computer programming fundamentals like loops and subroutines, nested media realities and transmedia narratives, and contemporary visual culture and technology studies to help students negotiate literary texts and composition skills. Contrary to the academic lament that “students today don’t care about reading or writing” (a lament which, it’s worth noting, is not unique to our moment), I find that students have ample ability to negotiate complex narrative structures, shift in and out of perspectives, problem-solve, balance multi-tiered information–all skills enhanced by aspects of “growing up digital” and all uniquely attuned to literary studies.

I think Mel hits on something of central importance in her reference to laments among academics about students not caring about reading or writing. I have encountered this lament quite often among my colleagues as well, especially those who come from a background informed by Gadamerian hermeneutics and who practice philosophy through the analysis of the history of philosophy. It appears that something similar goes on in literary studies, where texts and a particular way of reading texts is privileged above all else. Faced with forms of textuality, writing, and communication that have come into prominence with the new internet technologies, it cannot but appear, from within this way of thinking, that we have fallen into states of decline. Rather than discerning the emergence of new ways of thinking, communicating, producing, feeling, and interacting, these new forms of textuality are instead seen as forms of decay and decline. We thus get a sort of Adornoesque Luddite narrative about how modern technology has led to a cultural decline that enslaves us all.

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co-op-20th-eyes-february-112eyes1The epigraph to the second section of Lacan’s “Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis” reads “Advice to a young psychoanalyst: Do crossword puzzles” (Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, 220). If this is good advice for the psychoanalyst, then it is because formations of the unconscious– dreams, slips of the tongue, jokes, bungled actions, symptoms, etc. –are often themselves encrypted like the hints of a crossword puzzle. The hints of a crossword puzzle– roughly equivalent to formations of the unconscious in this analogy –are organized around a lacuna or the missing signifier that is to be found. These hints are traces of that signifier. However, in successfully completing a crossword puzzle it is often necessary to practice a horizontal or lateral relationship to language, an associative relationship, where one draws on equivocations, homonyms, and other figures of rhetoric to discover the missing signifier. Freud gives a nice example of how the symptom is organized around a lacuna or a missing signifier when discussing the case of a young woman during the initial stages of schizophrenia in his article “The Unconscious”:

A patient of Tausk’s, a girl who was brought to the clinic after a quarrel with her lover, complained that her eyes were not right, they were twisted. This she herself explained by bringing forward a series of reproaches against her lover in coherent language. ‘She could not understand him at all, he looked different every time; he was a hypocrite, an eye-twister, he had twisted her eyes; now she had twisted eyes; they were not her eyes any more; now she saw the world with different eyes. (SE XIV, 197 – 198)

Part of the significance of the schizophrenic from a metapsychological perspective is that processes that are ordinarily unconscious are all there on the surface. Where the neurotic might have a deep phobia of having his eyes “twisted”, this woman experiences her eyes as being literally twisted, as being unable to see the world as she would normally be able to see it. Granting that there is nothing physiologically wrong with her, the mystery then becomes why she has come to experience the world in this way. Taken literally, her words are unintelligible and have the feel of nonsense. The symptom makes no sense. But when we adopt a floating, horizontal, or lateral relationship to her speech, the lacuna or hidden signifier organizing the symptom begins to come into view. The key signifier in her speech is “eye-twister”. In German, the young woman’s language, the word for “eye-twister” is ‘Augenverdreher‘, which figuratively means “deceiver”. Through the work of the unconscious, the woman had “literalized” her relationship to her lover in a series of symptoms effecting her eyesight. Her symptom was a trace of the “desire of the Other”, a materialization of the desire of the Other– in this case the desire of her boyfriend –insofar as it was a set of symptoms embodying her lover’s desire to deceive her.

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It seems to me that within contemporary academia, there is a good deal of anxiety among philosophers as to just what the vocation of philosophy is. Just as Kant famously observed that “time was when metaphysics was the queen of philosophy”, there seems to be an underlying anxiety, among continental philosophers especially, that “time was when philosophy was the queen of the sciences”. Any honest appraisal of philosophy today cannot fail to acknowledge that philosophy has been dethroned from its privileged position among the various disciplines. Where Kant could still teach geography, anthropology, physics, and philosophy, seeing all of these disciplines as, in effect, a part of philosophy, for us today philosophy has increasingly become pared down and marginalized in such a way that it often appears, to the outsider, as a sort of archaic curiosity. The various sciences, both as forms of serious research and in popular culture, have taken on the mantel of answering the questions of metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Thus, when the layman searches for answers to the question of the fundamental nature of reality, he generally looks not to the tradition of philosophy, but to popular science texts such as the works of Brian Green, Frijtof Capra, Stephen J. Gould, and Richard Dawkins. Where philosophy pursues a game of one upsmanship, presenting ultra-radical, whizbang critique to end all critiques, these figures dogmatically present their various accounts of the nature of reality. When the layman looks for answers to the most fundamental and basic questions of ethics, to the classical questions of Aristotle, Epictetus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza, the layman looks not to the ethicist, but to the psychologist and self-help books or to mystogogues selling their latest permissive snake-oil. When the layman looks for answers to questions of politics, they look not to political philosophy, but to popularized works of the social sciences. Everywhere it appears that philosophy has become eclipsed by other disciplines, such that in its own disciplinary practice it becomes addressed only to other professional philosophers addicted to something like Magister Ludi’s glass bead game.

Not surprisingly, this state of affairs has led to rather tiresome and reactionary attitudes among philosophers. It is not uncommon to find a sort of “Luddite” mentality among philosophers, where the world is implicitly described as fallen, where the Enlightenment is seen as the pivot point where this fall took place, and where thought prior to this period was a Golden Age. The vocation of philosophy thus becomes a “recollection” or “retrieval” of this forgotten truth, of this ground of all grounds, that has been lost through the fall into the natural attitude initiated by the Enlightenment. As a result, philosophy in the classroom, journals, and books becomes the history of philosophy and the retrieval of this truth from errancy. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that far from denouncing a decisive errancy of thought, this posture is instead based on a combination of envy at the triumph of one philosophical school over the others (a victory that is very carefully suppressed and denied), self-importance, insecurity, and a phobia towards all things mathematical and scientific.

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Rene Daumal and Melanie have suggested some additional hermeneutics:

Technohermeneutics: This hermeneutics traces phenomena back to their technological conditions. Examples would be Kittler and Ong.

Libidohermeneutics: I’m amazed that I forgot this one. This hermeneutics traces phenomena back to drives, desire, and jouissance. Freud, Lacan, and Deleuze and Guattari would fall here.

Rene also suggests Geohermeneutics that traces phenomena back to their geography as in Braudel and certain moments in DeLanda’s earlier work.

To this I’d add Genderhermeneutics, that comprehends phenomena in terms of gender relations.

Reading Dennett has led me to think that it would be both interesting and useful to produce a sort of taxonomy of different species of hermeneutics. Here’s a start. Perhaps readers can suggest better names and other editions to such a list.

Zoohermeneutics: Intepretation that traces all practices and social formations back to biological and evolutionary principles. Exemplars of this would be Dennett, Dawkins, and roughly anything from evolutionary psychology and sociology.

Theohermeneutics: This is a wide ranging field that requires further subdivisions. One variety interprets historical and political events in terms of Biblical prophecy. Pat Robertson would be an example of this. Other approaches interpret texts in terms of their religious symbolism. Paul Ricoeur would be a good example of this. Clearly Ricoeur and Robertson are doing entirely different things.

Econohermeneutics: This would be a form of interpretation that explains cultural phenomena in terms of economic conditions. Marx would, of course, fall here. As would Friedman.

Ontohermeneutics: The most famous proponent of this heremeneutics would be Heidegger who reads all of Western history in terms of different sendings of being.

Pathohermeneutics: This hermeneutics traces texts back to the lived body. Merleau-Ponty and Lakoff come to mind here.

Aestheticohermeneutics: This form of hermeneutics traces texts back to distributions of sensation. Logical positivism falls here as does Hume and other empiricists. Under one reading, Deleuze would fall under this as well, though in a very different way than logical positivism.

Historicohermeneutics: This interpretative approach traces texts back to their historical conditions of production.

Dunamohermeneutics(?): This would be that hermeneutics that traces texts back to distributions of power. Spinoza, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Deleuze and Guattari might be placed here.

Semiohermeneutics: This hermeneutics would look at texts as networks of relations among other texts. Certain aspects of Derrida and Butler fall here. Gadamer would fall here. Basically any intertextual approach would fall in this category.

Sociohermeneutics: Interpretative approaches that explain texts sociologically, e.g., Luhmann, perhaps Latour.

Biohermeneutics: Interpretative approaches that explain phenomena vitalistically, e.g., Deleuze, Bergson.

Any other suggestions?