Signifier


For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

read on!
(more…)

I am still experimenting with the diagram below, but as I was teaching the concept of translation in Harman’s Prince of Networks today, I found it to be a useful heuristic device for thematizing just what is new or interesting in Latour’s concept of translation. Scroll past the Scribd diagram for a bit of commentary.

Clearly I have adapted this diagram from Hjelmsleves model of the sign. All of us are familiar with the relation between the signifier and the signified in Saussurean linguistics (to the left). In naive theories of linguistic translation (NTTs), the idea is that the concept remains the same (content), while it is only the signifier (expression) that changes. There are any number of reasons that this concept of translation is mistaken. I outlined some of these shortcomings in a previous post, so I won’t repeat them here. Latour’s concept of translation is broader than that of translation as it applies to linguistics or the transposition of texts from one language to another. The key point to take home from his analysis– and he doesn’t spell these implications out himself –is not so much the fact that a translated text always differs from the text that it translates, but rather that the process of translation produces something new, regardless of whether the relation is between texts in different languages, conscious minds to world, or relations between objects. What Latour wishes to do, I think, is generalize the concept of translation, such that translation is no longer restricted to the domain of language, nor requiring the involvement of living beings of some sort, but rather involves any relations among actants, human or nonhuman, living or material.

Hjelmslev’s key innovation in the domain of linguistics and semiotics was to recognize that both the plane of expression (loosely the signifier) and the plane of content (loosely the signified) have a form and substance that can enter into different relations with one another. Here I am partially basing my analysis of Deleuze and Guattari’s treatment of Hjelmslev’s model of expression and content as developed in “The Geology of Morals” in A Thousand Plateaus. This discussion would require a far more developed analysis than I’m capable of giving at the moment. For those who are interested, it would be worthwhile to refer to DeLanda’s early work on this essay (here and a number of Delanda’s articles, podcasts, and talks can be found here), as well as the first chapter of A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Brian Massumi. While I don’t entirely share the ontological commitments of either of these thinkers, their works nonetheless provide some pointers in the direction I’m thinking.

read on!
(more…)

David1-744682.gifPaul Ennis has a terrific post up on his experience reading psychoanalytic thought, the dis-ease it generates in him, and how he encounters something similar when reading the speculative realists:

Reading psychoanalysis generates a sense of uneasiness in me. To borrow Zizek’s voice for a moment ‘I mean it quite literally’. When I’m sitting there reading about gaps and Others and Fathers I feel anxious. What is Metaphysics style anxiety.

There seems to be a direct psychological impulse behind what speculative realism wants to do. If my more informed readers will allow me to make a crude analysis: speculative realism wants to ‘allow’ the real in. It wants to collapse some symbolic order that we are not supposed to collapse.

Read the rest of the post here. Paul hits on something fascinating with his observation about collapsing something in the symbolic order that is not supposed to be collapsed. In the subsequent discussion in the comments revolving around the “heimlich” or “being-at-home”, I think the point of the unheimlich is somewhat missed in the discussions that somehow it is constitutively impossible for us to not be at home.

read on!
(more…)

Just a quick note before I get down to grading. In response to my post on the game of life, Carl writes:

I’m not sure I’m on board with this:

[O]ne of the reasons I find the ideas so attractive is precisely that meme theory treats signs as objects. Rather than treating signs as mere representations of something else, meme theory treats signs themselves as objective reality. So unlike common views of language where you have one thing, the world of objects, and another things, the world of signs representing objects, in meme theory you have one flat plane where there are physical objects and signs as well.

Well, other than getting to call things ‘objects’ rather than calling things things, what’s the advantage here? I see that we clean out the mediating discourse of ‘representation’, but if the ’signifier’ kind of object doesn’t occur without the ’sign’ kind, and neither occurs without the ’signified’ kind, isn’t there an important and realistic claim about the nature of those objectivities embedded in the idea of representation that is simply obscured by flattening the ontology?

I’m still working out how far I’m willing to go with the whole treatment of signs as objects move as things get complicated very quickly. This was a move that Dan recently proposed in comments, and which I’ve been pushing for quite some time under the mantra that language is not simply about something, but also is something. This move could be called, in honor of Freud, the “psychotic move”, for as Freud observed in his essay “The Unconscious”, schizophrenics treat words as things. Under this model, signs would not be representations of things, but rather would enter into relations with or assemblages with things. This might nicely account for the fluidity of reference in a number of respects. Part of this move follows from a self-reflexive demand of my own philosophy. Insofar as I’m trying to break down the whole distinction between nature and mind that’s vexed philosophy since the 17th century, this leads to the conclusion that any philosophy (or other cultural artifacts) is itself an assemblage of objects. The question then becomes that of determining what sorts of peculiar objects signs are and how these function.

I suspect that anthropologists– and I feel very bad about my recent exchange with Jerry –are critical of memes for the same reason that I was critical of memes when I first encountered the theory about five years ago: Here we have these undereducated cowboys claiming to have discovered a whole new realm of investigation– memes –when we have had semiotics and linguistics for decades now. When you read Dawkins and Dennett on memes you get the sense that they are reinventing the wheel, and in a number of instances poorly. Dawkins baldly admits somewhere or other that he doesn’t know enough about the social sciences, linguistics, and cultural theory to know how well his theory resonates with their findings. In a number of respects, I think the meme theorist stands to learn far more from the semiotician (and cultural theorists like the anthropologist) than the semiotician has to learn from the meme theorist.

read on!
(more…)

nz317Responding to a rather lengthy and rambling post I wrote over at his blog, Bogost has a terrific post up on the relationship of his research and thought to object-oriented ontology. Ian writes:

As a former Lacanian psychoanalyst familiar with cultural studies, Levi makes the following primary observation in his comment:

My sense is that “cultural studies” has been far too dominated by what I generically refer to as “semiotic” approaches. That is, we get a lot of emphasis on interpretation and analysis of signs and cultural phenomena, and the rest falls by the wayside.

This seems generally right to me, given an important provision. There are humanists who consider the materiality of creativity, but when they do so they usually do it from an historical perspective (e.g., the history of the book, itself a rare and possibly ostracised practice in literary scholarship), or from a Marxist perspective (i.e., with respect to the human experience of the material production of artifacts and systems). In both of these cases, the primary—perhaps the only—reason to consider the material underpinnings of human creativity is to understand or explain the human phenomena of creation and interpretation. Clearly there has been a conflation of realism and materialism in cultural studies for decades now, such that it’s very easy to do the latter without the former.

In Unit Operations, I was focused on comparative criticism, particularly criticism that would be able to treat very different sorts of media, like literature and videogames, in tandem. As someone with experience both experiencing and creating computational work, it was always clear to me that the material underpinnings of such systems were both important for anyone who wants to understand them with any depth, and yet also frequently ignored. For example, one topic I discuss in Unit Operations is the relationship between the shared hardware of different videogames, and how such relations cannot be sufficiently explained through cultural theoretical notions like intertextuality or the anxiety of influence. This is an approach that would come back as a primary method in my work with Nick Montfort on platform studies, discussed below.

Read the rest of the post as it is really rich. Like the famous scene from When Harry Met Sally, yet without faking it, I cannot but say “yes! yes! yes!” in response to Bogost’s post.

read on!
(more…)

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.

read on!
(more…)

Surplus-jouissance, Desire, and Fantasy

In Seminar 6: Desire and its Interpretation, Lacan articulates fantasy as the frame of desire. The fundamental fantasy does not imagine a particular satisfaction, but is rather the frame through which our desire is structured. In this respect, fantasy answers the question of what the Other desires.

window028

As I remarked in my previous post, the desire of the Other is enigmatic and opaque. Fantasy is what fills out this enigma, articulating it, giving it form, such that it embodies a determinate demand. Lacan persistently claimed that “desire is the desire of the Other”. This polysemous aphorism can be taken in four ways. First, at the most obvious level, it can be taken to signify that we desire the Other. Second, and more importantly, it can be taken to entail that we desire to be desired by the Other. Third, it can be taken to signify that we desire what the Other desires. For example, a petite bourgeois might desire a particular car not because of the intrinsic features of the car, but because it will generate envy in his neighbor. Likewise, someone might mow their lawn not because they see an intrinsic virtue in doing so, but because they fear that their neighbor will become angry if they don’t. Finally, fourth, insofar as the unconscious is the “discourse of the Other”, the thesis that desire is the desire of the Other indicates the manner in which desire is articulated through the network of signifiers that haunt our unconscious, producing all sorts of symptomatic formations based on the signifier.

Read on
(more…)

Next Page »