Signs


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).

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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.

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image003In response to my post on individuals, Ian Bogost writes:

Perhaps I’m being naive, but I’m not sure the concept of the replicator is even necessary? Can’t the relations between type and instance, or instance and instance remain, or not, and still be explained via the same approach to relation that one would adopt for relations between yogurt tub and spoon, or alligator and television camera? It seems that there is a strong philosophical (as well as rhetorical) reason to avoid special cases.

An object like “soccer mom” is an object produced through what we might call “memesis” rather than “mimesis.” But once extent in a particular context, can’t its existence can remain flat without trouble? Again, perhaps I’m being dense here.

Incidentally, one of the reasons I use the word “unit” is because it avoids this whole business of explaining away the difference between real and incorporeal objects.

In a similar vein, Asher Kay writes:

LS – I understand now, but I’m not sure I agree. Mathematically, an identity could be viewed as referring to the same individual, so that saying “A=A” would be the same thing as saying “Bruno Latour = Bruno Latour”. This practice introduces some conceptual difficulties, but the formal systems still work fine.

On the other hand, the entities being identified could be seen as conceptual generalizations of the same sort as “soccer mom”. When I say “1″ mathematically, I could be referring only to a property that has no object attached to it. Cognitively, our minds are built to subtract out aspects of things just like we add things when we stick a horn on a horse to make a unicorn.

This is the area of OOO’s realism that is most difficult for me to grasp. Mathematics is a conceptual domain – meaning that it is restricted to certain obscure and dark corners of the material world. OOO seems to speak of concepts (including mathematical ones) as having the same sort of reality as what we’d call “physical objects”. I agree with this, but really only insofar as concepts are physical objects that happen to be very confusing to perceive.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t see how mathematics is any more special ontologically than soccer moms.

I’m still working through these issues myself, so I don’t have any hard and fast position as of yet. I suppose one way of articulating what I’m trying to get at is by contrasting the position I’m experimenting with with that of Plato’s. In Plato, when speaking of things like numbers it’s necessary to distinguish three things. On the one hand there is the number itself. For example, there is the number “2”. On the other hand, there are inscriptions or signs standing for the number itself such as an inscription of the number 2 on a piece of paper, in the sand, on a neon sign, in a computer, in a speech-act, or in someone’s thought while doing mathematics. Finally there are things that are counted by the number itself. For example, I have two cats. Someone can eat two french fries. A group can celebrate two days a year. And so on. Drawing on Peirce’s triadic notion of the sign, we can thus distinguish between the sign-vehicle or number as inscribed on a piece of paper or as spoken in speech, the “interpretant” of the sign which is roughly analogous to Saussure’s signified and which in this case would be the number 2 itself, and finally the semiotic-object which is roughly analogous to the referent of the sign and which, in this case, would be the counted.

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