Thursday, July 24, 2014

From Hermeneutics to Heuretics

I have often wondered where my idea of how I relate to a text emerged. I have vaguely spoken to people of the claim texts have on me. . .at least certain texts. I  say that I want to understand texts (to stand-under them), to encounter them, to endure them, to dwell with them. This last verb betrays my affinity for Heidegger.

 I tell my students that you should look for elements of the text you don't understand. Such moments then urge us to understand. I tell my teachers that there are very few texts nowadays that I feel are true encounters or events-- that is, texts that burst my previously held beliefs and thoughts. That is, texts that offer me more than just a series of academic positions in an assertive mode (to use Heideggerian language),but instead fundamentally alter my consciousness, to skew my schemas as if I had taken an experimental drug. I look for texts that present me with a new style of thought, a new rhetoric, a new poetics--not just new terminology or, even worse, "applied" terminology. 

I'm beginning to believe that my specific attitude toward texts emerged from Heidegger's student, Hans Georg-Gadamer, and his seminal text, Truth and Method. In "Tragedy of Hermeneutical Experience," scholar Gerald Bruns writes that a common theme in the history of interpretation,  
"is that the understanding of a text always requires, in some sense, a conversion to the text's way of thinking, and what this means is that we always end up having to reinterpret ourselves, and even change ourselves, in the light of the text. To understand a text is not only to grasp its meaning; it is to understand the claim it has on us. Most often this claim is critical in the strong sense, as when a text exposes to us our own prejudices, by which Gadamer means not only our private, subjective dispositions but, more important, the conceptual frameworks we inhabit and to which we appeal when we try to make sense of things. More is at stake in interpretation than interpretation. What would it be for a text to explode the conceptual world of the one seeks to interpret it?" ("Tragedy" 77). 

The texts that most often achieve this task for me are works of poetry, some literature, and, most importantly, continental philosophy and theory . I have often spoken to my friends of the fundamental alteration to my mode of thinking by the text of Lacan, Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas, and Serres. It is their style of thought and, sometimes, writing, that I strive to inhabit. 

And yet, it is precisely these thinkers who do not advocate hermeneutical sense of "meaning" but rather the generation of endless texts (or other experiments in response) to be read and re-read, written and re-written. But I subject myself to these texts, which have a claim on me, and try to then ask what they are asking me to do-- not with them or to them but to myself

Because these texts are so transformative, at times, I believe that I elevate them to a sacred level, believing that it is difficult for me, a lowly mortal, to touch the writing of powerful and knowledgeable divinities. But these writers are more often than not thinkers of non-knowledge (especially Lacan). In some ways, they say--don't believe you can "understand" --just create. The idea that I can do what they are doing never crosses my mind in the same way that I have always felt like I'm just "not a creative writer" --I don't write fiction or poetry. I am a mere critic, an interpreter, a humble servant to the multivalent meanings of other texts. These texts can change me, but the texts I write can only be second-hand commentaries, my words functioning merely as an implicit injunction to others: go read these great texts. 

On the one hand, this hermeneutical orientation has allowed me to be extremely receptive to difficult work and given me an extraordinary ability to navigate various possibilities of meanings in a text. Furthermore, it has allowed me to understand various ways that others make meaning and interpret. It allows me to open myself up to the other in a way that goes beyond a kind of neo-liberal openness of tolerance. 

However, it has made it extremely difficult to write my own texts. It has made it extremely difficult for me to believe that I can create texts that have this opening effect on others. One reason for this is that, in general, many academic texts do not question our own standing as subjects, but prefer to thematize the issues, endlessly pointing toward ways we can apply the insights of great philosophers to our disciplines. The philosophers are only there to provide us a way to speak of our "subject" and not us, as reader-writer-subjects (if you'll excuse the lazy designation). It is always about what text so and so enables us to do as a scholar within the community of scholars rather than transformation of ourselves. 

But perhaps this is a false dichotomy. If what i say is true, then it seems like I am advocating the position of Rorty, where the difficult texts of these thinkers --private ironists -- can serve us only as individual readers rather than map new possibilities for a collective politics of well-being. 

The problem lies, I think, in hermeneutics as an orientation toward understanding rather than an orientation toward invention. It appeals, like some other appropriations of phenomenological principles, to a kind of individual ethics of a constant undermining of our own knowledge positions when given new possibilities. Now, this ethical orientation, as I said above, has served me well as a human being in my relationships. Perhaps it was never the literature, poetry, or philosophy per se that was opening my horizons, but my openness to these texts and my willingness to change.

We can see that a certain strain of philosophical hermeneutics forces us to acknowledge the otherness of the Other, to expose ourselves to the other and recognize that that person (or that text) has a claim on us just as much as we can make claims about it -- but that every claim we make (assertions) will never capture the irreducible singularity of the text.

But what do we then do with this exposure?

Well, we strive to interpret it according to the complex intersection of our own time and being as well as when the text was made. However, I'd like to suggest that despite this method eventually producing a text, the interpretation of the text then becomes a kind of residue of the encounter of understanding. My dear friend and former professor once told me that an interpretation of a text tells us more about the interpreter than the text itself.  I agree. The text is a record of what Gadamer might call "hermeneutical experience," an encounter which can never be reduced to what is written about it, as the person is transformed through the encounter with a text. Bruns, commenting on Gadamer's interpretation of Aristotelian catharsis, writes "tragic knowledge is closer to what Cavell calls acknowledgement and what Gadamer calls hermeneutical experience than it is to what we normally think of as knowledge, namely, knowledge as conceptual representation" ("Tragedy" 82). The problem with this is that this notion of hermeneutical experience believes that you can remove the veil of a false consciousness to see reality -- rather than, as Nietzsche says, that truth cannot be separated from its garment. The idea is that truth of the situation, of the world, of reality can be revealed, if only in a negative movement: "It is emancipation from false consciousness achieved not by methodological application or analysis but by hermeneutical experience, that is, by the encounter with the otherness of reality, or with that which refuses to be contained within--kept at bay by--our conceptual operations and results" (82).

Bruns' tragic hermeneutic anti-philosophy is criticized by Charles Altieri in his essay, "Hermeneutics and Rhetorical Theory." Arguing that Bruns' Levinasian inspired tragic view of philosophy is too abstract to confront reality, Altieri writes, "[f]or the rhetorician, the understanding of tragedy must give way to a tragic understanding of the limits of understanding, for understanding is simultaneously not effective enough to bridge our differences and so effective that it overcomplicates what might be resolved more simply, were we to negotiate without worrying about we think we know" (105). This sounds similar to what Bruns' is advocating, but there is a pragmatic dimension to Altieri's position that suggest that Bruns' thinking leaves no room for agency, especially, I would add, collective agency. I'm sympathetic to this position because in a world where we are all acknowledging the tragedy of the world and doing nothing about it, it is not enough to abstractly 'expose' ourselves in Cavellian "acknowledgement." Indeed, perhaps we need more recognition and identification, not in the sense that we should strive to understanding "the other" in either its abstract quasi-transcendent Levinasian dimension nor in the misguided idea that we can fully understand the experience of a concrete other, but rather explore the dimensions outside of "understanding" in more concrete, rhetorical contexts insofar as we can delimit them. 

Perhaps Rorty is right that insofar as we encounter these texts as private experiences of personal transformation, some of these texts are only of use to us if we take them as "ironists." What if instead of the  tragic view of hermeneutics (converting to a text's way of thinking in order to show the limits of our self-understanding and, simultaneously, the singularity of particularly powerful texts which make claims on us), we focus on what we can do with a text in a given situation through an articulation of how the text thinks, we have moved into what Greg Ulmer calls heuretics. Heuretics implies a mode of reading for "instructions" --what is the text telling us to do?

Heuretics contrasts with hermeneutics in that, although it does not discount the "past," in fact, the past is a choral (in the sense of Plato's chora) resource from which to invent rather than a context from which to interpret. For heuretics, we choose several texts that seem like they can be useful for inventing in the present toward a particular problem (or "target"); we can detect here Deleuze and Guattari's claim that philosophical concepts always address particular problems--the same can be said of a text. The point of heuretics is that we are not trying to understand the text as a whole -- we take for granted that the text exceeds any use we might make of it, but this is good. Ulmer has articulated a "machine" (if you will) for invention called the CATTt. The texts are inserted into each of these slots and it is the slot which determines (although, of course, its not like you choose which texts go into which slot willy-nilly) how the text functions within your work. We are not seeking the "truth" of the text in hermeneutical fashion, but what Lacan calls the "truth of the subject," the subject being something which emerges rather than a pre-constituted text or author.


We must also note that the process of using the CATTt and any heuretic method is an experiment. In Heuretics: The Logic of Invention, Ulmer claims that inventive texts have a "CATTt" at their basis, from Augustine to Descartes to Derrida. Discovering the CATTt can help generate a poetics but the CATTt is a heuristic device -- the individual writer/composer must make many decisions about what to keep and what to throw out. The difficulty of heuretics is finding to what extent do you use your text as a "contrast"?

We can read Ulmer's project provisionally as a way to begin to invent and construct figures of wisdom which will help us make decisions, since the time of jurisprudence (a major element in Gadamer's hermeneutics) and careful application of law is useless under the dromosphere (as Virilio calls it). We have deconstructed the hell out of all our values -- now where is the Nietzschean transvaluation?

For Ulmer, rather than a tragic, Bruns-like, ethics of the radical other, we need to look at the aesthetic dimension of experience -- neither rareified reflections on philosophical aesthetics, nor necessarily examples of difficult digital poetry, but the aesthetic within everyday life. His project is inspired by avant-garde art of Marcel Duchamp and the Modernist poetry of Stevens, Pound, Eliot, Stein, etc. In an electrate world characterized by advertisement and the Entertainment institution, the skill needed will not be to interpret, but to invent, create, and produce media that will show us how we as a collective can strive for well-being. For Ulmer, we need to recognize ourselves in the world because are, as Lacan claims, in an extimate relation with it: the outside is the inside and the inside is the outside. We must "take the side of the object"(as Baudrillard puts it in Fatal Strategies) not to revel in its inexhaustibility, apart  and alien from anything we might impose on it (see Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology), but to find how these objects correspond with the truth of the subject in the objet @ (as Ulmer writes it), the 'fetish.' We are not interested in objects "in and of themselves," but as they signify and found our myths and values in our society. This discovery will happen not through critique nor through speculation on substance, but through attention to individual and collective desire as it manifests in the world. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mignolo, Semiotics,Systems Theory, Derrida, Writing and the Animal Question

It might be difficult to say what "discipline" Mignolo belongs to. However, I think that "cultural semiotician" is not too far off. Mignolo is interested in making meaning and, like other work we've encountered this semester, subordinates "writing" to a general paradigm of communicative behavior. To use words like "sign carriers" is still to gesture towards a container model of writing, even if he tries to avoid this by thinking through the different kinds of sign carriers based on social roles rather than interpreting the "message" contained therein.

But I want to focus briefly on the ways Mignolo deploys semioticians that have served as precursors to systems theories of scholars such as Maturana and Varela an Niklas Luhmann. In the broad field known as Animal Studies, especially through the work of Cary Wolfe, there has been a significant attempt to question the very foundation of humanist thought: the distinction between "the" human and "the" animal. Jacques Derrida, a figure addressed by Mignolo, but deemed not relevant to his own work, has been a crucial voice (especially his Animal that therefore I am) in this discussion, arguing that we rid ourselves of the general category of "the animal" for a more complex and diverse set of infinite distinctions and differences. He identifies this distinction operating even in some of our most attentive continental philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger, Jacques Lacan, and Descartes. Wolfe takes his cue from Derrida and NIklas Luhmann, synthesizing their thought brilliantly in chapter 1 of What is Posthumanism?

I give this background because I am fascinated by the operative distinction Mignolo makes between human and animal:

if speech and writing distinguishes the species Homo sapiens from other species, reading (from the Anglo-saxon raede, 'to discern') seems to be one aspect of the sphere of semiotic interactions shared by all animal species--although not every animal species uses its hands 'to write', all are certainly able 'to discern' (e.g. to read) the semiotic behavior of other animals as well as changes int eh cycle of nature [. . .] Writing (in the general sense of the use of hands and the extension of hands through a sharp instrument, brush, pen, fabric, or knotted strings, etc.) together with speech, distinguishes the network of semiotic interactions proper to humans from the more limited ones found in other animal species (260). 

Why is this so interesting? Because for Mignolo it is both writing and speech that distinguishes the network "proper to humans." In Western philosophy, the distinction between human and animal was made based on human being's capacity for language. While I recognize that the human/animal distinction is not the primary issue for Mignolo's work, I think that it has significant implications for his theorization of writing given that marginalized peoples were rhetorically framed in animalistic terms (and still are) and treated as such. This is why I don't think it's as easy to ignore the Derridean challenge.

Mignolo himself actually identifies the connection between biosemiotics (a precursor to more developed systems theories of Maturana and Varela) and Derrida's work: "Von Uexkull's notion of 'meaning' is perhaps not too far removed from Derrida's notion of archi-writing" (306). Mignolo then goes on to say that Von Uexkull's work
"is relevant to the humanist and social scientist interested not only in transcending Western metaphysics by redefining writing, but also in transcending Derrida and moving beyond the speech-writing dichotomy as well as the trajectory of the letter from the southeast to the northwest Meditterranean--in other words, to move beyond Occidentalism as it manifests itself in the ideology of language subservient to colonial expansion" (306).
This quote is crucial for two reasons:

1.) Von Uexkull's language in his A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans does seem to use "writing" language to describe semiotic signs ("marks"). There are limitations to Von Uexkull's work pointed out in the introduction to the text (notably, his assumption of a kind of holism rooted in German idealism), but I do think, like Cary Wolfe, that systems theory can contribute to Animal Studies.

2.) The rhetoric of "transcending" Derrida is problematic, given Mignolo's close critique of such language in the work of Enrique Dussel in his essay "Dussel's Philosophy of Liberation: Ethics and the Geopolitics of Knowledge," in the edited collection Think from the Underside of History. Mignolo points out this very problem I have with his own language in Dussel's treatment of Levinas: "I would suggest that instead of 'superseding' Levinas (a view that reproduces a linear progression of knowledge toward the ideal point of arrival, which is indeed embedded in totalitarian thinking), a spatial and regional conception of knowledge be enacted" (30). Dussel's own philosophy sugggests this principle (as does Mignolo). While "superseding" can be thought of as implying more linearity, both superseding and transcending imply a telos, the latter which is rooted in Western metaphysical discourse.

What does Mignolo want to "transcend" in Derrida?

"I would like to maintain the distinction which Derrida attempted to blur. The distinction is relevant because it allows us to understand the characterization of humanness based on speech has a different articulation from the characterization of humanness based on writing" (306). 
The distinction seems to be twofold: One, the distinction must be maintained between speech and writing (as he writes) and this implies that there is no need to posit an "archi-writing," a "trace" structure. Mignolo argues that Derrida "invented" this notion to escape the narrow definition of writing, "conceptualized as a supplement to or representation of speech" (305). Mignolo answers: "If, instead of theorizing writing based on the Western tradition, one takes Mesoamerican and Andean examples as starting points, one comes up with a different notion of writing that allows for a rethinking of the relationship between speech and writing which does not make the second subservient to the first [. . .] [Hence] new articulations of the complicities between speech and writing are possible" (305).

I note here also that the common referent here is a conception of "humanness." Bernard Stiegler, too, has addressed this uniqueness of the human being. Our being is fundamentally tied to technics (and thus 'writing' or what he calls 'tertiary retentions) but in a completely accidental matter. That is, there is certainly something called "the human" but "the human" is not some essential characteristic/potentiality that it would contain in itself. Rather, the human is distinguished by epiphylogenesis: we 'evolve' by means other than biology. But the "who" that we are is constituted by the "what."  That is, we transmit knowledge, we have access to an "already there" that was not lived by us (even if this access is always a process of selection and interpretation: that is, we never have "total" access). The process of interpretation and transmission allows us to collectively individuate ourselves in a more complex way than animal beings (here Stiegler draws extensively on the work of Gilbert Simondon). Mignolo says something similar, but always also referring to speech as a human marker:

"The development of speech and the extension of hands to scratch solid surfaces [. . .] have increased the complexity of semiotic behavior among the species Homo Sapiens and, together with speech, have contributed to the consolidation of features we recognize as human" (259).

Thus, it does not seem to me like Mignolo is careful to question his own philosophical assumptions. Even if his arguments hold that  "ancient Mesoamerican writing systems are totally alien to the idea of writing as representation of speech" and that "the idea of writing in colonial situations is totally alien to the grammatological program founded in the regional history of the Western philosophy of writing, and finally that writing has to do with "control of the voice and the construction of territoriality," he still hangs onto a vague and undertheorized notion of "speech" distinguishing the human from the animal. "Speech" retains a kind of metaphysical significance. (I still have to look at this closer).

I can't help but think this has something to do with Mignolo's conception of "text." It's a quick sentence in the essay, but I think that it needs to be addressed: "It is culture specific if there is agreement that what a culture understands by 'book (e.g. Holy Book) transcends the object and becomes a text: the idea of the object on which graphic signs inscribed as conceived by the culture producing and using it" (260-61).
I don't know what to do with this quotation, as the section ends and Mignolo begins to draw conclusions. I'd like to look back at this passage in class. Maybe I'm making too much of a big deal out of it and that its actually quite simple what he's saying here, but I can't shake a feeling.

Decolonizing Posthumanism

Obviously, this book was written in 1995. Derrida's Animal wasn't translated and the concept of "animal studies" hadn't even really arrived on the scene yet. This might make my critique of Mignolo unfair. I look forward to the way he frames his semiotic project in Darker Side of Western Modernity (if indeed he still follows the close semiotic methodology he enacts in "Signs and their Transmission"). However, a brief look at the bibliography shows that Mignolo does not address Derrida in this recent text.

But Mignolo would surely find recent theoretical posthumanist texts to be massively de-contextualized and, for him, probably irrelevant for the period he focuses on (broadly conceived "the Renaissance") given the beliefs held in that time period. Still, I do not think the question of the animal should be elided.

Juanita Sundberg, in "Decolonizing Posthumanist Geography," argues that academic posthumanist discourses completely ignore indigenous knowledge constructions that *never* split nature/culture or human/nonhuman. Sundberg identifies Cary Wolfe's work as indicative of this universal assumption:

"Wolfe's analysis, however, enacts its own universalizing performances in that he does not explicitly  identify the loci of enunciation of such dogmas" (Sundberg 36). 

Indeed, Wolfe's primary theoretical allies, Luhmann and Derrida, have both been criticized for the "abstractness" of their theories. Luhmann's theory has even been called a "super theory." Certainly Wolfe, Luhmann, and Derrida are trying to avoid the more "metaphysical" ontologies that characterize Sundberg's next target. Luhmann has been criticized by Levi Bryant for smuggling in an assumed ontology while trying to stay on an epistemological level.

Sundberg also criticizes Jane Bennett's book, Vibrant Matter. Bennett who is proponent of a kind of "new materialism" (although this label is reductive) talks about "thing power," but explicitly warns her reads against what she sees as naive vitalisms or superstitions (citing W.J.T. Mitchell): "Even as Bennett advocates attention to the power of things, she worries that taking such things seriously risks tainting the rationality of secular humans with the stain of pre-modern magic" (37). According to Sundberg, Bennett implies that although the Other is "capable of giving things their due as co-producers of daily life, they are incapable of producing knowledge relevant to theorizing materialism" (37-39).

I myself have had concerns about New Materialism, Object oriented ontology, etc. for simply setting up another conception of Aristotelian substance no better or worse than "naive" conceptions of the world -- unfortunately represented in our culture as "indigenous." Sundberg is correct to criticize Bennett for not thinking the very material connections between land/resources and their political ontologies.

What I find interesting is that the question of indigenous knowledge puts epistemological critique back on the table as a relevant question rather than, as Bryant and others (Harman) have argued, something which was some elaborate poststructuralist game in order to get away from the "real" objects in the world (see Harman's Guerilla Metaphysics).

"Critique" is another methodology recently attacked by scholars such as Bruno Latour and the others mentioned above. One can argue, as Aaron did at one point in the seminar, that the very gesture of critical thought is embedded in Western methodology, but I am not sure what alternatives we have? The alternatives seem to be something like a naive embrace of (or worse, a decontextualized, watered down appropriation of) "indigenous" knowledge. Do I, as a white, male, American, non-indigenous scholar have the right to "mine" indigenous knowledge for paradigms to elaborate and elucidate my own theoretical concepts? If I use them for my own purposes rather than seek a kind of thick description of its uses in the context of another way of life, have I simply colonized this knowledge?

Contra many of the thinkers mentioned above, S. Mallavarapu and A. Prasad argue in a recent article that Latour does not pay enough attention to power differentials (the problem with a "symmetrical" anthropology") in his analyses, essentially forgetting certain networks that are crucial to knowledge construction. Latour rarely questions the network that the "nonmodern anthropologist" is him or herself a part (195).
More importantly is Latour's binary distinction between the iconophile and the iconoclast. Latour himself considers himself an iconophile against the iconoclast and sees iconoclasm as allied with critical rather than constructive tools. Mallavarapu and Prasad admire Latour's project, but think that his defensiveness against critique makes it difficult for people to point out the limitations of the project. Malavarapu and Prasad argue instead that

If [Latour's methodology] intends to offer a proper democratic politics it has to find ways to deal with hierarchy and power differentials. This would require investigation of differing and unequal 'motivations', 'interests, and roles of different actants (196). 

In other words, the networks Latour traces leaves out other networks and this is because even though Latour seems to be interested how knowledge is constructed, his impulse is to flatten the elements on a horizontal rather than vertical (power, interested) scale.

The resurgence of non-human agency and the question of the animal leaves us with a lot of work to do when we consider the systematic de-legitimization of indigenous knowledge construction. How we are to approach this knowledge (and how they themselves conceive of "knowledge") remains an open question. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Stiegler and Lacan on 'the Drive' (Trieb)

In the work of Bernard Stiegler, drives must be bound and sublimated in order to encourage long circuits of desire. Without sublimation processes, we are unable to form a collective desire. Stiegler argues that we must find a way to institute a desire for a future through what Winnicott called "transitional objects." In What makes Life Worth Living, instead of focusing on typical transitional objects such as a teddy bear, Stiegler claims that "theoretical objects are transitional" and these transitional objects do not ex-ist, but con-sist (33). "Theoretical objects" are something along the lines of ideas, but not in the Platonic sense. Stiegler writes,

"The ideal beings of ontology must be replaced by infinitive motives," infinite motives being taken in the Deleuzian sense (another word might be "tendencies"). Stiegler also links the infiitization of an object's motives to Husserl's intentionality, with a Freudian tone. He writes, "In other words, the intiutive experience of infinite objects of knowledge, that is, of consistences, is opened up by that projector of infinities that is the unconscious--and reason is as such above all a matter of desire" (47). So when Stiegler discusses this idea of "reason" he is not thinking of instrumental rationality, but rather a reason based in desire, the theory of the unconscious, and a certain transformation of intentionality via Winnicott. Indeed, Stiegler calls the point of departure for his new critique a "critique of the unconscious," which is hardly a dismissal of it. Rather, from this critique, "and as practice of the pharmakon as transitional object, a new critique of consciousness becomes possible, a new theory that can only be a political economy of the spirit as the formation of attention, itself conditioned by the play of primary and secondary retentions, a play of retentions that the pharmakon, as tertiary retention, authorizes" (23)

These "consistences" as transitional theoretical objects an be transmitted is through tertiary retention, or rather, objects that function  as a memory object for the collective. So tertiary retentions help transmit our consistencies that we may infinitize. These "consistencies" may be understand as something like a composition of desire and memory that lead us to a trust and hope in a future. Consistencies are thus what Stiegler calls "knowledge" as opposed to "information." The worth of knowledge increases over time whereas the worth of information decreases. These are obviously relative terms so that we cannot make any sort of absolute declaration of what is knowledge and what is information. However, for simplicity's sake, let's contrast Aristotle's Poetics with up to date information on the weather. Tomorrow, that information is irrelevant, whereas Aristotle's Poetics still sur-vive in even the most contemporary texts, if only as a model to be refuted or transformed.

But what I want to get at is why Stiegler is so insistent on calling the bad consumerist society a society of drive. In interviews, Stiegler has promised that the fifth volume of Technics and Time (we haven't even the fourth volume in French or Engilsh yet--although we have the title -- Symbols and Diabols) will deal with Freud and Lacan ("Rational Theory of Miracles"). But so far it is Winnicott's theories that have taken center stage, despite the way in which we might think of Lacan's theory of the "lack" in terms of the Fault of Epimetheus (the de-fault). Stiegler remarks that "the logic that Lacan attempted to describe as 'lack'" is "precisely not a mere lack, but on the contrary necessary: the stoic quasi-cause" (24). In a footnote, Stiegler acknowledges that it was Gilles Deleuze that brought back the concept of the quasi-cause, but Deleuze "does not enable us tot hink the relation of desire and technics" (138). 

Reading Lacan, one gets the sense that he thinks the drive has been vastly undertheorized. In Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, the libido (the sexual drive) is "ungraspable" and "unreal."

Stiegler too refers to the libido, whose figure is Promethean fire, which is a symbol for desire and technics. The libido: "the subject par excellence of the pharmacology of the unconscious" (24).

For Stiegler, desire can regress to drives; whereas sublimated desire creates "long circuits," drives bypass sublimation and create short circuits:

"In other words, the two tendencies of the pharmakon are the two tendencies of libidinal economy: these are, pharmacologically, when on the one hand it produces long circuits through which it becomes care, entering into the service of the libido oriented through sublimation; and when on the other hand it produces short-circuits, short circuiting and bypassing sublimiation, that is, the binding of the drives. Long circuits connect or bind the drives that are disconnected for unbound by short circuits." (25)

For Stiegler, "drives," without their binding by some kind of technical prosthesis of sublimation (the libido?)), are inherently "destructive." Stiegler argues that the drive consumes its object (91). However, for Lacan, the consumption of the object directly will not satiate drives. Rather, the drive endlessly circumvents that object in a play that might be akin to the kind of "infinite motives" of the transitional theoretical object. The object for the Lacanian drive remains objet petit a. For Lacan, drive and desire are coupled in a more essential way than the almost binary (although he insists it is pharmacological) relation posited in What Makes Life Worth Living: "The third limit of capitalism [. . .] is the limit constituted by the drive to desire all objects in general through consumption, insofar as they have become objects of the drives rather than objects of desire and attention" (92).


Lacan defines the libido as " pure life instinct, that is to say, immortal life, or irrepressible life, life that has need of no organ, simplified, indestructible life. It is precisely what is subtracted from the living being by virtue of the fact that is subject to the cycle of sexed reproduction” (Lacan 198). 

Thus, libido in some way is this pure force that is turned toward drive because of our condemnation to sexual reproduction. What I find so fascinating about this definition is that, in Stiegler, it is precisely because thought is impossible without the technical prosthesis that forces us to transmit, inherit, and adopt knowledge via tertiary retentions. The libido's fall into the cycle of sexed reproduction is also our fall into the necessity of differance, the trace, tertiary retention -- our default, our double lack. These tertiary retentions, if we care and pay attention to them in the way Stiegler suggests, are the sublimations of drives that makes civilization possible. 

Lacan writes, "the libido is the essential organ in understanding the nature of the drive. This organ is unreal. Unreal is not imaginary. The unreal is defined by articulating itself on the real in a way that eludes us" (Lacan 205). Once again, this sounds as if the libido, essential to understanding the drive, consists rather than exists or subsists. But we only have a partial libido-- a partial drive--because, once again, as Lacan tells us the libido QUA pure life instinct/immortal life/life of no need of an organ is subtracted from us because of reproduction and because we are subjected to the differance/trace/the metonymic chain of signifers that constitute the subject. The libido is thus inevitably tied to the drive. The drive is a prosthesis of the libido that creates a circuit of desire which will never be able to overcome the gap of the unconscious nor the fall into reproduction (the lack). 

Why call the drive the 'organ' or the 'prosthesis' when Lacan calls libido the organ? Because Lacan writes that the organ has to be understood as "part of an organism" but also as an instrument. Furthermore, the way Lacan describes the drive is as a composed, organ-izational system consisting of parts. The drive is a surrealist montage. The drive is a technical work of art! The drive is composed and consists in four terms: 

1.) Drang (thrust)
2.) Quelle (source)
3.) Objekt (object)
4.) Ziel (aim)

Perhaps the infinitization and intentionalization of motives in a theoretical/transitional object is akin the "circuit" of the drive described by Lacan. The drive is "short-circuited" if we imagine that we've reached a goal other than the return of the drive to its circuit. The long circuit of the drive's path is what makes a subject appear. If for Lacan the signifier is that which represents the subject to another signifier and it is through this circuit that new signifers are generated (and thus, a multitude of 'subjects' that are always already fading) than might we not understand this generation as the process of "transindividuation" as elucidated by Stiegler via Simondon? This "headless subjectification," a "subject-with-holes," would thus signify the potential for infinitization. Another way to say this is that it is through "subjectification" that we produce transitional theoretical objects of infinite motives. Like the transitional object, we can argue that the "subject" in Lacan does not ex-ist, but rather consists in the movement of the signifier representing the subject for another signifier.

On the other hand, one might also understand the drive impulse, if it always attains its goal (a peverse satisfaction in the dissatisfaction of desire) as that which inhibits an meaningful (trans)individuation. Lacan describes the drive as something which produces homeostasis. Perhaps we are satisfied through our "drives" by the dissatisfaction of our desire and rather than producing collective libidinal energy, we are merely circulating various objects, getting pleasure from whichever one comes our way.

But again, Lacan seems to point toward the idea that the repression of lidinal energy (through the drive?) is what allows for Stiegler's idea of 'attention':

"Somewhere Freud says quite categorically that it is the pressure of what, in sexuality, has to be repressed in order to maintain the pleasure principle--namely, the libido--that has made possible the progress of the mental apparatus itself, as such and, for example, the establishment in the mental apparatus of that possibility of investment that we call Aufmerksamkeit, the possibility of attention." (Lacan 184)

In other words, perhaps we need the drive as the apparatus of the libidinal organ to maintain homeostasis, and, in turn, make possible the desire for transitional objects? 

Graph of the Drive

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Writing and Failure

Because our thoughts are not merely transferred from our heads to the paper (or screen) and because we can never simply be both the writer and the audience at the very same time, writing is a 'process'. Writing is not a progressive process, with identifable and codifiable steps, but rather a process in which we have to repeatedly encounter our own failures to say what we want to say. This recognition of failure is sometimes called the revising or editing stage, where audience becomes primary. We have to be honest with ourselves when we read-over our work as an audience, confronting our short-comings the first go around. In order to write, then, and why it's so painful, is that we have to spend an enormous amount of time confronting our failure to say what we thought we were saying. We have to confront the difference between our enthusiastic desire to get something out and the unfortunate truth that in our frenzy of thought, the words do not have the same intensity and effect we desire on those encountering our text. Sometimes when I write initially it's as if I'm stammering.  My first attempt is the print equivalent of stuttering or stammering (is that any better than the sentence I crossed out?). Often, I can surprise myself writing this way. A certain cadence created by a flow of words, usually just a sentence or two, may impact me (as a reader) more than I thought it would.  A certain combination of words may hit myself in the role of the reader more than I anticipated.  (Better, still not there). 

I should re-write this paragraph. I'm sure that my initial drive to put these words on the page skewed my sense of effective communication. But I won't. I'll leave it here unfinished. Another failure I am unable to confront as an honest receptor. 

Of course, I've only marked some of my changes. I've backspaced quite a few times in each of the sentences above while typing, no matter how unfinished and awkward they may read, realizing that a word here or there is better replaced. 

To conjure a world out of words is a most difficult activity. . .

Friday, October 18, 2013

Jacob's Ladder: On names, language, and writing

Jacob's Ladder

Despite telling myself I'd stay away from theory this semester, I have been sucked back in, reading Michel de Certeau's Practice of Everyday Life and Helene Cixous' Three Steps on the Ladder to Writing in the space of a couple weeks as well as pieces of David Farell Krell's newest text on Derrida's Beast and the Sovereign Lectures. In this latter piece, Krell connects the future of thinking to our attentiveness to language(s). Krell writes,
"I will only add the remark that if apophantic discourse seems inadequate to the task, it means that students who pursue this line of inquiry will have to develop their gifts for language. It may not be a matter of inventing a new language, even if Zarathustra com- mands us to 'fashion a new lyre' Yet it will surely be a matter of resist- ing that overwhelming trend in our own world, including the world of higher education, to diminish the importance of language and lan- guage teaching, to flatten and banalize our powers of expression, to accept as though it were an inevitability the waxing illiteracy of our time."
For those readers unfamiliar with the term "apophantic," is a term in Aristotle that refers to a particular judgment, a judgment of what is true and what is false. In Heidegger it refers to the possibility of the "as such." Derrida, especially in Aporias, has challenged the possibility of a true "as such." Thus, if Heidegger argues that the difference between humans and animals (as he has in his 29-30 text) is that human beings understand beings as beings, in their "truth," but we deny the possibility of apophantic discourse, this form of the distinction no longer holds fast. In fact, Krell suggests in his text that there is a certain non-apophantic strain of Heidegger in Being and Time. I also argued that Heidegger's fixation on the "as such" in Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics was a shift from Being and Time here and wonder why he seems so intent on keeping this concept in those lectures.

This may all seem besides the point, but its really not, because if we cannot say the truth in the way that Heidegger believes humans beings are capable of, then we must rely on the interminable and (im)possible process of translation and uniqueness of each material signifier; Heidegger ignores the fact of writing at his own peril. That is, we need to be able to be attentive to the language, and how that language is marked by the author, of a given philosophical or literary text (or any text!). If as Greg Ulmer advises we are to write the "choral word," that is, write with every meaning of the word, creating a kind of field that a word brings forth, then we also need to be able to think in different languages and in the specific idiom of a given thinker in these languages. The very possibility of thought turns on resisting the flattening and banalization of our "powers of expression," as Krell puts it. The same word refers to many things and means differently because of the contingent ways its been inscribed in texts throughout human history.

If students, especially graduate students in literature, cease to learn these languages, then they will become less attentive to this unconscious slippage of language and be content with reducing texts to "positions" or "stances." Places from which one stands and defends rather than conceiving the text as a weave of meaning and nonmeaning. We can already see this in the paucity of metaphors used by our politicians. Everything is conceived in terms of "war." A "war on women," a "war on christmas," a "war on Christianity" a "war on Freedom." I'm reminded of the Wilco song, "War on War." I don't want to declare a "war on war," because this defeats the point. Why must we see everything as an agon? Could we ever learn to see in terms of illynx (vertiginous play?). Positions, stances -- we speak from these places, isolated on islands of solitude. Even Michel de Certeau's metaphors are drawn from military terminology: strategies and tactics, but at the very least tactics are described as in-sin-uation. An implying, a suggestion, a slithering. It's to suggest to the powers that be: why don't you take a bite from the apple -- become mortal, limited, fragile, and capable of death. Respect what this wonderful place is offering rather than the Strategic Law from on high.

It's this specificity and idiomatic nature of texts, that of course is never confined to that single text (reaching out to other uses of the word in the entire archive) that we lose when we turn words into data or when we are satisfied with a meta-discursive, philosophical language that does not pay attention to the trace-structure of language. In academia we see a turn away from the "lingustic" turn toward the material world, affect, the "great outdoors," mathematical reality, etc. and philosophers have developed languages that they more less think correspond to (as well as participate in) the reality "out there." Many of them write in English and do not let the word reach out to its other manifestations, to allow it the freedom to mutate its meaning based on ALL of its uses and even the possible words buried in the terms morphemes. Many of them also seem to ignore the insights of psychoanalysis into the materiality of the signifier and its almost magic powers, signifiers that gather our lives around a (w)hole. We choose and do not choose these signifiers.

I am not explaining myself well here. . . Let me try and get at it another way.

In an insightful recent post on "Traumas of the [Erasure] of the Real" Levi Bryant reflects on why he is dissatisfied with thinking "everything is a text." He writes,

 Naturally the humanities academic sees everything as a text because a) when you deal with texts day in and day out you tend to see texts (signs/signifiers) everywhere (in Uexkull’s terms we could call text the umwelt of the academic), and b) because it’s narcissistically gratifying for the humanities academic to think that the entire world is composed of texts.  If that’s true, if the world is composed of texts, signs, signifiers, beliefs, concepts, and norms, then we are the most important people in the world because we’re the ones that hold the skeleton key to the truth about “reality” (which, in this context, signifies the human umwelt.)

I'm not convinced that every Humanities academic does see everything as a text, but that there is something to be said for an attentiveness to the ways in which language has been inscribed in textual instances. This is because depending on which texts we are familiar with and how we respond to certain words, words mean different things for observers. Proper names, for instance, can invoke a mood or style of thought for those familiar with the name and the texts that name recalls. I say Derrida and all sorts of words come to mind. We all have our own Derrida based on the texts we can remember and recall when the name pops up. This is an effect of the trace structure of even proper names and how they come to signify and mean for us in a multitude of ways. But even more than proper names there are words such as "trace." When I hear the word "trace" I think of so many different ways its used and how I've heard it; for me, it is a powerful word with real rhetorical effects on my psyche. For others, for instance, my students, having not undergone the text of Derrida, it may mean very little. Or the French verb, "rechercher" -- for someone of a literary cast of mind, the word may recall Proust and everything associated with Proust. For an English speaker, we may never think of Proust (if we have never read Proust's title in French!). These works and the lines within them leave traces, mark, burn, and etch a new meaning, a new association into the language. This is reading the "unconscious" of the text in some ways, but not its "political" unconscious, but the unconsciousness of the signifier. 

This why reviving words like "substance" or "object" can be incredibly difficult tasks because of the ways in which these words have been used in the past, both in philosophical treatises and "ordinary" language. The point I was trying to make above is that a truly universal "ordinary" language is impossible. Of course the everyday usage of the term haunts a specialized disciplines use of the term and this is important. For instance, to say that the human is an "object among other objects" could be both estranging and profound, but because of the way in which we speak of "objectifying" people, and the horrible history of such objectifications, this haunts such philosophical recovery projects. "Subject," for instance, has throughout its usage been set off against object, one which has "agency" the other without agency, but we our also "subject to" and "subjects of." The verbal form of the word haunts its nominative. 

For philosophers, words like Idea (especially if capitalized), recalls Plato and a subsequent history of "idealism." The word for idea, eidos, is an ordinary Greek word meaning "shape" until Plato elevated that notion to a philosophical concept. Perhaps this phenomenon is what Michel de Certeau means when he writes: 
Michel de Certeau
"We are subject to, but not identified with, ordinary language [. . .] In order to constitute themselves, scientific methods allow themselves to forget this fact and philosophers think they dominate it so that they can authorize themselves to deal with it" (Practice 11)
We are subject to the ordinary way words are used, but we can also make something mean differently. To borrow a Spinozist phrase, "we do not yet know what [words/language] can do" (and are not words another type of 'body' or at the very least always touch the body?). 

But what we cannot do, in either philosophy or science, is to pretend that language can become a pure object of study "outside" of what language can say.

This why the attention to what language can say in multiple languages and other improper border crossings is so important to think a text at the textual level and within the rules (and transgressions of those rules) that occur in a given language. Even de Certeau's own analyses cannot be outside of ordinar (and non-ordinary langauge) for that matter. For instance, I kept noting that a key verb in de Certeau's text (at least according to the translation) is insinuate. Apart from the more popular distinctions usually gleaned from de Certeau's text such as "strategies" and "tactics" I could not help but notice the repetition of this signifer-- how crucial it was to describe the relation between phenomena in de Certeau's text. To "insinuate" in English means "to imply something" or to "worm your way in: to introduce yourself gradually and cunningly into a position, especially a place of confidence of favor." This verb then links (in)directly to de Certeau's description of "tactics" against "strategies." In fact, the verb is used in its definition: "a tactic insinuates itself into the other's place, fragmentarily, without taking over it entirely without being able to keep it at a distance" (xix). In fact, a tactic is this transgression and border crossing -- a way in which one subtly insinuates or "implies" a meaning through the use of a word in a particular context. It is to suggest a meaning (and I use suggest here to insinuate a hint of hypnosis).

 I remember being struck and finally understanding why Freud's honing in on the "magic word" of the Rat man ("rat") and the associations he made between "rat" and other similar (but not visually the absolute same) words in the German language actually works. In German, one might associate "rat" with another word that contains the same morpheme and this may be an unconscious, poetic work done by the mind. I am trying to think of a good English example, but I can't at the moment. However, I know that I have felt myself speaking certain words, almost involuntarily, because of a text that was working on my mind. What I recall is a function of the texts that insinuate themselves into my lexicon (did you catch it?).

Helene Cixous

Where the power of the signifier really gets interesting is when we begin to deconstruct at the level of the word. Helene Cixous, in her three lectures Three Steps on the Ladder to Writing, suggests that aside from the School of the Dead and the School of Dreams, there is the school of roots. "Roots" here mean many things, but Cixous suggests that roots signifies both plant roots into the earth (because in order to get to the 'truth' you have to do the difficult work of descending the ladder rather than ascending) but also it seems the "roots" of words. I might add also, although she doesn't play on this as much, the "routes" we take when we tra-verse borders (of languages, of particular marks, of meanings, of oral and literate modes of understanding). We have to "go" to these schools, but, as she writes, the power of the text is that we are trans-ported immediately into the text, without a passport, just as we slip into dreams.

In the "third" school, we learn how to, among other things, invent from our own proper name. Jean Genet and Claire Lispector (the latter of which plays a significant role throughout the entire text) are both taken as exemplars. Cixous' own discourse, with its metaphors of light and night reflects Lispector's own text. Indeed, Cixous' brilliance is partly to use the language of the text she reads, subtly suggesting, insinuating, whispering possible ways of understanding (but even "understanding" is still too coated with conscious thought). Rather than focus on the "natural light" of the understanding of Descartes, Cixous appropriates and transforms the image of the light reflecting off an axe, an axe that could potentially fall on any one of us.

I do not have this text with me at this very moment, so I cannot read with the kind of exactness that Cixous does with the texts she dearly loves. One thing I note about the lectures/seminars of both Cixous and Derrida is their willingness to read and to read again and again the same passages -- sometimes reading a latter passage first and then going back and reading the beginning of the passage. When I say this, I do not mean reading as an abstract activity that Frederic Jameson has argued is a mystification in the texts of Paul de Man, but I mean simply reading the damn text aloud. Reading for the way the language insinuates itself into our minds. There is no substitute for reading the text in these lectures. We can interpret and paraphrase and we can in-corp-orate (incarnate) the other's language into our own reading of it, but to read the text itself, aloud, to repeat it, is like hypnosis -- it makes the suggestions and implications we make in our interpretation (or better, our "reading with") more forceful and probable. Some may say this is a bad way to read, an "improper" way to read, a reading that is not an argument, a lazy reading in the place of a true interpretation, but I defy you to deny the power of Cixous reading-with Claire Lispector or Jean Genet. The drive to interpret dreams is what Cixous can't stand in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. She says she used to "read it with pleasure," but finally decided that it was better if dreams were not "interpreted." At first I was taken aback by this, but in some ways, Cixous may be suggesting here that its when Freud interprets in order to cure -- as if there was a cure for the special kind of wound a dream makes -- that he makes a mistake. Cixous seems to argue that the dream should be let-be (with a Heideggerian inflection).

Genet's name suggests Genet, which is in biology, "a colony of plants, fungi, or bacteria that come from a single genetic source" (wikipedia). Flowers are for Genet one of the most important signifiers, and he plays with both his name and words for flowers in some of his passages. Cixous reads these moments brilliantly and I only wish I had the text here with me to (re)cite.

But in lieu of that possibility, I have decided to invent from my own name. In her text, Cixous notes the importance not only of human beings, but the animal, the vegetable, and the supernatural. Animals prevalent are "dogs," which Cixous said are terrifying to us because we cannot bear their pure love, since human beings are always a mixture of love and hate. The vegetable is represented by flowers and the supernatural is present in angels, hell, and the dead (ancestors) that haunt us. I decided to try and figure out if I could use my name as a heuretic for understanding myself. Name is not destiny, but perhaps through playing with my name I may glean some wisdom about myself in the same way that horoscope or Tarot might show us something we may not have thought. The fact is that this process is a construction -- not fate, but a chance association that might allow me to gather parts of my life, to interpret signifiers that could be close to me, to help me make meaning via trope and image rather than a coherent narrative. My name gathers together all varieties of beings in its spoken and written form.

But first, the "origin" of my name, Jacob.

Like many of us in the Judeo-Christian world, my name derives from the Hebrew Bible.

Jacob means the “supplanter,” which recalls to me both “planter” and “supplement” as well as its major meaning of “taking the place of” or “being in the place of.”  Jacob came out of the womb grasping at Esau’s heel, as if trying to pull him back into the womb, so he could be the firstborn, foreshadowing the destiny of his trickery that led to his receiving of the blessing.  

When I was young and found out about the story of Jacob and Esau, I was a bit furious that my namesake was such a deceiver! But perhaps there is a reason I am obsessed with "supplementary logic" of Derrida and the French thinkers. I am "in the place of" -- in the place of what or who? By association,I am an essential supplement.

So many are named Jacob, we wrestlers of Angels, we "god contended," we supplanters, we deceivers, we sophists, we rhetoricians, we blessed, but not everyone is named Jacob Riley (although of course there are many of these as well).

"Riley." I've always disliked my last name for some odd reason. It's so scottish. I've also tried my hand how it combines with many of the names of the girls I've loved and it frequently sounds odd, too trite, and silly. An ex of mine: Sadie. Sadie Riley -- ugh, what disgusting assonance! Not even sing songy, just too much.

But despite the oral unpleasantness to Riley, there is an unexpected connection between my first name as "supplanter" and one blessed by God and my last name, Riley. "Living the life of Riley" is a phrase, turned radio show turned tv show, that suggests "an ideal contented life, possibly living on someone else's time, money, work or work" but rather than suggesting a freeloader, "it implies that someone is kept or advantaged" (wikipedia).

I indeed am living on someone else's money (the state's, the university's) and I do not feel like a lazy freeloader, but that I am blessed or kept. I live a "charmed life" I've said to many a friend and colleague.

"This is stupid, self-indulgent, narcissistic, and selfish" I hear you readers cry -- and indeed, maybe it is, but so is reading and writing itself. Reading and writing is associated with leisure and indeed is impossible without leisure. Reading and writing blurs the boundary between work and play. Writing, as a kind of dying to oneself, is jouissance, le petit mort.

Before getting to the inter-species potential of my name, I want to mention my middle name, Thomas. It was in college I think that I came up with a significance to my middle known unbeknownst consciously to my mother and father: My name contains the doubt of "doubting" Thomas who asked to put his hand in the wound of Christ and the belief of Thomas Aquinas, that wonderful synthesizer of Aristotle and Christianity. Between Thomas Aquinas and Thomas the doubter, lies Jacob Riley.

 Jacob in Pieces

Ja! -- Yes! (auf Deutsch). I like when people call me ya-cub, my name pronounced in German. The first morpheme of my proper name in German, which is part of my ethnic background, is affirmation! Perhaps this is what unconsciously touches me so much to that last word in Ulyssses: Yes. Perhaps this is why I am entranced by Derrida's reading of double affirmation, the "yes, yes." A call of my name harbors inside it already an affirmation -- my name already replies and turns toward the other when called before I even acknowledge them. Hearing my name is already to take responsibility for a turning toward the other.

yay -- A Spanish woman I know who meant a great deal to me used to pronounce my name "yake," because a "j" in Spanish sounds like a 'y' and so I could not help but think that within the German Ja! is also the English expression of joy, "yay!" "YAY!" "yay" is an expression of excitement which probably derives from "yeah," or some other affirmation. The first part of my name is filled with joy and affirmation. How lucky I am to be blessed with it.

Jay -- Blue Jay -- Returning to the sound of my name in English, we hear "jay." This is the animal perched on the left side of my name. The blue jay is named for its "noisy, garrulous nature." I love noise and sound -- give me feedback any day. I am also somewhat of a "jaybird" which is a slang term for "a talkative person, a chatterer" or "a fop or dandy." I would like to believe that I avoid idle chatter whenever possible, but perhaps what is significant thought for me comes off as idle chatter to the next person. I do not know, perhaps this animal does not suit me. Perhaps this is the limit of improper invention

Cob -- (corn?) -- My vegetative nomen is cob (although the name is pronounced "cub" it is written "cob," here we have another improper crossing between pronunciation and written signifier). A Cob is also an adult male swan, and a small horse (our names contain so many animal companions). The cob of a piece of corn can be hollowed out to make a smoking pipe. Although my pipes are made of briar, I'm gonna go ahead an make this connection (why not?).

My nickname is "jake." I've always liked this nickname because of its association with the shitter--a shitter without any plumbing. I love the grotesque, the unclean, and the scatological. Swift, Rabelais, Voltaire -- the more potty humor the better! To debase is to also raise up. Bakhtin's work on carnival and the grotesque will always stay close to my nether regions (rather than my heart).

The atoms of our names contain the world and can be just one way to orient ourselves and to understand ourselves. By doing this we make our name improper and cross multiple borders. Here I can go back to Krell's initial point. It is through this play of language that we can invent so much meaning in our lives. To restrict the signifier to one language or think about a text or argument in isolation is to cut off the pleasure of the text, of writing, and of death. If the Humanities is concerned with writing and reading, then perhaps our unique place is entirely other to the sciences and the social sciences and we should stop seeking to appropriate their methodologies and their passion to discover "reality" at the expense of fiction.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Data Materialization, Experimental Art, and "Carpentry"

(reposted from TRACE blogspot)

In this post, I hope to think through how TEMPL (or whatever our lab will be called) might go about using computers and objects in order to practice media ecology by making. In order to do this, I will draw on, but also distinguish my position from, Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology.

First, a word about "data materialization." This term arose as a few of us outside of class met to discuss what the lab would "do." Since we were interested in both the screen and software, hardware, and the e-waste, we decided that to argue for data "visualization" would be too limiting. Aaron, who will go into more detail on this idea at a later date, mentioned a 3-d printing of an ecology of relations. Each iteration was different and revealed different things about the data ecology. From this idea, we came up with the idea of "materialization" to refer not only to the physical object, but also to nod toward the move toward re-materializing information. As N. Katherine Hayles points out in How We Became Posthuman, information has seemed to have "lost its body." However, information is always in-formed by its material existence. "Materialization" then does not just refer to 3-d printed objects,but also to the 'materialization' of data in a program, game, or academic essays. 

In Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost laments that "philosophy" is only enacted in written form: "writing, always writing" (Bogost 88). He argues that since academics are not even good writers and that our writing typically takes the form of nit-picky critique, perhaps "a metaphysician ought to be someone who practices ontology" (91). Bogost shifts back and forth between the idea of academic scholarship as written scholarship and "philosophy," confusing the two. Instead of philosophical treatises, Bogost calls for, following Graham Harman, "carpentry."

"Carpentry" is an interesting metaphor for many reasons. For one, it allows Bogost to make problematic claims concerning "materiality." While he admits that "written matter is subject to material constraints," he argues that with few exceptions "philosophical works generally do not perpetrate their philosophical positions through their form as books" (93). "Carpentry," however, "must contend with the material resistance of his or her chosen form, making the object itself become the philosophy" (93). This position denies the materiality and inhuman resistance of language. In an unfortunate reduction of language, Bogost writes: "Language is one tool we can use to describe this relationship, but it is only one tool" (100). Thus, language, unlike objects, is an instrumental tool deployed by humans to philosophize. In addition, the form of a book (and the genre of that book and its audience) does indeed place material constraints on the author and contributes just as much as any other medium to philosophy. Regard, for instance, Hegel's extensive reflection on "the preface" and Derrida's subsequent reading of it. 

Bogost justifies carpentry as a metaphor in a questionable manner: "it extends the ordinary sense of woodcraft to any material whatsoever--to do carpentry is to make anything, but to make it in earnest, with one's hands, like a cabinet maker" (93). "Carpentry" then reinforces this notion that it is the sovereign human subject, with his non-prosthetic hand, crafting a raw material rather than the kind of non-human turn Bogost and OOO seems to be want to reach. 

Harman rarely mentions contemporary technology, preferring objects like hammers, but Bogost at least tries to address computer technology. Bogost asks how computers, cameras, and other objects "see" the world. While we can obviously can never no exactly how a thing experience the world, Bogost suggests that we create interfaces with human beings to try and grasp how the material technology changes the way an object sees the world. He writes, 
"The experience of things can be characterized only by tracing the exhaust of their effects on the surrounding world and speculating about the coupling between black noise and the experiences internal to an object" (100). 

Ignoring Harman's language of "black noise" here, I think that the idea that we trace the "exhaust of their effects" is an interesting way to try and track and then create an interface between humans and other objects. I am actually in favor of this as I think it reflects the ecological imperative of "tracing" the marks left by non-human beings. 

However, Bogost's second point -- that we should for "experiences internal to the object" -- I think shows the baggage of subjective-phenomenology. Bogost writes, 
However appealing and familiar the usual means of doing philosophy might be, another possible method involves a more hands-on approach, manipulating or vivsecting the objects to be analyzed, mad-scientist like, in the hopes of discovering their secrets (103)
This notion of "secret" or "core" or "withdrawness" in objects is the reinscription of a metaphysical "inside" of an object that recalls Kant's "in-itself." Everything we do to an object or every attempt to represent the object is a "caricature" of it's withdrawn essence.

For Bogost and for Harman, objects are withdrawn into themselves that any access an object has to any other is "metaphorical." While I agree with Bogost that we should create artistic projects as interfaces with technologies and other non-human artifacts, I think that his emphasis on the internal workings of technologies short-changes the ecologies of these artifacts.

But although these projects are informed by philosophy, I would hesitate to say that they enact philosophy in the same way. These projects are art performed with philosophy in mind. We want to find a way to artistically present data. Instead of thinking how a particular technology perceives, it may be useful to make things that shows how different ecologies perceive data differently.

In contrast, Bogost seems to want to induce "wonder" at these artworks and thus produce wonder at the technologies they seek to metaphorically represent to human beings. It seems to me that rather than taking the pieces apart to understand, the goal would be to enchant and mystify the technologies, creating "allure."

For example, after embedding his teaching of the Atari system in a media archaeological context, Bogost writes:
But what's lost in this rhetorical process? The 6502 microprocessor and TIA graphics chip are ontologically de-emphasized, allowed only a relational role as thing in a larger network; the evolution of computing, low-level systems programming, pedagogies of the practice of fundamentals, professional skill development regimens, and so forth. Yet the 6502 is just as wondrous as the cake and the quark. Not for what it does but for what it is. (128)
I would argue, however, that our laboratory and other artistic practices of data materialization should be precisely to think about what it does rather than what it "is." How can represent and materialize the different functions of a given technology or data set. Ecologies are less concerned with something "is" and more concerned with what something does --and more importantly -- what it can do.

Bogost's conception of philosophy as art (or art as philosophy -- "carpentry") is nothing more in some sense than an anthropomorphization and subject-ifying objects with a focus on perception rather than function and the impact of the traces. Tracing the "exhaust" must be taken in its environmental context as something that effects the atmosphere, exhaust which disappears from view but which haunts the environment in its impact. We cannot simply gaze in wonder.

It is only if artistic practices take into account both the internal and external functions/effects of objects and material in complex ecologies of interpenetrating discursive and non-discursive realms that art will not become a commodity/object fetishism. Our artistic production should not strive to invoke wonder, but to irritate our perception so much that we are moved to engagement and inquiry. If art evokes wonder and awe, such awe and wonder should not lead to a contemplation of the being of an object, but orient us toward response.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Technological Determinism, Control, and Education: Neil Postman and Bernard Stiegler

Upon re-reading Neil Postman's Technopology: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, I found many parallels to calls from Bernard Stiegler. I am still unsure whether this should trouble me. Stiegler's detailed philosophical reading of Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida is surely not for nought. However, it may be worthwhile to look at the difference between Postman and Stiegler.

The issue here is one of control. The question concerning technology either revolves around technology's "good" or "badness" or "neutrality," or, alternately, our ability to control it. I would like to argue here that Stiegler's "politics of memory" does not imply that we can control technology or that we can slow the process down (such as Virilio, who Stiegler uses generously in TT2), but that we can engage with it. Postman, in contrast, seems to suggest that we can control technology, even though he offers many examples of how technology's effects cannot be controlled or sometimes even predicted.

For Postman, the question of any new technology, is to ask what it may undo rather than what it can do (Postman 5). This already sets up his narrative as one characterized by nostalgia, as Sid Dobrin pointed out to me yesterday. Still, Postman recognizes, as does Stiegler that technology is never "neutral" because there is no technology "in itself." Instead, technology always enters into a particular situation and as such is pharmacological.

Postman misses this pharmacological aspect of technology; instead, he frames it as if technology has a telos: "once a technology is admitted; it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do" (Postman 7). He seems to see the technology as entering society as if from an alien force. That is, at one point, for Postman, technologies did not "attack" "the dignity and integrity of the culture into which they were introduced" (23). Postman seems unaware that (at least this is Stiegler's argument) that technics came first, and constituted the very possibility of culture in the first place. But once again, it is hard to disagree with statements such as the following:
embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another. (Postman 13). 
Both Postman and Stiegler are concerned with how technologies alter education. Postman's main concern seems to be the television, a technology important to Stiegler as well ("Telecracy against Democracy"), but also the computer. Postman's views of the possibilities inherent in the computer are dated, as he argues that computers carry a banner of "private learning," "individual problem-solving." In his defense, Postman's book is pre-social network. Thus, later in this book, he characterizes computers as mainly calculating devices in the service of "Technopoly."

For Postman, the ideal time to live was not what he calls "tool using cultures" nor our contemporary moment, but what he calls a "technocracy," which emerged in the 19th century with the industrial revolution: Following Marx, he acknowledges alienation and poor work conditions, but he seems to think that back then we were more conscious of  them as evil things that must be eradicated. This is why one can call his orientation rather nostalgic compared to Stiegler (although Stiegler might be nostalgic for something else: the family? I need to read Taking Care). Postman writes,
And though it is true that technocratic capitalism created slums and alienation, it is also true that such conditions were perceived as an evil that could and should be eradicated [. . .] The nineteenth century saw the extension of public education, laid the foundation for the modern labor union, and led to the rapid diffusion of literacy. (44)
Technocracy also gave us "political and religious freedom," the idea of "progress." Postman thus concludes that "technocracy will not overwhelm us" (44-45). Technocracy does not render religion, for instance, totally ineffectual: "there still existed holy men and the concept of sin" (45).

This seems about as far away from Stiegler as one can possibly get. However, Stiegler too uses the word "spirit" as a positive term. The difference, one might argue, is that for Stiegler "spirit" must also be tied to a Freudian libidinal economy and the concept of mass affect. We get the sense that Stiegler does not long for a time when religion told us what to do; rather, much like Greg Ulmer, aesthetics and art -- various compositions -- should become an integrative paradigm. More on this later.

Returning to Postman, he sees an insidious transition between his beloved technocracy and Technopoloy. Technopology is "totalitarian technocracy" (48). Postman defines Technopoly's "thought world" via Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management:
The beliefs that the primary, if not the only goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that inf act human jdugment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.(51)
 From here, Postman laments the proliferation of information without any guiding structure (for instance, the schools). I do not think that Stiegler necessarily would disagree with this diagnosis. Indeed, this is not a far cry from Stiegler's claim in Decadence of Industrial Democracies:
the reduction of trust (and of time, that is, of belief in the future) to pure calculation, which would be capable of therefore eliminating anything incalculable, is what radically destroys all trust, because it destroys all possibility of believing: all the possibility of believing in the indetermination of the future, of the future as indeterminate and in this indetermination as chance, an opening to the future as to its improbability, that is, to the future as irreducibly singular. (45) 
Ironically, for all of his laments against calculability, if we are to believe Postman, the goal is to try and predict the future (to calculate it) and we do this by paying attention to the "telos" of technology. Ignoring Derrida's important argument that the condition for the possibility of the incalculable is also calculation, the machinic, repetition, etc. Postman condemns calculation tout-court, seeing in the concept of calculation "numerical measurement." This is the type of calculation, indeed, that Derrida or Deleuze (or maybe Stiegler) might call a "bad repetition." The repetition that does not repeat in a singular way.

Still, its notable that the gist of both thinkers map onto one another. Stiegler, like Postman, even points back toward religion as the force that once maintained those "consistencies" (infinitized tendencies that do not strictly exist -- for more on this, see Stiegler's new book, What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology).

Postman increasingly fears the autonomy of technology and technique. He seems to believe that technology can once again be subject to our control. The problem, he argues, is that we have surrendered that control to "management" and to an autonomy of techniques that have become naturalized in the belief that these technical solutions can solve our problems for us. Once again, I do not think that Stiegler is in disagreement. However, his major point is not that "we" as human beings should take back control from the autonomous machines, but that we must participate in the constitution of culture through technical objects. Without this political-cultural-economic participation, the consumer remains alienated. Furthermore, Stiegler knows there is no unified "we" as a starting point, but, following Simondon, that it is through this participation that "we" emerges.

Postman uses stronger language: "And so it is necessary to understand where our techniques come from and what they are good for; we must make them visible so that they may be restored to our sovereignty" (143). The "our" he is referring to, I think, is citizens as opposed to so called "experts."

Who are these experts? Scientists. Yes, indeed, apropos of recent debates between Stephone Pinker and Leon Wielselter, Postman is concerned with what he calls "scientism." Scientism is characterized by three principles:

1.) Methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior

2.) Social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize humanity on a rational and humane basis.

3.) The third idea is that faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality

(Postman 147)

Scientism, in other words, is the belief that "science" can guide our moral and ethical belief in humanity. Scientism, as Postman suggests and as Nietzsche taught us long ago, is Science as God.

As I've pointed out before, "science" itself is an abstraction. Postman is less concerned with "science" and more with "social sciences" such as psychology and sociology - precisely the kind of "science" practiced by Pinker and co. The problem with Postman's analysis is not that he reveals the quite obvious humanities point about social science (social science tells morality narratives too), but that he seems to think that the "hard" sciences are an autonomous realm of discovery, a la Galileo (science teaches us how the heavens go, not how to go to heaven). But this refuses to acknowledge that the hard sciences, too, are now "technosciences" (and have always been technoscience). Postman writes, "unlike science, social research never discovers anything" (157). To this I say, science does not merely "discover" anything. In Technics and Time 3, Stiegler writes,
Contrary to the ideal of pure, classical scientific constativity, the essence of technology, is in fact always performative. Far from describing what is i.e., the real, technoscientific invention (whose adoption is called  'invention' insofar as it brings to light a novelty that transforms being) is the inscription of a possible that always remains excessive to being, which means to the description of the reality of being. (203-204)
That is, even the narratives and inventions of science are always an instantiation of the possible rather than a discovery of the real. This also should tell us that even though Postman may be correct that the moral directives we discover in "social science" research can also be discerned and invented by the humanities, that the humanities does not have some sort of monopoly on meaning -- just that we don't do all the bullshit that gets us to such obvious conclusions (that make the conclusions more "factual" or "scientific").

What Stiegler is really calling for is for politics. Hard science, natural science -- neither is isolated from politics, as Bruno Latour shows so convincingly throughout his entire career.

The Great Symbol Drain and The Loving Resistance Fighter: What is to be done?

Postman argues that our symbols are being drained of their meaning, mostly through their overuse and abuse. In a forthcoming article on M.T. Anderson's Feed, the genesis of which can be found here, I argue that this society is so cut off from history that marketing has re-appropriated narratives and symbols almost to no effect. How could the society even understand the reference made to the bible in one of the advertisements if all of their information comes from a constant feed of new information rather than knowledge (a distinction made by Stiegler in his important article "Anamnesis and Hypomnesis"). Furthermore, Stiegler's forthcoming book, Technics and Time 4 is subtitled "Symbols and diabols." It does seem like both Stiegler and Postman are both concerned with the "draining" of the power of certain symbols -- a metaphor that recalls the sapping of the vital bodily fluid, the potency, of any given symbol. My guess is that Stiegler's analysis will be more rigorous than Postman's and at least attempt to take into account Derrida's essays on metaphor. Whereas Postman wishes these symbols still retained their potency, Stiegler's question is which symbols should be selected.

Postman laments advertising and marketing, rather than reading marketing theory in order to gain insight into marketing's function. In this way, he does not practice what he preaches: he does not inquire into the production of marketing ideology, simply asserting that it destroyed our most powerful guiding symbols. Rather than using advertising as a way to make new symbols (as I think Greg Ulmer is arguing for), he decries its irrationality and dishonesty. Although he mentions that marketing is linked to "depth psychology," the intricate history between Freud's nephew, Ed Bernays, and the advertising industry is in no way noted. For that history, we have to turn to Adam Curtis's documentary, Century of the Self.

Where Stiegler speaks of our collection of tertiary retentions, our collective memory inscribed in technical objects, Postman refers to a rather conservative notion of "tradition." He appeals to tradition, against advertising, claiming that advertising has no right to adopt traditional symbols. At his most polemic, he uses an unfortunate metaphor in our contemporary times: "The constraints are so few that we may call this a form of cultural rape, sanctioned by an ideology that gives boundless supremacy to technological progress and is indifferent to the unraveling of tradition" (170). Postman is adamant that we must maintain a distinction between the sacred and profane -- a distinction whose implications for politics has been analyzed throughout the work of Giorgio Agamben.

Furthermore, Postman relies on the concept of "narrative" in a way that completely ignores the postmodern critique of a meta-narrative. Stiegler's "politics of memory" is hardly meant to suggest a unified narrative of history and understanding. Yes, it is an attempt at escaping cultural relativism that emerged from poor readings of postmodern philosophy, but Postman seems unconcerned with idiomatic difference.

We can sense Postman's impending conservatism when he mentions E.D. Hirsch and Alan Bloom. Postman critiques Hirsch's inane idea of "cultural literacy" of an "educated person," but reads Bloom in a favorable light! Postman also writes that we need a "national" (read: American) narrative rather than a transnational narrative. This is again in contrast to Stiegler, who argues for a transnational intellectual community which would be based on criteria. It is this latter aspect (criteria) that something like "facebook" does not allow us to do. Facebook does not allow the users to constantly interrogate and adjust the criteria of their organization. Instead, the changes in facebook are imposed from without. How many of us have said at one point or another, "Oh, look what Zuckerberg did to my facebook? A timeline? Oh, that's cute. A newsfeed? Oh shit, this is gonna suck." Facebook has evolved, but not through the participation and recommendations of its users who are barred from knowing the reasons for the interfaces transformations.

Despite Postman's more blatant conservatism and rhetoric -- and the lack of nuance in his argument-- both Postman and Stiegler arrive at similar educational imperatives. This begins with both arguing that central to our future is the future of our educational institutions. Both ask: What are our educational institutions for?

In an interview with Marcel O'Gorman, Stiegler says,
It's very important to study how maps are created. This is not taught in school, because we only teach the end results. We don't teach the process of the production of knowledge. It's a mistake. [. . .] We believe its necessary to revist the history of the construction of occidental knowledge, integrating these new technologies not just as a means of transmitting knowledge, as both objects to be explored and instruments for exploration. (470)
In Technopoly, Postman explains that we should hold

to the idea that to become educated means to become aware of the origins and growth of knowledge and knowledge systems; to be familiar with the intellectual and creative processes by which the best that has been thought and said has been produced; to learn how to participate, even if as a listener. (188)

But the problem, and the crucial difference, between Postman and Stiegler is that the former believes "the structure of the subject-matter curriculum that exists in most schools at present is entirely usable" (188). For Postman, its a question of making these subjects coherent, "a sense of purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness" of what they learn. This course of action, I think, describes the ideal of something like my own public liberal arts institution's goal. For Postman it's about understanding the past; for Stiegler, its a question of constantly (re)making the past and present in preparation for the indeterminate future.

Stiegler is making new institutions whereas Postman wants reform. Postman also clearly prefers "classical" art to our mere entertainment. He writes, "the schools must make available the products of classical art forms precisely because they are not so available and because they demand a different order of sensibility and response" (197).

This is suspicious and indicates Postman's implicit iconoclasm. Against "images," he presents us with "ideas" and classical art that demand a different sensibility. These artworks, however, do not demand a different sensibility "in themselves," but because they were from a different time period. I am not against teaching art from the past; however, art history and education cannot simply be, as Jack Stenner says referring to one of his students, "pictures of jesus." Its not the art of the past, but the art of the present --including the mass media -- that may be useful to bring students into the importance of symbols and what makes life worth living. This is Greg Ulmer's project and, I would like to believe, Stiegler is following suit.

But aside from the many problems with Postman's analysis, I generally agree with him that our education should be more focused on the humanities and that "technopoly" has sacrificed some of what makes our life meaning for the sake of efficiency and meaningless calculation and information. However, whereas Postman makes this an almost moral crusade, I prefer to frame the problem in terms of an intergenerational "politics of memory" and the processes of collective individuation via Stiegler and Simondon. Postman's "we" is an ideal we, a static we that does not attend to tendencies and desire.

For Stiegler, we may not be able to predict and control technologies, to weild it as sovereign subjects, but we can respond to it and hopefully invent not only new ways of "using" it, but inventing new technologies that can herald a new apparatus. Ulmer calls our current apparatus: electracy.