The end of the book, the beginning of writing
The end of philosophy, the beginning of writing
The speculative realists, particularly those advocating OOO, are frustrated with philosophy primarily concerned with texts, writing, “signifiers,” and feel that, while we need to take account of these things), philosophers have limited themselves by refusing to think of words as material things that are always mediated, just like any other ‘object.’ For instance, the words I am using now are “material” as they exist in the blogosphere and, as such, may be read by anyone – or not. The results depend on my circulation of these signifiers—do I post this on facebook? Do I email it to friends (to whom I know I’ll read). Texts, then, are not ideal but material and thus should take their place amidst all other objects, which includes everything from a corporation to Jacob Riley to the straw currently sitting on my table. A couple quotations from Levi Bryant’s recent blogposts will serve to illustrate what I mean by an attempt to de-center texts as the main concern of philosophy:
“When speaking of society or culture, the story goes, we will only speak of mental entities, norms, ideologies, and linguistic entities. We will here only speak of texts. When speaking of nature we will only speak of causes and so-called “material things” [. . .] The problem is that this way of proceeding entirely distorts our understanding of society. We speak as if the glue that holds people together were only beliefs, ideologies, norms, texts, language, signs, etc.”
“Instead, those working in the tradition of the early Frankfurt School (and primarily Horkheimer and Adorno), post-structuralism (Foucault, Derrida, Butler, Baudrillard), structuralism (Althusser, Levi-Strauss), and psychoanalysis (Zizek), tend to treat the social world as merely a text to be deciphered and power as residing in texts alone”
I can understand Levi’s frustration with this focus on texts, particularly if all we do with texts is “decipher” or “interpret” them. We in the humanities do tend to treat the world and its components in a “textual” manner. Furthermore, despite the insights that Derrida, Blanchot, Jean Luc-Nancy, etc. (and their followers) have yielded for philosophy including OOO, they maintain metaphors related to writing: trace, line, significance, sense. Writing in the “vulgar” sense seems to be their default structuring metaphor and, as such, privileges “text” over the material world—or so it seems (we will return to this later).
But we might ask: why do these philosophers talk about “writing”? I would argue very simply: because they are writers rather than philosophers first and foremost, believing that writing disrupts our usual ways of comprehension. Levi recently posted on the problem of “philosophical style.” Levi identifies his work within the continental tradition and even a cursory glance at Democracy of Objects provides more than enough evidence for this claim. Levi claims, and again, there is significant evidence for this, that he does not abandon the “correlationist” thinkers, but rather learns from them and then seeks to expand from their philosophy. However, of their “styles” he writes,
“A number of us Continentals have abominable style as well (I’m looking at you Hegel, Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, and Adorno). Yes, yes, I know some folks delight at the “poetry” of these guys. I don’t. I generally read these thinkers despite their style, not for their style. In this regard, it’s perfectly appropriate to ask for clarity. I know the arguments as to why these styles are necessary. Nonetheless, you’re still asking readers to invest their time. You should take some time in return.”
First off, I agree that we can ask for “clarity” or, as he puts it citing Harman, “vividness,” but to suggest that these thinkers are not taking their time writing and that this is why their style and points are so convoluted is to miss the point these thinkers are trying to make, which I would claim is something like the end of philosophy and the beginning of writing. That is, even though Levi’s writing is lucid and powerful, supporting and defining of his position with “real world” examples, he and the other OOO’s want to still do philosophy. To say that Derrida, Deleuze, or Nancy (although his name is not explicitly mentioned) do not take time in their writing is to assume that it is more difficult to write “clearly” in support of a position then it is to write a different style of thinking. That is, to write in such a way that is powerful and inspires more thinking, but does not devolve into meaningless nonsense. The way that Levi uses the word “poetry” as a way to dismiss the style of thinking that these writers (I will not call them philosophers) advocate and practice, is to think that the style has little to do with the thinking involved. In one sense, this claim in understandable, since he may be able to reduce the style to a position that jives with Levi’s own and that “teaches us” or “reminds us” of a certain claim (phrases that every academic uses in order to get away from the interminable introductions like “Derrida writes,” “Deleuze states” – I will use these in this post etc.). Maybe it’s not academically worthwhile to struggle with their text’s styles or poetry, but for me, the passion of literature (to borrow a phrase from Derrida) is to undergo these folks’ texts and deal with their texts as texts. Yes, texts have a materiality in the sense that they are deployed in a medium, but at the same time, language itself has a materiality, a resistance to meaning. Derrida writes in “Typewriter Ribbon Ink” on the ‘materiality’ in De Man,
“The materiality in question – is not a thing; it is not something (sensible or intelligible); it not even the matter of a body. As it is not something, as it is nothing and yet it works [. . .] this nothing that therefore operates, it forces, but as a force of resistance. It resists both beautiful form and matter as substantial and organic totality. This is one of the reasons that de Man never says, to seems ot me, matter, but materiality” (350).
Call this philosophical idealism if you must, but is not this resistance, this ‘materiality’ of a text or a body or an object or whatever, a resistance to understanding – a kind of “withdrawnness” of whatever we attempt to write about or understand, but without the metaphysical OOO claim that objects are “withdrawn”?
While Levi may be pushing philosophy further in terms of content, I think it can be argued that these other folks are resisting the categorization of “philosophy,” “theory,” or “poetry,” by their styles (Tim over at fragilekeys has a great post on the difference between ‘poetry’ and ‘theory’ HERE.) Indeed, Derrida, for instance, reads Being and Time as an event, a ‘work’ rather than a philosophical text. In Aporias he writes,
“Being and Time would belong neither to science, nor to philosophy, nor to poetics. Such is perhaps the case for ever work worthy of its name: there, what puts thinking into operations exceeds its own borders or what thinking itself intended to present of these borders. The work exceeds itself” (32).
Maybe that’s the problem: maybe this phenomenon called “thinking” (that Heidegger took as an explicit challenge) which is related to writing is too anthropocentric and too “correlationist.” “Thinking” might be different from philosophy. Maybe this is an attempt at an “ideal” rather than “material” entity. But I don’t think it can be because thinking never coincides with itself, but is always on the way (again, I recognize the kind of quasi-poetic, unclear language I put this in – maybe that’s what makes it an idealism in disguise).
Tim’s blog, fragilekeys, have prompted me to revisit Jean-Luc Nancy to a greater degree than I ever have before, which has gotten me to think once again about “writing.” Nancy is really talking about the end of philosophy rather than its reconstitution or its salvation. He writes,
“The end of philosophy is, without a doubt, first of all a question of style in this sense. It is not a matter of stylistic effects or ornaments of discourse, but of what sense does to discourse if sense exceeds significations. It is a matter of the praxis of thought, its writing in the sense of the assumption of a responsibility for and to this excess” (Sense of the World 19).
We need another style, another gesture, tracing, or marking of what Nancy calls “sense.” In contrast, the “style” of literary effects would be OOO’s constant reference to example and “vivid” writing. But “vivid” writing implies that the goal would be to represent the real – to describe it in the most accurate terms possible. In contrast, “style” has something more to do with what Tim has called “syntax.” This is not necessarily that it has to be “poetic,” in the general sense of “flowery” or “beautiful” but rather “poetic” in the sense of resisting a fullness of sense (a fullness which would correspond to a kind of “mythic” sense – that is, that we know exactly what that word signifies). As someone who has studied literature, it is not the outside of the text that is the most interesting, but rather, how the text resists me as a reader – oh wait, I’ve fallen back into correlationism – it’s what it is “for me” again.
I quote again from Nancy (due to the style of the thoughts):
“the end of philosophy is consequently not the reconstitution of myth—of which romanticism still dreamed—but rather to renewed tension, the exigency of writing, with any ideal or model of ‘style,’ turning style against style, “philosophy” against “literature,” sense and truth against each other, both of them being “auseinandergeschrieben,” to use Paul Celan’s untranslatable word”
When Nancy calls for these ‘styles’ to be against each other, we must take “against” not in terms of dialectics or as an agonistic contestation, but rather in the sense of up against one another, leaning on another, if you will. Nancy is a thinker of surfaces and of bodies rather than flesh. Matter is always singular or singularized it is signed, but not signified – to be signed is “sense as a singular coming” – the signature is always “a body, a res extensa in the sense of an extension—areality, tension, exposition—of its singularity [. . .] signature along the surface of the hide, the hide of being. Existence tans its own hide” (58).
Here again, we encounter the privilege of writing metaphors again: the signature of being. Nancy’s “description” (if we can call it that) is not an attempt to make any particular object vivid by choosing a signifier that conjures up a particular image of an object, but rather an attempt to describe how the “signature” of being operates/functions. The last line “existence tans its own hide” is a phrase that some may call “poetic,” a phrase that does not give us much “meaning,” or “clarity” but rather than ignoring it, I am pricked or touched by it. I linger over it and am hesitant to try and explicate it or interpret it in any definable manner or within any definable system. All matter—all existence-- in Nancy’s text, is a singularity in the sense of an idiom:
“But writing as an idiom is also the fact of the voices, silences, and gestures that do not appear as or in the work. The words, their concepts and images, provide for this praxis its relays of signification and communication. In the end, each one is a ‘new idiom’ in the process of being born, and the world is the common space of idiomatic significances” (163).
I want to focus briefly on the last clause of this quotation, “and the world is the common space of idiomatic significances” because this seems to compare the ‘existence’ of the world (another term that would need more clarification—existence rather than ‘subject’ or ‘object’ – the “there,” etc.) to a linguistic idiom. In other words, the “signatures” of matter are the idiomatic marks of being. Perhaps what OOO’s are so concerned about with this is that this does not take into account the other metaphors that we might use rather than “writing”? That by reducing “existences” (at least on the level of the word) to “signatures” we are trapped in a kind of correlationsim because even though we know that “writing” does not merely mean “text” or does not merely mean what I am doing right now, the term still maintains that common denotation. And perhaps this is what Ian Bogost means when he writes that “writing is dangerous for philosophy—and for serious scholarly practice in general. It’s not because writing breaks from its origins as Plato would have it, but because writing is only one form of being” (Bogost 90). Bogost goes on to cite Levi Bryant, who writes “The differences made by light bulbs, fiber optic cables, climate change, and cane toads will be invisible to you and you’ll be awash in text, believe that these things exhaust the really real” (90).
That writing is only one way to engage with being is correct. Even if we understand other objects as “writing” too (in the Derridean use of “writing” to mean trace, mark, etc.) we are still using writing as the dominant metaphor to describe our relation to being. I have a difficult time arguing against this claim and when Bogost writes (I cannot find the quote right now) that we should multiply correlations and multiply relations. Furthermore, for Bogost, we should think about “doing” philosophy in different ways other than writing texts—by making things. He calls this, drawing on Harman, “carpentry.” Bogost suggests that “perhaps a metaphysician ought to be someone who practices ontology” (91).
But by making things are we really “practicing” ontology? If this is so, then this is where Bogost’s ontology gets interesting because the ontology he sets up in the book is simple and flat (following Levi Bryant’s ‘flat ontology), but he calls it a tiny ontology:
“I call it tiny ontology precisely because it ought not demand a treatise or tome. I don’t mean that the domain of being is small—quite the opposite, as I’ll soon explain. Rather, the basic ontological apparatus needed to describe existence ought to be as compact and unornamented as possible” (21).
I will write more about Bogost later, as I’m at odds with his strategy of “ontography” and Latourist litanies, but for now I want to return to Nancy.
In The Sense of the World, Nancy claims that he, too, is concerned with praxis (slightly different than “practice”). But it seems to me like Nancy sees writing as praxis, which is different than “practice.” For example, Nancy (and, if I remember correctly, I think Blanchot has similar sentiments) says that “writing is thus political ‘in its essence’, that is, it is political to the extent that it is the tracing out of the essenceless of relations” (119). Nancy here is clearly stretching the “sense” of the political. But Nancy does not harbor some sort of delusion that by describing the world or writing the world we can therefor forget about acting on the world. He writes,
“Every discourse on the sense and significance of the world can be suspended, tipping over in insignificance, through a conflagration of misery or sovereignty, through a major technological mutation, through an unheard-of genetic manipulation, through a catastrophe inextricably mixing “nature” and “society,” as well as by an accident, a suffering, a joy, in my immediate surroundings [. . .] delivering my discourse up to the derision of ‘all talk, no action. But this in itself bears witness to sense” (79)
I’m not quite sure what to make of this passage, given that many would argue that his discourse is already offered up, by most people, to the derision of “all talk, no action.” Is this to say that this writing is to spur us on to action or to force a response in writing? If the former, could not the OOO’s argue that by dealing with “the great outdoors” or concrete examples they are able to philosophize in a better way that would lead to better action? If the latter, are we just swimming in an endless array of texts in obscure idioms that break the easy categories of “philosophy,” “theory,” “poetry,” or “literature”? Does that lead us toward anything? Does it lead us toward the world (as Nancy puts it)?
Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology
Bryant, Levi. http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/
“Hominid Ecology,” “Reflections on Style,”
Derrida, Jacques. Aporias
--“Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink (2) (“within such limits”)
Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Sense of the World