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.