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.