Monthly Archives: December 2010

Notes on Structuralism

Anxiety

– Structuralism is no longer limited to a linguistic theory or even a general theory of language, as is often supposed. Rather, it has become a general metaphysical system.

– Structuralist linguistics, which is based on the idea of fundamental dichotomies or oppositions, was combined with Kantianism and Neo-Kantianism for form a metaphysics based on two central principles: 1. anthropocentrism, and 2. the centrality of trauma.

– Recent thinkers to consider: Saussure, Natorp, Cassirer, Rickert, Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Badiou, Žižek.

– Historical thinkers adopted by this tradition: Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel.

– At its most basic, structuralism is a system which says that reality is inherently antagonistic, and that the human being must shield itself from the trauma of the Real. This is done through the construction of meaning.

– See for instance Cassirer on the construction of symbolic meaning, Lévi-Strauss on culture and Lacan on the Symbolic.

– Structuralism is a philosophy obsessed with order. To psychoanalyze structuralism is to stumble upon theoretical OCD; the structuralist fears any sign or semblance of chaos, of disorder, of the Real. Yet while they consciously desire to keep out the creeping chaos outside of the Symbolic Order, they unconsciously rely on its creativity, productivity and energy. More than this however, such thinkers rely on the opposition of order and chaos, presupposing that the latter has existence-for-itself, while the latter is but a network dependent on the mutual opposition of its myriad members.

– Meaning is only seen then as a human function, serving essentially therapeutic purposes. Both Cassirer and Rickert assert that meaning and value are distanced from things like life and are purely rational. This is in opposition to Dilthey, Nietzsche, Bergson and Uexküll who insist that meaning is deeper than humanity and extends to all life. We should follow Peirce, Deleuze and Serres who go even further than this and insist that meaning is a constitutive part of existence, that all things structure reality in meaningful ways.

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The Limits of ‘Correlationism’

The Sea of Ice

Graham mentioned that he liked my distinction between structuralism (read broadly) and other forms of correlationism. I’ve felt, probably since first reading After Finitude, that Meillassoux’s categories tell a very small story and that that story should be broadened to include new categories or designators. In some ways this has meant broadening ‘correlationism’ but it also means looking at how contemporary thinkers designate their contemporaries. Graham’s work for instance is very good on this, as he lays out clearly why his position is different from materialism (of many types), the two forms of correlationism, empiricism, occasionalism, relationism, etc, etc. He writes a story with many characters (17 apparently, if Treatise on Objects will contain his own system against 16 others), which I really appreciate. I suppose my own efforts stem from this desire to tell a big story, to have many characters rather than a strict argument against one single position. In my paper in Claremont for instance, there were several such systems at work, with some overlap: eliminative materialism, eliminative idealism, weak and strong correlationism, speculative materialism, OOO, transcendental realism, and neo-vitalism. The two forms of eliminativism could perhaps (in the case of eliminative idealism at least) be subsumed under the heading of correlationism, as I mentioned yesterday of structuralism.

As for structuralism as a variety of idealism, I don’t think this is quite right. I don’t know if the category ‘idealism’ makes sense anymore after we have chosen to adopt ‘correlationism.’ As Graham has said before, initially Meillassoux thought himself to be arguing against idealism, but he realized that there were important differences between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ forms of correlationism, both of which would be, under more classical terminology, ‘idealist’ in the sense of being anti-realist. But the important difference has to do with things-in-themselves, and not simply the principle of correlation. Since structuralism as I have defined it maintains the possibility of novelty, of things being other than what they are, and of things existing outside of thought (however traumatic this transition from unthought to thought may be), they are not really classifiable under Meillassoux’s schema. Nor are they classically idealist. If we take perhaps the two extreme forms of idealism to be those of, on the one hand, Berkeley, and on the other, Fichte, then this becomes clear. For Berkeley, there are no things in themselves because everything is always being perceived by God. So while we could say he is an idealist in the sense of all things being mental, he is also an anti-realist in the sense that nothing exists apart from being perceived. For Fichte, we have the relation of Subject and Object boiling down to the fact that the Object is always created by the Subject as a form of opposition. The Object only has being from the Subject, who creates it in order to strive against it (in the form of absolute freedom and the striving for Justice). He is therefore both an idealist (the Object is created entirely by the mind of the Transcendental Subject) and an anti-realist (the Object has no reality apart from this relation to human mind). There also really are no things-in-themselves for Fichte for this reason, as the Object is always excluded from Subjectivity in order to be further integrated and included. So both extreme examples of idealism share the fact that they are strong correlationists (there are no things-in-themselves) as well as the fact that they are anti-realist (all things are reducible to mental processes or Mind generally).

Structuralism, which I should point out I am entirely against, maintains along with the weak correlationist that there are things-in-themselves, but claims we not only imagine them as a possibility, we encounter them as trauma. We also do not cause them to exist, as they have some disorganized being outside of thought, existing whether we like it or not. So the structuralist is neither a correlationist in the weak or strong sense (things-in-themselves actually do exist and we know them in some traumatic way), nor are they a strict anti-realist (Nature exists in opposition to Culture, even if it is a swirling tumult of chaos).

I have also proposed a lineage of “Transcendental Realism” in both my Claremont talk as well as another essay, where I maintain that there is a lineage after Kant that takes Kantianism (and critical philosophy generally) seriously, while also maintaining that there is more to things than our ideas of things. I locate this tradition with the rejection of Fichte by his star students, Schelling and Novalis, and see it as the ground of Romantic philosophy broadly understood to include Schopenhauer, Fechner, Nietzsche, von Hartmann, etc. It’s also a tradition which takes Spinoza very seriously, as well as aesthetics and mysticism. This is because they represent a group that knew that the logical consequence of Enlightenment thought was the reduction of the real to the rational and that this isn’t the case. They accept that there are things-in-themselves and that we have some vague knowledge of them through non-cognitive means, like sensation, imagination, intuition, etc. This is precisely the critique of Kant that Schopenhauer makes, that we actually know something of the in-itself because we are able to grasp the in-itself in us intuitively. They are also realists in the sense that things exist prior to human thought and will exist after we are gone. This is because they accept the metaphysical unconscious, that conscious perception not only is not the ground of reality, but is really only a very small part of the cosmos.

I think this gives some idea, at least in part, of the limitations of ‘correlationism’ as a category. While it is useful and telling of certain figures, it is in no way the whole story. We simply need to add more characters to the story of contemporary philosophy.

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OOO, Language, Activity

Semiotics

Ben does a nice job of pulling together the relevant material on the recent debates, so if you’re not up on the haps already, go here and read what he has to say, along with what he links to.

There are certainly many things we could talk about in this exchange, but only a couple I want to draw on now: Language and Activity.

It seems the term “Linguistic Turn” is problematic in this debate. Graham and Levi will both say that the Linguistic Turn was a problem for philosophy and something that contemporary philosophy still struggles to overcome. What people concerned with semiotics (like Adrian) seem to hear from this is that “language is a problem, so let’s not worry about it.” This simply confuses this further. I’m currently writing about the metaphysics of language, really on inhuman communication. Not all language is a problem; there is a particular kind of philosophy of language that seems to dominate continental thought which is problematic for any form of realism, which I have called generally “structuralism.” More precisely, there is a founding metaphysical structure in all philosophies which I deem structuralist: the incompatibility of Nature and Culture, or, the rift between world and human.

Ultimately, this is a mutated form of correlationism founded on a metaphysics that says Language is a human trait equated with Rationality that has the power to structure and make sense of the unstructured non-sense of the inhuman world. Outside of culture (read broadly as the cohesive structure of signs human beings create as a womb) there is only chaos. I say it’s mutated correlationism because it actually stands against both weak and strong correlationism. Weak correlationism says there could be things-in-themselves, but we couldn’t ever know them anyway (we might imagine them, or like Meillassoux, maintains that the things-in-themselves represent the possibility for things to be other than what they are), while the strong correlationist maintains that there are no things-in-themselves because nothing can exist outside of thought (if you think a thing outside of thought, you bring it into thought by thinking it). The structuralist holds a different position: there are things-in-themselves, that is, there exist things outside of thought/rationality/language/culture, but they exist as traumatic pseudo-entities, things which break our womb of culture/etc and which must be dealt with. This is the underlying metaphysics of Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Badiou and Zizek (and possibly Heidegger and Derrida, but we’ll leave them alone for now). I talk about this specific structure in Lacan and Zizek in a forthcoming essay for the International Journal of Zizek Studies. (Badiou appears prominently in the essay as well, though after reading Logics of Worlds this past Fall, I’m not sure if he can be read entirely in this way anymore. He seems to be focusing more on the structural aspect rather than the traumatic. I certainly think this is the structure at work in Being and Event though.)

This is the “Linguistic Turn” that poses a problem for contemporary realism, those thinkers which reduce everything to language (what I called in my Claremont talk, following Levi, “eliminative idealists” which also includes social constructivists). So in my current essay, I can talk about Deleuze and Serres and it isn’t a problem, Jim Bradley can present a robust realism based in Peirce, also not a problem, etc.

Speaking of Jim, this brings me to my second point: Activity. Ben mentions briefly in the above-linked post that “OOO is Newtonian.” I wish he would elaborate on this because this is a central part of my reading of Graham’s work. Indeed, it’s what I criticize in “To Exist is to Change.” Something that Jim mentioned in his talk at Claremont (that unfortunately didn’t make it into the wonderful live blog) was a little comment about my work. One of his criteria for truly “speculative” philosophy is a strong principle of activity, and he mentioned that my work is an attempt to push OOO in this direction, but that it otherwise isn’t there. (This is also drawing exclusively from Graham’s work, since neither he nor I have read The Democracy of Objects yet. I’m sort of assuming based on recent and past comments that this is something Levi is attempting to move towards as well.) This is something I’m working more and more on, having begun in “To Exist is to Change,” continued in my Claremont paper “The Inner Life of Objects” and am pursuing in a couple of forthcoming essays.

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Reminder: Speculations Vol. II CFP

insects

The deadline approaches!

Speculations, a journal for speculative realist thought, invites submissions for its second issue. Given the intrinsically open and unconstrained nature of the arena for speculative thought which Speculations aims at embodying—and in view of the favorable reception of the inaugural issue—our aim is to broaden the range and ambition of the Journal. In accordance with speculative realism’s mandate to open philosophy to the richness of reality, we particularly encourage scholars to engage with speculative realism from disciplinary perspectives beyond philosophy. We therefore welcome papers discussing speculative realism’s renewed philosophical concern with the non-human world from a wide array of disciplines.

Speculations is an open-access and peer-reviewed journal that hopes to provide a forum for the exploration of speculative realism and ‘post-continental’ philosophy. Our aim is to facilitate discussion about ongoing developments within and around speculative realism. We accept short position papers, full length articles and book reviews.

Potential authors should make sure to go through the ‘Submission Checklist’ before submitting. Articles should be no longer than 8,000 words and follow the Chicago Manual of Style (http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html).

The deadline for submission is the 8th of January 2011.

Submissions can be sent to speculationsjournal@gmail.com

The Editors:

Paul J. Ennis
Michael Austin
Fabio Gironi
Thomas Gokey

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James Bradley on Peirce, Semiotics and Speculative Philosophy

I’m actually just packing to head home, but thought I’d write this quickly. I know there’s been some interest in Jim’s work following Graham’s excellent live blogging of the Claremont conference (here and here, for instance). I just wanted to point out that he recently contributed to Analecta Hermeneutica, providing a piece that outlines clearly his own “speculative Peirce,” which I know Graham mentioned as interesting and something he’d never heard before (and people have emailed me asking about this as well). So this essay covers some of the same ground as that given in Claremont, just not in conversation with Meillassoux and Harman. The piece can be found here.

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Claremont

So as Graham blogged yesterday, I am in Claremont for the Metaphysics and Things conference, put on by the Whitehead Research Project. It’s been a great conference and I’m really glad it gave me the opportunity to meet Graham, Levi, Ian and Jeff in person. It’s also sort of weird to meet people here who I don’t know but who know my blog and have even read and enjoyed my essay in Speculations I! (Sidenote: when we were first introducing ourselves to each other each other in the lobby, Donna Haraway was very interested in the way blogs are helping academics subvert the standard publishing practices/system. I couldn’t agree more.)

I gave my paper, “The Inner Lives of Objects: Speculative Metaphysics for the 21st Century,” yesterday afternoon and I guess it went well. There were only a couple of questions (from Graham and then Jim, who is now my advisor as well as friend and department head) so I was worried initially as to what that meant. Both Roland Faber (the head honcho ’round these parts) and Nathan Brown had questions for me afterwards, and a couple of students did as well. Roland’s struck close to home since it’s an issue I’m still working through. Essentially, I claim that Schopenhauer is inconsistent with his use of ‘Will’ such that we should read it as multiple in the form of direction. That is to say, there is only one Will but it moves two different ways (inside and outside or more precisely, there is an expansive will [will to live or will to exist] and a contractive will [will to annihilation]). Roland disagrees and thinks there is only the destructive Will. It’s certainly a debate worth having. A big part of the problem here, as was raised by Graham question about linking Schelling and Schopenhauer, is that Schopenhauer is very particular to not ally himself with anyone too seriously and so his context gets thrown out and he’s treated as an idiosyncratic, individual thinker. His critique of Kant for instance is fairly devastating; very little of the actual Kantian system remains once he’s done with it. The problem though is that he has clear ties to many thinkers. As I mentioned, he is clearly indebted to Schelling (and I believe attended several of his seminars), and besides this there is the influence of the Schellingian school of dynamic psychiatry or Romantic psychology which was influential on Schopenhauer’s thought (he worked in a mad house, after all).

In any case, people seem genuinely interested in what I’m working on, which is good to know because it doesn’t really fit what anyone else is doing right now so it’s easy to worry I’m off my rocker or something. Levi chastised me at dinner a couple nights ago for not blogging anymore, so I’m going to try to keep it up once I get back to Newfoundland.

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