Tag Archives: Levi-Strauss

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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Nature and its Discontents

Walden 2.0

Ben has some thoughts up on Zizek’s “Unbehangen in der Natur.” I was talking about this for Jockey Club on Friday so I thought I’d just make a couple of comments. Like Ben, I have some serious problems with Zizek’s piece as well as his conception of nature. For Ben this seems to be the imposition of a transcendental subjectivity but for me it is the concepts of alienation and rupture.

There is a clear connection between this piece and Freud’s “Unbehagen in der Kultur” (“Civilization and its Discontents”, uneasiness in culture). It is not the case that fro Freud most of us socialize normally but some people “don’t quite make it” and so must be normalized. It is rather that culture as such, in order to appear normal, ordered, etc., involves a whole series of distortions, manipulations, and pathologies. We are then “uneasy” in culture as such. One of the goals of Zizek’s work on ecology is to show this as true for nature as well, that we are uneasy, homesick, in nature itself.

This is the alienation of subjectivity, which is essential to Lacanianism. The subject only exists as alienated, through alienation. But is it the case that the human being is fundamentally alienated from nature-as-such? Part of Zizek’s structuralist narrative that he inherits from Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Rousseau, etc., is the dichotomy of nature and culture, that there was some sort of transcendental rupture in reality when human beings developed the capacity for language and suddenly we went from being apes to human beings. In this process we began instantly to supplant nature with culture, imposing ourselves on the chaos of nature, ordering it. Is this the case? Isn’t it rather that the human being, and human culture, developed slowly out of nature? Zizek wants us to believe that either there is a radical break with culture or we are New Age obscurantists who want to naively go “back to nature.” There is surely a middle ground to this ridiculous dichotomy, one that will say that culture is thoroughly “natural,” while still being (clearly) different, in the same way that both animals and minerals are natural but different.

Where does this supposed alienation from nature come from? Zizek doesn’t tell us. He wants us to think that nature is terrifying and horrible, and certainly it can be though isn’t always, that we are fundamentally afraid of it. Now, I didn’t grow up in an industrial centre or a big city; I grew up in the woods of south eastern New Brunswick, we had deer and wolves and bears in the area, sometimes in our backyard. As a child, I was never “alienated” from my surroundings, I was at home. I’m reminded of Erazim Kohak’s Embers and the Stars, one of the few works of phenomenology that I really truly like. Kohak abandons his life in Boston to live in the woods and essentially writes a phenomenology of nature. He doesn’t feel alienated either, but at home in the wilderness. Of course, he isn’t living in a cave or anything, he builds a cabin, but still. He lives with the rhythms of nature, he feels a kinship to a family of porcupines who live down river. Nature is not terrifying.

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