Friday 4 December 2009

re: Hegemonies

Response to:

I'm really glad you posted this post because, having been a reader for a few weeks now, I think it really clarifies where I would agree and disagree with your position – and as luck would have it, it is precisely the sort of disagreement I have with just about everyone at the moment (on both/all sides of the argument), philosophically I mean.

Basically, as I understand it, you are arguing against the position (let us, for argument's sake call it 'postie-ism') that, allegedly, reduces everything to 'textuality' – that is, says that language is the be all and end all; language is the ‘really real’; all that materiality is just a product of discourse, of ideas. This is the typical critique of postie positions and it is one a great deal of their writings reinforce by, I would wholeheartedly agree, emanating from cultural studies and literature departments that would dearly love to see the whole world as one giant intertext and adopt the ‘sacred texts’ (/’sacred cows’) of postie-ism as writ (that is to say, unreflexively and uncritically). However, I believe that it is an over-simplistic and, if not 'incorrect', then certainly disagreeable characterisation.

I think a good place to explain what I mean is Derrida's most (mis)quoted phrase "il n'y a pas de hors-texte", usually translated into English as "there is nothing outside the text". From this sentence alone one would surely draw the conclusion that you have – that everything is to be reduced to textuality; that textuality is 'the really real'. However, my Francophone friends inform me that this is a bad translation that loses much of the sense of the original. The phrase is often translated, conversely, as "there is no outside-the-text". At first glance this may appear to say basically the same thing. I believe that this is a big mistake.

The clearest way I can articulate this point (in my own mind at least) is through William James. In his epic work 'Psychology' James describes a hypothetical baby's perception of the world as "one great blooming, buzzing confusion" – in other words, at that stage in a baby's physical and cultural development it cannot perceive anything of what is around it as we would understand it. It must be just flashes of colours and sounds and textures and abstract patterns with no way of assembling the stimuli into any kind of coherent 'reality'. Of course, we can never know how a baby 'sees' the world; it is pure speculation – but this is allowed in these parts, isn't it?...

Taking this as a thought experiment let us suppose (with every sci-fi series ever – see 'Dollhouse' for a good recent example) that one were to take a fully formed adult and wipe away all trace of enculturation and make them a tabula rasa (of course this is an impossible Cartesian manoeuvre, epigenetics alone shows biology and culture to be irreversibly interwoven, but lets just pretend). Would this person then not be like James's baby? Would ‘reality’ then not be "one great blooming, buzzing confusion"? Just textures and colours with no way of understanding it -- effectively no way of establishing a 'self' or a 'reality' at all? It is not that the external world no longer exists – I can still see this poor brain-washed person; I can still make out his form, his limbs, the colour of his hair, etc. – it is that, from this particular, ‘brain-washed’ subject position no knowledge of the world can ever be said to properly exist; ‘reality’ is thus only my ‘property’, not his. This is an extreme thought experiment but it, I believe, holds for less extreme examples too. To put it simply, language is always already ‘there’ (and, by consequence, ‘there’ is always already ‘here’).

All of which is a longwinded way of saying that we can know nothing of anything without enculturation. Of course this was probably never in doubt – who could deny this?

Further, then, it is my contention that the postie attitude towards language follows much this same formula – it is not that language is the totality; language simply cannot be dispensed with. My favourite way of putting this is that it is ‘necessary but insufficient’ (as is so much in life).

Of course this brings to the foreground the most important issue. The above discussion to which I am responding fails to say what 'language' is. Of course this seems like common sense. This is language. And so is this. And this. Yet where do we stop? Is body language language? Is emotion language? Is volition (in the psychological sense)?

It would be an extraordinarily 'thick' definition of language to include all of the above. And this is perhaps where I can pull the rabbit out of the hat and (finally) make my point: the 'text' in Derrida's aphorism is not meant to be taken literally, or at least not as literally as it almost universally has been (by both those faithful and hostile). To say that "there is no outside-the-text" does not mean, therefore, that there is nothing besides language (language defined in any sensible way). It means, I believe, something akin to James's baby: that we can never, ever subtract language from our experiences; that without language ‘reality’ is nothing and therefore language must always have an effect on our perceptions of, well, everything. That language is ‘necessary but insufficient’. Of course we need bodies and those bodies need food and water – this is a given; why would anyone doubt this? The question is whether any of this means anything – indeed, whether any of this can even be comprehended on even the most basic level -- without langauge (or, as it should be clear by now, I would prefer to say 'enculturation' as the 'thick' definition encompassing affect, volition, etc.) Therefore, whether or not objects possess ‘transigent’ and ‘intransigent’ qualities, language can never be legitimately bracketed or set to one side.

From this position, with language being an ever present necessity – the only means by which we can think and certainly the only means by which we can communicate our thoughts, however imperfectly – one must have recourse to transcendental reason to ascertain the ‘really real’. One must somehow pierce this shield of language to get to what is outside of it and then represent this in some clear manner. One must entertain the transcendent; that is, provide a spectacle to cite it, to bring it forth, to make present, in some form, this sublime experience.

In other words, language must possess some quality of Reason by which utterances may be objectively distinguished in terms of truth or [insert your value distinction here]. That’s a whole other story. I’m not going to bore anyone with that now, least of all myself.

A far more coherent and profound description of what I’m trying to say here is offered by Ernesto Laclau in conversation with Roy Bhaskar here:

Here Laclau shows why what I am calling postie-ism (he calls it discourse theory) is not idealist – it is explicitly opposed to idealism. I don’t think Bhaskar really ‘gets it’ but its an interesting exchange.

While I would agree that a great deal of the writings on this postie-ism betray a certain idealism implicitly, if not explicitly, this is because, those that do…well…aren’t very good.

If this is the version of postie-ism that you have left behind recently, Levi, I can see why you did so; its fairly empty of merit as a philosophy goes. Unfortunately I really don’t recognise it; at least not in the major texts. In the multitude of followers, yes, sadly, but this is not an indictment of the whole philosophy.

For what (little) its worth, I see Derrida, despite his status as the archetypical postie-ist poster-boy, as a thinker who does not deny things. He is best read in his deeply ethical, wholly political sense of maintaining the total contingency of discourse and everything else. Everything is ‘to come’. Everything is promised, nothing is wholly delivered and this is fine. All it means is that we can’t take anything for granted and we shouldn’t ever accept being told ‘that’s the way it is’ (Isn’t this the Socratic ideal? Isn’t this why those who teach philosophy teach philosophy?).

The world was no less ‘real’ the day after he published Of Grammatology. The sun was as warm, food tasted the same. He just demonstrated that it needn’t mean the same things all the time. I don’t even see him as that much of a skeptic. If one is to read his interviews he would say much the same (of course its impossible to know if at any moment he is being honest or contrary, but still, its there as a plausible interpretation).

Having said all of that (and golly-gosh, this comment has reached, dare I say it, Levi-esque proportions) I am completely dissatisfied with the prevailing postie-ist positions too. My own personal intellectual project(/hell) is to produce an historical methodology that is consistent theoretically, ethically and politically with deconstruction but notes that it is, in itself, insufficient (there is that phrase again ‘necessary but insufficient’). This is not new. Gayatri Spivak, for one, says that ‘deconstruction cannot found any political project’ (I’m paraphrasing) – deconstruction is therefore, on its own, politically insufficient. Judith Butler (paraphrasing again) says that ‘deconstruction is not a necessary part of any political project’ – it may, therefore, be excluded. It is insufficient and non-necessary; if it is part of a project it cannot exist alone and it need not be a part at all. What ‘idealist’ could maintain this position? Read Butler’s lectures on Spinoza (‘Giving an Account of Oneself’) to see why the idealist label simply doesn’t fit in any way towards (the more brilliantly argued) postie-ist writings; she argues against the opacity of self-knowledge, this refuting any charge of ‘idealism’ (an idealist must presume autonomy and authority over one’s self-perceptions, something which is alleged in Levi’s post above).

Anyhoo, I’ll stop writing now, for the main reason that in the post this morning, I received a fresh, new copy of Meillassoux’s ‘After Finitude’. Also there’s a good chance this will all seem regrettably ignorant to me one day. I hope, soon, to be able to comment on these issues from a position of only partial ignorance rather than total.

Until that halcyon day, a caveat must be added, for my own self-protection:

Of course, I could be wrong.