Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Meaning, Being, and Event (E)

In recently rereading the introduction to Being and Time, and having recently read Kevin J. Porter's Meaning, Language, and Time: Toward a Consequential Philosophy of Discourse, I was struck by how both arguments, although about radically different subjects, seemed to be discussing the same thing – meaning. For Heidegger, his guiding question – the inquiry into what is Being – is not simply a question of pure existence, but one with purpose. Therefore, he finds that “Inquiry, as a kind of seeking, must be guided beforehand by what is sought. So the meaning of Being must already be available to us in some way” (25). In other words, for Heidegger, the question of Being is not only about objects, something Graham Harman makes clear (in his book, Tool-Being, which I have begun to read), but is ultimately a question of meaning - “the meaning of Being”. Objects are a priori to meaning, true. But what can be said of them besides, “they exist.” We cannot even say “they are there” without already insinuating that they occupy a particular space (meaning), mass (meaning), time (meaning) and perhaps purpose – for they exist “there” and not “here” - (meaning). But Heidegger's mistake, easily seen above, is that there is, with the object, an a priori meaning, as well. For him, meaning is in objects, waiting to be discovered, uncovered, undisclosed, made present-at-hand. Objects, therefore, contain something that requires investigation, something more than pure existence – a stance I don't necessarily share. For if an object had meaning a priori, this would mean two things: 1) that eventually we (or other, non-human beings) would become aware of, understand, or know this meaning, and 2) that every object has with it an other way of Being – rather than pure existence. I find both of these points to be erroneous.

Working from a study of rhetoric, Porter discusses the meaning of an utterance (a string of words, “phrases, clauses, sentences”, or a text, for “one does not ever simply encounter a noun” much like one never simply encounters a single object in a vacuum (11)) as a consequence. He states that under his philosophy of “meaning consequentialism,” one can only make “the assumption that the meaning of an utterance or text is the consequences that it propagates” (12). Or, to put this another way, when we discuss a meaning of an utterance we are merely discussing the consequences of that utterance. Every utterance, therefore, has multiple meanings, multiple consequences, both at times agreeing with each other and contradictory to each other. Consequences, as meanings, exist stretched out over time so that Meaning (with a capital M) is only a grouping of every consequence ever made over time, including this consequence. Or, as Porter states it:

We may think of the Meaning of an utterance as the total set of all of its actual consequences; but this Meaning cannot be conceptualized because (a) the total set of all actual consequences is inherently open-ended, (b) the Meaning of each consequence itself is open-ended, (c) the total set of all actual consequences does not form an amalgamated consequence that can be cognized, and (d) the very act of compiling a complete list of consequences for the expressed purpose of compiling a complete list would itself produce at least one more consequence of the targeted utterance, ad infinitum. (53-4)

Those of you familiar with set theory will automatically see Porter's configuration of Meaning as the paradox of "the set of all sets" – that a set of all sets would have to include itself, an impossibility for Russell and na├»ve set theory. Therefore, any Meaning of an object or utterance would be impossible to find, but more importantly, what Porter points to is that Meaning is always external - something outside of structure. The only thing internal to an object is pure existence – the is. Once an object's Being has more to say about it than that it is, the object becomes meaningful to something else, and therefore becomes consequential.

It is no surprise, then, that we find Porter stating early on that:

To my mind, the claim that a text is meaningful in itself (i.e., that it has an intrinsic or objective meaning) is akin to the claim that the sun intrinsically exerts a gravitational pull. An intrinsically meaningful utterance or text, if one existed, could not help but be meaningful in the same way that the sun cannot help but be gravitationally attractive. But meaning does not operate in this way, for utterances and texts clearly do not consistently produce a certain consequence or uniform set of consequences. (13)

For an intrinsic meaning, a meaning of Being that Heidegger so readily assumed existed a priori, would not say much other than “I exist”. Any other meaning that we might try to pull out of the object is a pulling external to the object – a pulling of the object and not from it.

In my view, then, the object exists. It might exist in a certain structure, with a certain way or state of Being, but ultimately all that the object states for itself, again and again, is that “I exist”. So, in what I've been attempting to show in previous posts is how an object restates its pure existence by allowing itself to be uncovered, un-disclosed, or encountered. When I discuss element (C) I am merely explaining that any encounter with an object (whether by a human object or a non-human object) is an encounter with this pure existence and an inquiry into meaning. The thing itself (A) is not a mysterious, complicated, unknown entity. It is, rather, the object's pure existence, its is. Yet, any encounter directly related to it, encounter (B), produces something external to the object – event (E), a consequence, or a meaning. And it is this meaning, this event (E) that becomes the thrust of the object. It is what we discuss when we discuss the object as something, for the object itself only is in its pure existence. Like Porter, I believe that meaning (or our event (E)) is propagated over time, stretched over encounters, encounters (B), that all attempt to understand the object outside of its pure existence.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Few Notes on Element (C)

1. Every encounter or event (B) must also contain an available element (C).

2. Element (C) always comes from the unknown realm.

3. Every element (C) must pass into the known realm by way of the thing itself (A) and in doing so becomes a carrier of the thing itself (A).

4. Every element (C) has the availability to be uncovered by another object in its encounter (B); however, if this availability becomes apparent – i.e., the element (C) presents itself – it is always and only by way of an accident or misunderstanding.

5. Not every element (C) of an encounter (B) is uncovered, so that, “If (C) then (B), but not if (B) then (C).” Any un-discovered element (C) remains available for later uncovering through a different encounter (B).

6. Element (C) exists regardless of its uncovering; however, once element (C) is uncovered it becomes part of the object – i.e., because of its passing through the thing itself (A), any element (C) that is uncovered is recognized as being part of the entire object. This is why it is important that the thing itself (A) requires all elements (C) to pass through it. And this is why we can say that for example iron’s availability to rust is both an availability of the iron-itself (A) and a previously unknown element (C). What this means is that once uncovered, the element (C) becomes an ontological necessity for the object as well as an epistemological characteristic. Because of element (C)’s bit of the thing itself, an uncovering of element (C) is also an uncovering of the object’s being – thus a part of ontology.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Encounters and Uncanny Elements

In a recent (and strikingly poetic) post, Larval Subjects describes the wonder at finding a spot of mud that has been dried and cracked as a result of the heat of the sun. He remarks, “The idea, then, would be that substances reveal themselves, disclose themselves, in their interactions with one another. One substance draws something out from another substance, a new quality, a new arrangement, new properties.”

So, I want to discuss the second part of my object-cone by describing just this, the way objects reveal themselves. In a way, this is building upon our discussion of the thing itself, but more importantly we may now bring in a discussion on how objects interact with other objects, how subjects interact with objects, and how subjects interact with other subjects. Let’s first look at a new diagram:

As you can see, our original diagram has been left unchanged, but now we’ve added three new aspects, each of which will be discussed in what follows – they are, B (an event that relates directly to the thing itself or A), C (an element that passes from one realm to the other, in this case from the unknown realm to the known), and E (an event that does not relate to A).

When any thing interacts with any other thing we have a sort of meeting not just of substances but of entities with individual existences or being. As such these types of meetings are not simply a bumping of substances, nor are they merely a passing of information. Instead, when we encounter another object, as well as when other objects encounter us (and each other) there exists a type of exchange, much like a dialogue. By dialogue, I wish only to describe this type of meeting as a back and forth of availabilities. In other words, when I encounter say a rubber ball, I immediately encounter the ball’s texture, color, weight, circumference, etc. And, the ball encounters me in just as immediate of a way, through the pressure I exert on it, the oils in my skin, etc. Each encounter (B) is a sharing that takes place regardless of whether or not the other object is aware of it, much like Larval’s encounter with the dry mud. But, it is important to note that each encounter (B) always takes place in the realm of the known. We experience things (and things experience us) in certain ways, ways in which we can grasp understandingly. Therefore, I can know the color of the ball, it is familiar to me if I come upon it again, just like I can anticipate the weight of it since I have previously held it. The dialogue between objects, since it happens in the realm of the known, allows each object to perceive, apprehend, and even anticipate the other object.

Yet, with each encounter (B) there is also a slight encounter with an element from the unknown realm – element (C). In other words, each B is contains a C. But, what is this mysterious element? Well, the answer is quite simply, complex. It is a moment of un-canniness and contingency. Since the element (C) originates in the realm of the unknown and passes into the known realm, the only way it can do so is by way of the thing itself (A). By passing through (A), the element (C) takes on, or is changed by the thing itself in such a way that this change, this difference, is also experienced alongside the object in an encounter (B). However, this element (C) is never experienced outright, or by purpose. Instead it shows itself by accident, through a misunderstanding on the part of the object encountering it. So, for example, when Larval picks up the dry mud shapes and wishes to put them together as if they were puzzle pieces, he anticipates them being like other “solid” shapes he has encountered before – a simple misunderstanding – but when the mud shapes break, Larval instead encounters the element (C) of the unknown realm. In a sense, he realizes that the shape is something else – other – that it was hiding a part of itself (an unknown, unfamiliar, or uncanny) part that would never have shown itself if he hadn’t interacted with it. The mud is never there, present-at-hand or for-Larval, but instead is itself, simply unbeknownst to him. We, as other objects, encounter the mud always in the realm of the known. Mud behaves, then, as we expect it to behave until it does not. When the mud breaks, we get a glimpse at the possibility of the mud’s non-existence, or of its contingency and un-canniness. We understand that the mud could very well just as not be there (Un-Dasein) as well as be there (Dasein).

As for the last point on our diagram, (E) or the event that does not relate to A, all that needs to be said of it, at this point, is that this event takes into account the fact that there are other entities that play into the scenario of this object’s being or existence that do not directly come into contact with the object. An example of such an event could be seen as the writing of this post, which although a writing about the mud experienced by Larval Subjects, it has no direct encounter with the object in discussion - i.e. the mud. Event (E) as it exists in the diagram, then, is a concept of the object - in this case, my concept of the mud described by Larval Subjects. I can discuss the mud, describe the mud, and talk theoretically about the mud; however, since I had no direct encounter with the mud, these events never reach the point that (B) does - that is a point where element (C) appears.

Yet, I wish to make another point clear (a point that needs further clarification in another post) event (E) is an integral part to the object even though it may seem outside of the object proper, simply because of the aforementioned duty it holds – that it is through the event (E) that the object comes to exist as something other than material object. This is why, if drawn elsewhere event (E) should always be drawn as if it were just outside the known realm.

Hopefully, now that our object is completely drawn, we can begin to explore its eccentricities as they come into light.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Thing Itself

In his article, “The Thing Itself,” Giorgio Agamben contends that the thing itself found in Plato’s seventh letter is something outside of language but deeply reliant upon its existence in language – or in his terms, the thing itself is a “non-linguistic”. He argues that “the thing itself is not a thing – it is the very sayability, the very opening which is in question in language, which is language, and which in language we constantly presuppose and forget, perhaps because the thing itself is, in its intimacy, nothing more than forgetfulness and self-abandonment” (25). Or, to put it another way, the thing itself – the object of language but unsayable by language – is an opening, a gateway through which an object becomes both known and forgotten. For Agamben, language is weak in its discussion of the thing itself, that morsel of the object that is unknown to the speaking subject. For language consistently attempts to say that which cannot be said – but which, Agamben finds, can only be in language. Put another way, the thing itself is both of language and outside of language.

But what if we open up this idea a bit? What happens if we say that instead of language holding this primary position of what can be known or unknown, any interaction with an object is a signifying moment, a linguistic event, as it were? For surely we can argue that any encounter with an object shapes both subject and object – perhaps even to the point where the line between subject and object become blurred, where object in its interaction with subject becomes subject and vice versa. By doing this – by lessening the importance of subject over object, and object over subject – we begin to talk about a single entity - that entity which both subject and object share - the thing itself. And as Agamben pointed out, this thing itself is neither sayable nor unsayable, but is instead both of them – it is the possibility of being said, or sayability.

We can picture the thing itself as existing in the middle, between both what is known, sayable, or familiar and what is unknown, unsayable, or unfamiliar. However, this mid-point is also a crossroads of sorts, a place where the two spheres of the thing come together and exist in each other. So that initially, if seen in this way, an object exists in a light-cone-like shape with the thing itself at its middle, connecting the two realms – the known and the unknown:

Here we begin to see how the object or thing is split, between the realm of the known and unknown (more of which will be discussed in later posts), but how at the heart of it is the thing itself. Figured here, the thing itself can be both everything and nothing, since it is at times the place where the two realms collide but it also exists as the point from which both realms begin. Perhaps, in a later post, we might see how distinct the thing itself is from Alain Badiou's conception of the null set, or void.

It should be mentioned here that what we call the unknown, unfamiliar, or uncanny realm is only one part of our term, un-canny. For, if we are to accept the un-canny as containing both it and its opposite (both the canny and uncanny) we must not conflate the two terms. The uncanny realm as shown in the above diagram is not a mixture of both terms - but instead is the realm of that which we "un" know, that of which is "un" familiar and "un" canny. It can be said, then that the emphasis in this realm is placed on the "un", for this is simply one side of the overall object, just as the known, familiar, or canny realm is the other.

The thing itself, though, exists at the mid-point, consiting of both realms. So it is here that we can begin to see how the thing itself is truly un-canny. For it is here that the thing itself can be read as both known and unknown, familiar and unfamiliar, canny and uncanny. If we are to open up Agamben’s figuration of the thing itself as simply sayability – as possiblitiy, or perhaps contingency – then, it must also be un-canny.

Contingency and the Un-canny

In After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Quentin Meillassoux argues against the predominant philosophical view of correlationism. For Meillassoux, the correlationist claims that there is no access to the in-itself of an object but only of the for-us. In other words, for the correlationist, we can understand the hammer as a hammer for-us (what it does, how it looks, its weight, height, and color, etc.) but we can never know the hammer in-itself, or what makes the hammer a hammer – i.e., its hammer-ness.

However, Meillassoux contends that in order to counter this perspective, we must demonstrate “that the capacity-to-be-other of everything is the absolute presupposed by the [correlationist] circle itself, then we will have succeeded in demonstrating that one cannot de-absolutize contingency without incurring the self-destruction of the circle – which is another way of saying that contingency will turn out to have been immunized against the operation whereby correlationism relativizes the in-itself to the for-us” (54-5). By this, Meillassoux is calling for a form of thinking that relies heavily upon the contingency of the object – put simply, whatever is could not be, and whatever is not could be. This type of contingency, which Meillassoux names facticity, is both thinkable (as in I can think about my own death) and unthinkable (but I am not dead, so I don’t know death). Contingency can thus be a way of talking about the known and unknown existing at the same time and in one thought. For, as Meillassoux points out, this contingency is the only absolute – the only thing not contingent.

Therefore, we can understand how close the two terms, contingent and un-canny come. For on the one hand the contingent is that which allows us to think a thing’s existence and non-existence at the same time. And on the other hand we have the un-canny as that which allows us to think the knowable and unknowable at the same time. Perhaps, then the difference is one of ontology and epistemology. For, now, given both, we can talk about the being of things as well as how we know things. Perhaps, now, with both terms we can ask the question that Heidegger asked, “What is a Thing?” but perhaps now, we can understand both what a thing is and how we know it as such - the thing itself.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Uncanny: The Return of a Definition

In Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay, “Das Unheimliche,” he describes the un-canny (Unheimliche) as that which was to remain hidden but has come to light. For Freud, this definition allowed him to talk about the uneasy feeling one gets when a repressed memory (usually related to childhood) returns to the conscious mind. His interpretation of the un-canny, not surprisingly, revolves around a fear of castration. Instead of this definition, a definition that we shouldn’t entirely do away with or repress, we might fare better in our understanding of just how wide of a concept the un-canny is if we re-examine the un-canny as it relates to Being. And what better way to do just this than by bringing back a definition of the un-canny that has seemingly been repressed from our memories.

Initially, Freud finds that any discussion of the un-canny is at the same time a discussion of the canny. Or, as he puts it after examining a lengthy list of definitions, “What interests us most in this long extract is to find that among its different shades of meaning the word Heimlich [or canny] exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, Unheimlich. What is Heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich” (132 - Penguin Edition). As Freud finds, the two words have a unique relation, for anything canny seemingly comes to be un-canny, and anything defined as un-canny must originally have been canny. Therefore, in order not to make the same repressive move, we will use the term “un-canny”, with an emphasis on the “-” in order to remind ourselves of the word’s dual function. Un-canny is both “uncanny” and “canny”, as we have just defined it.

Roughly translated from the German word, Unheimliche means “unhomely,” or not belonging or familiar. It is often associated with something supernatural, or at odds with our reality. Moved into English, Unheimliche has no better translation than our word, un-canny. However, this English word is a misnomer of sorts. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the word “canny” comes from a Scottish word, "can," meaning to know. But, as the OED points out, this usage is somewhat archaic, while other dictionaries list this usage as obsolete altogether. This means, then, that the un-canny would be defined as an un-knowing, or to un-know something. Which leads us to question not only how such an act of un-knowing is at all possible, but also (and more importantly), how can we keep this definition buried? The un-canny requires us to move things into the light, especially that which has been repressed, forgotten, or become strange to us. So we need to make sure that any understanding, discussion, or use of the word, un-canny, has with it a sense of both knowing and at the same time an un-knowing. And specifically “un”-known, for the un-canny is never a “not knowing” or a “never knowing”. Instead it is a movement away from knowing, a movement akin to forgetting but with less chance of remembrance.

The un-canny as will be used in later posts, then, is similar to how Derrida defined pharmakon - as being both itself and its opposite, being both familiar and unfamiliar. But, it should be noted that unlike the contradiction that Derrida found, the un-canny is not essentially a contradiction. True, it maintains itself around a contradiction in terms of its definition; however, the term itself - the un-canny - is noncontradictory. To be un-canny is simply to possess both a known and unknown, a familiarity and unfamiliarity. It is a word that, as we will see in later posts, best expresses contingency.