Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Rats + Hegel = Surrealism

Since the title of this post starts with “rats” I feel the need to do so as well. If we were to look at a rat's behavior, we might consider it to be random, or contingent – in that the rat's movements do not follow a logical pattern from A to B to C. Now, if we were wanting to catch this rat, we wouldn't just simply run around after the rat, for any attempt to do so would prove futile. Instead, we more than likely would set out a trap for the rat. But what is this trap? What does it do? And how is such a trap better at catching a rat than we might be?

To begin to answer these questions, let's take a look at what the trap is. Like most traps it works on some level of availability; an open or “armed” state and a closed or “sprung” state. In the open state the trap is waiting for the rat to step into it. In the closed state, the trap has caught the rat. In effect, the trap acts as a forced binary solution to the problem of the rat's contingent behavior – either the trap is open or closed. We no longer need to guess where the rat might move, counter our movements, or avoid moving by hiding. Instead, the trap structures the situation to the point that we are not even needed. The trap takes away the randomness of the rat's movements by forcing upon it a binary structure.

Reality, the world, and all objects, then, are just as random (or in Meillassoux's terms, contingent) as the behavior of the rat. In fact we can reformulate this contingency, this being and not-being, into what others have termed Hegel's Dialectic. For Hegel thought is broken up into three parts: being, nothing or (not-being), and becoming. In any encounter we are confronted with an object's being, its existence, or in Hegel's terms “pure being.” Now, along with this beginning is this thesis's opposite or antithesis. Therefore we must also posit the objects not-being or nothingness. For Meillassoux this duality causes a problem:

To claim that an existent cannot exist, and to claim moreover that this possibility is an ontological necessity, is also to claim that the sheer existence of the existent, just like the sheer inexistence of the inexistent are two imperishable poles which allow the perhisability of everything to be thought. Consequently, I can no more conceive of the contingency of negative facts alone than I can conceive of the non-being of existence as such. Since contingency is thinkable (as an absolute), but unthinkable without the persistence of the two realms of existence and inexistence, we have to say that it is necessary that there always be this or that existent capable of not existing, and this or that inexistent capable of existing. (76).

What Meillassoux works up to, then, is a synthesis of Hegel's two poles – a synthesis of being (thesis) and nothing or not-being (antithesis). For Hegel this synthesis is called becoming. For Meillassoux, “the solution to the problem is as follows: it is necessary that there be something rather than nothing because it is necessarily contingent that there is something rather than something else” (76). In other words, it is necessary that everything that exists be seen in its contingency as possibly not existing and vice versa. Every object is always becoming, a becoming of its antithesis by way of contingency, and I would add, our un-canny.

Again, we can understand how reality, like our rat's behavior, is in constant need of a third option, a synthesis of the contingency of reality. Therefore, we are constantly throwing out traps, laying down binaries, or creating meaning in order to unburden ourselves of this ontological loop of being and not-being. By saying there is a meaning to an encounter we are, in essence, creating a way to “deal” with the object we are encountering. Or, to put this in terms of our object: every encounter or event (B) is both an encounter with the known and unknown (thus our terms, un-canny and contingency). However, each encounter also produces an event (E) as a result. And every event (E), also called a meaning or a consequence, is our encounter with the object “as” something, so that the object becomes something other than its being/not-being. It becomes meaningful.

And this is where I feel surrealism as a philosophical movement might be of some use. Surrealism works upon the basic notion of juxtaposition to create meaning. For example, the painting entitled “The Son of Man” by Rene Magritte depicts a man, dressed in a suit and a red tie; however, right in front of his face is a green apple, so that as Magritte put it in a radio interview:

At least it hides the face partly. Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It's something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.

By juxtaposing the apple in front of the man's face – an object we are used to looking at due to the large number of portraits and self-portraits – we find the two images conflicting between the known (apple) and the unknown (the man's face), or between the thesis (the man's face) and its antithesis (the apple). Stuck with this “conflict,” as Magritte puts it, we attempt to create a meaning between the two – our brains try to make a connection between what is there and not there. In other words, we try and synthesize a solution so that the contingency of the painting is no longer a problem. So we might say something along the lines of “the apple represents death, or sin of the human race” – to disburden us from the un-canniness of the apple in front of the man's face. I'm not trying to say that such a synthesis erases or does away with the contingency or un-canniness of the painting. Nor am I attempting to say that such an utterance carries on this contingency by just hiding it somewhere else within it. No, instead what becoming does is push forward, it moves past the contention between being and not-being but not in a transcendental way. For the utterance can never fully capture the encounter. Nor is the utterance merely a vocal or audible statement, for these two formulations imply a listener, something not needed for an utterance to be made. The utterance, then, is merely the manufacturing of meaning/consequences based upon the contingency of the object – something I feel only surrealism can attempt to show.

So in our terms, by juxtaposing the realm of the known with the realm of the unknown, every encounter (B) with an object creates an utterance which carries with it a meaning/consequence. This utterance or event (E) can never grasp the object completly but instead is always reliant upon the encounter (B). Meaning is created as a result of this utterance or attempt to synthesize the two realms, and this meaning propels the object outside of this initial interaction. In this way our un-canny ontology is best considered under surrealistic terms of juxtaposition and the Hegelian dialectic – where when two objects encounter each other, each is forced to create an utterance which has meaning beyond the encounter.

For example, when a large hailstone falls on a car window, both the window and the hailstone are confronted with the other's contingent existence – both of being and not-being – since each existed independent from each other before the encounter but are now forced to deal with the other's presence. However, each object simply doesn't stay within this moment of interaction, so that something happens – simply stating, here, that there is an encounter. And although we may not know or understand the utterance that took place (remember an utterance in our terms means a system – of words, fields, experiences, etc. – for no object, like words, are ever encountered by themselves), the utterance is visible through the consequences of the encounter. Therefore the consequences of the encounter are obvious to us – the window is cracked or shattered, and/or the hailstone is chipped or broken. The contingency of each object – its being/not-being – is dealt with physically, through everlasting consequences upon each object, for both the window and the hailstone will never be the same.

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