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.