This semester I’m taking a graduate course in the philosophy of religion. I already took one as an undergraduate, but under a different professor who was a proficient expert on Hegel. This time, the current professor seems far more culturally informed and global, which leads to an entirely different angle to assess religion philosophically. ↓ Read the rest of this entry…
Posts Tagged ‘post-structuralism’
“….as the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end. If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared… as the ground of classical thought did at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” (Order of Things, p. 387)
Man is an epistemological concept that did not exist during or before the Classical age, because “there was no epistemological consciousness of man as such.” (p. 309)
In the 16th century, the category of human sciences did not contain the concepts of life or labor, nor language as a signifying system or medium – but merely “one of the figurations of the world,” (p. 56) just one of the objects of nature like air or water. However, Michel Foucault isn’t content to point out that there were missing categories in the past, but to infer that there was no conception of Man or humanity at all back then. What we now call “humanity” was not conceptualized its distinctiveness until the 19th century.
“Natural history” in the 17th and 18th centuries was fundamentally descriptive and taxonomic – a taxonomy of a table of types of life-forms. The scientists of those days collected, described and tabulated species and types, but did not form overall theories of life-in-general, not like Darwin did in the 19th century (see Descent of Man). The forms of thought weren’t available. The same goes for labor and language. The analysis of wealth was basically the examination of the forms of exchange and trade, where commodities were taken as “natural things” to be bought and sold. The discourse of language was merely “general grammar,” where language was broken down to noun and verbs.
In the 19th century, after Kant’s three great Critiques and the age of Enlightenment, those discourses grew in sophistication and developed distinctiveness into separate sciences (biology, economics, and linguistics). The crucial thing is the three new disciplines shared a previously unforeseen object: Man, as both the very subject that knows and is the object of knowledge. Thus, man lived, man works, and man spoke. This in turn generated the human sciences where new objects required new analyses: psychology (human life), sociology (human labor) and studies of literature and myth (human signification).
In the 20th century, structuralism abolished the truth of man, leaving behind the rubble of fiction, always absent, and consequently reduced humanity to a false construct. Psychology became psychoanalysis, where the uniform structure of the unconscious inhabit us all in similar ways. Sociology as labor is also deconstructed into ethnology where the structural conditions place human societies as the responses to universal conditions and needs. Philological linguistics, too, was transformed into structural linguistics where universals, beneath the specific and particular bits of language that are written and spoken, were analyzed.
All these contemporary discourses became historical, relativized or pluralized so there is no longer a “pure access” to the truth. What truth becomes is a function of what can be said, written or thought. That was Foucault’s project, the exposure of historical specificity, how things could have been otherwise, of what we think we know with certainty.
After Foucault and other poststructuralists, I find the concept of “man” in Enlightenment and classical liberalist philosophy to be questionable. Their conception of man as individuals – sacred, separate and intact – where the mind is the sole source of meaning and value, and the rights of the individual necessarily independent and inalienable, because the individual’s value lies in a transcendental and universal essence. That paints a flattering metaphysical portrait of human essence – but the cracks and the fissures of such portrait betray the culturally and discursively structured composition, arranged by interacting as situated and symbolic beings. In poststructuralist thought, “man” becomes the “subject” of analysis, and decentered, contra the fulcrum of Enlightenment.
The subject is constituted by cultural meanings and practice, and reside within a variety of culturally-based locale of meaning (as family members, as occupationally and economically and regionally determined constructs, as gendered and sexual oriented beings, as members of other social groups). The subject is a material being, totally embodied and present within the physical world and entrenched in the material practice and structure of its society. The subject is constituted by social forces; the source of the meaning and value and self-image of the subject comes from identity groups, from social activities, from intimate relations, from the various overlapping of common meanings and symbols and practices where the subject interact with subcultural groups and society as a global unit.
Contra the humanist notion that people are independent individuals and make up a transcendent, universal and unchanging humanity, this is antihumanism, not anti-humane, but the new philosophical understanding of the nature of the self, of the individual, of man, of humanity, of homo sapiens sapiens, to be a social construct.
The structuralists and French poststructuralist insist the subject is dead because it is the dispersion or byproduct of language. Since it is a functional placeholder of language, and no longer the source of language, posited by that language, a fragmented product of dispersed discourses, the subject is void of its ontological status.
To recap: posthumanism is borne out of the skepticism of the subject. Philosophical modernity began with Descartes’ emphasis of consciousness as the fulcrum for knowledge of the world – cogito ergo sum – ergo, a unified subject became an obsession for subsequent thinkers (Kant, Husserl).
This is not to be confused with the claim that the postmodernists have erased the subject, but rather they decentered it and resituated, replaced it in light of discourse/desire/power. Maurice Blanchott, for instance, lost the ability to say ‘I.’ Something much older than the Cogito, not an act of cogitation, but a perpetual whisper of language missing a vortex of consciousness. For Derrida, the I is never completely self-present for it always presupposes a relation to its general absence (death). For Foucault, the privilege of the “I think” depends on the privilege of the “I speak,” for speech/writing will disperse the ‘I’ rather than bring it into relief.
Moreover, thanks to technology, the biological form of man was different in the past and will be radically different in the future. The cyborg will be the next step. Therefore technological posthumanism will extend the I rather than disperse it, and reduce temporal flux.
Do you think there must be a human nature? If such a thing exists, at least a relatively fixed one, then true scientific understanding is possible. Because people, with a very limited amount or set of experiences, are capable of learning their own language, as well as use it creatively, then there must be some sort of “bio-physical structure” within the mind that enables individuals to deduce a unified language from the multiplicity of individual experiences. If you agree with this conclusion then you are a typical cartesian rationalist. You will answer questions with appeals to universal human nature and reason, the standard for intellectuals to judge and rationalize a precise conceptualization for a better society and the future. Violence, injustice, falsehood, etc., must be fought for the sake of justice, because there must be a guiding principle, a fixed and rational standard for knowledge, society… Otherwise we cannot judge which actions or claims are true or correct or just or determine which actions to take.
On the other hand, if you think human nature does not exist, because “existence precedes essence,” then there are no rational principles or a priori values. No transcendent values exist prior to choice, ready-made and perfect, waiting for your consent in your choice how to live, for you are nothing else but what you choose to make of yourself. Consequently you are responsible of yourself and for everyone else. You create a certain image of a person of your choices, through your actions. In choosing yourself you choose humanity. What you do contributes to humanity in general, hence, you are responsible of all mankind. Once you become aware that your choices actually chooses for everyone else, you will experience a deep-seated anxiety. Once you realize that there is no God, nobody with infinitely perfect wisdom who knows the “Right choice,” then your choice is completely your responsibility, your creation. Your choice cannot depend on anyone else. If there is no pre-existing human configuration, no perfect society, no standard of precise justice, then you are condemned to always choose freely.
However, if you wished to avoid starting with the abstract question by starting in a different direction and pose this – how does the concept of human nature function within society – then you evade the requirement of making claims of universal truths, and instead choose to historicize grand abstractions. This method distinguishes the actual operational categories within a discipline from a broad conceptual marker, like “life,” in which themselves may have had of little import regarding the internal evolution of the scientific disciplines. Therefore, because there is no external position or universal understanding that is beyond history and society, the task is to historicize the universal categories each time they’re encountered. I.e., it was not through the study of human nature that discoveries were possible, such as linguists with “consonant mutation” or psychologists, the “principle of analysis of dreams,” or anthropologists, the “structure of myths.” This way, the “why” questions are transformed into “how.” In the attempt to answer “why,” you are restricted to models of justice, knowledge, truth, or search for general principles that evaluate the condition or situation. Perhaps you realize this attempt actually hides the concrete function of power. The notion of truth or justice or moraltiy has been concoted in order to function as an instrument of a political and economic power. For knowledge is already soaked within conflicts small and large, not external or above the disagreements, or discord.
Aren’t metaphors merely a colorful way of saying something literal, that is otherwise, a nonboring way of saying something boring? Merely the rhetorician’s weapon that subjects his/her audience into compliance? The dictionary of literary terms denote the metaphor as a figure of speech where something is described in the terms of another, or attribute something with a quality that is associated with something else. For instance, Whitman’s metaphor for grass is “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” The relation between the two terms in a metaphor is implicit, unlike a similie, where it is explicit.
Not only is metaphor the basic linguistic unit of poetry, often found in romantic and modernist poetry, it is also a pervasive presence in all forms of language. Generally, the metaphor is a catch-all category for all figures of speech. Yet, as long we remain within the conception of metaphor as an embellishment of speech, we only decieve ourselves – for it is actually the original impulse of language, where its primal level is poetry. The concepts we now determine as literal used to be metaphorical, and we have long forgotten their origins.
However, metaphor in philosophy should not be mistaken as a merely aesthetic phenomenon found in poetic language, for even metaphors contain an explanatory principle.
If language is actually based on rhetoric, as opposed to logic – the presumption of the philosophers before Nietzsche – then signs representing ideas do have spatiotemporal qualities, a history, thereby making platonism impossible, and the boundary between sense and reference is erased….
Hardcore empiricists like Thomas Hobbes condemned metaphor as an “abuse of language,” largely because of its capacity of obfuscation and corruption. He couldn’t get beyond the narrow conception of metaphor as an “ornament” of language, which insists that rational language is free from such contaminants, and well-equipped with the reliability of literal meaning in natural language.
For Nietzsche, metaphor is the ultimate key to language, religion, concepts, perception, for it is the very symbol of interpretation, the foundation of meaning and truth themselves. Nietzsche agreed with Hobbes that metaphor distorts, but departed from the Leviathan in the insistence that truth can be apprehended by metaphorical thought. The very privileging of metaphor promises a philosophy that elude the neatness of conceptual language. In the Birth of tragedy, Nietzsche condemns conceptual language for it contains little more than “dead metaphors,” totally inappropriate for the expression of the truth of the world. We are but representations of the essence of reality, mere appearances of the “indescribable-in-itself.” Once we forget that our concepts come from metaphorical origins, then the belief that concepts represent reality sinks in and entrenches our minds.
Concepts themselves, say, the concept of a book, have been abstracted three levels away from the original sense data, sensation. First, the sensory stimuli is transformed into an “image” by the complex physiological processes of the brain, a representation of perception, a coherent symbol of significance. Then this “image” is ostensibly given a sound, a word, a generalization, making language the second level of abstraction. Lastly, within consciousness the word-sound becomes the concept. In other words, there is no direct conception that ideally correspond to reality, or at least the first level of sensation, for the initial sense data is metamorphed three times in order to arrive at a concept, which is merely a “figurative metaphor.”
For instance, “cause” and “effect” are conventional fictions that designate and communicate, but not explain, given that there is no ‘causal connection’ in the in-itself. If we are the inventors of causes, then our thoughts are essentially mythopoetical – where the grammatical subjects of language is converted into the substance of the world. Once we realize that we always transform our experiences with metaphors, not duplicate or reproduce them with concepts, and that metaphors themselves become concepts, and build vast edifices and systems, then our conceptual thought is necessarily “anthropomorphic through and through, and contains not a single point that is true-in-itself, objective, universal, apart from man.” (Concerning truth n falshood in an extramoral sense, I) We are the architects of our prisons, and cannot go outside the bars of reason.
Once metaphor is realized as the master key of meaning: then epistemology is little more than a set of aesthetic preferences. Metaphysical knowledge is the most useless of all knowledge, although post metaphysical thought is possible, as long interpretation consists of concepts derived from active metaphors.
Therefore, there is no metaphysics or epistemology or even an axiology in the philosophy of Nietzsche. In essence, the style of Nietzsche demonstrates that all his linguistic artifacts are metaphors themselves. Sarah Kofman did a huge favor for the future of Nietzsche scholarship by publishing a book called “Nietzsche and Metaphor,” in which she pointed out nietzsche’s aim: the deconstruction of all metaphysical oppositions where the indefinite metaphorical play of style places his texts beyond metaphysics.
I have been tweaking my essay on Derrida, while finishing off the Schopenhauer review, for submission to the Galilean Library. This excerpt covers the french poststructuralists’ reception and response to Hegel.
Suspicion of Hegel
Poststructuralists found Hegel’s technique of dialectical arguments charming, even seductive, due to their gift of demonstrating the incoherence of particular concepts. But more importantly, the Absolute of Hegel was an omen about how the critique of philosophy is little more than the latest pretender to the throne of supreme cognitive authority. Hippolyte interpreted Hegel as saying that the discourse of philosophy contains the critique of philosophy within itself. Foucault realized this and cautioned that “we have to determine to which (our) anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.” (Archaeology of Knowledge, p. 235) Derrida claims différance “must sign the point at which one breaks with the system of the Aufhebung and with speculative dialectics.” (Positions, p. 44)
Judith Butler on Hegel’s French reception
Judith Butler’s work, Subjects of Desire is an insightful genealogy of the Hegel reception in 20th century France.
The coherence of the self-identical Hegelian subject has been disintegrated by two generations of 20th century french thinkers, from the 30′s to the 60′s. Yet the Hegelian subject is not what the French describe, which is not a self-identical subject that travels smugly from one ontological place to another, for it is its travels, and is every place in which it finds itself.
The second generation of French thinkers (Lacan, Deleuze and Foucault) took the concept of desire as a sign of the disintegration of the coherence of Hegel’s ontological entity. Butler says they misread Hegel’s formulations of subjectivity, while remaining in prison of the Hegelian dialectical mode of analysis they try to escape.
They attempt to evade the Hegelian dialectic as a philosophical black hole by rejecting the “romantic postulation of the dialectical unity of opposites” as something untenable in the context of the poststructuralist formulations of language as an open-ended field of potential meanings where difference, not unity, is emphasized, which means the freedom of interpretation is emphasized over closure, finitude, and etc.
Derrida, just like Foucault, was wary of the seduction of Hegel. His declaration that Hegel was the “last philosopher of the book and the first thinker of writing” (Grammatology, p. 26) only meant Hegel’s philosophy was both the final culmination of western metaphysics and its initial deconstruction.
But Butler insists the rejection or negation of Hegel enacts a philosophical move which is in itself dialectical and implictly a Hegelian move. In order to refute the dialectic one deploys a dialectical mode of reasoning. An argument against the logic of the dialectic will only be its own antithesis, which will in turn yeild a new synthesis that transcends the initial thesis and the antithesis. Therefore, Hegel’s dialectical logic is a cannibal of philosophy, since it gobbles up the opposition by transforming them into antitheses.
Derrida knows this all too well, and in Glas, he went to extremes with artifice and obscurity in his showdown with Hegel and avoided falling victim to the system’s uncanny power of assimilating its critics, for the history of ideas is a continued absorption and sublation by the system in its passage towards the genuine historical Absolute. Derrida had the text split into two columns on each page where the left provided an analysis of Hegel with respect to the family and the right discussed Genet’s novels, but this is an opposition that does not meet the dialectical logic of Hegel head-on. The Genet column is actually a parody, for it copies the dialectical mode of Hegel by mimesis. Because it is not an refutation of the Hegel dialectic, this mimic cannot be cannibilized. This reciprocal exchange beween literature and philosophy creates an undecidable text in Glas.
By leaving the final meaning of his text within the unsaid relations between the two columns, Derrida eludes Hegel and places himself outside his own discussions of Hegel. A self-styled “purest of the bastards?” Say it with me.