Monthly Archives: January 2012

Outside of Time in Time

There is a radical temporality of things, such that any present thing harbors an uncanny past that is always already past, never present or presentable.  This past that was never present is, for Maurice Blanchot, an “outside of time in time.”  It is inescapably ungraspable.  The infinite obscurity of this radical temporality is what makes creativity possible.  In the nothingness of this night, an actor creates that which is not created and is not able to be created.  Consider a couple of quotations:

“In this time what appears is the fact that nothing appears.  What appears is the being deep within being’s absence, which is when there is nothing and which, as soon as there is something, is no longer.  For it is as if there were no beings except through the loss of being, when being lacks.  The reversal, which, in time’s absence, points us constantly back to the presence of absence–but to this presence as absence, to the absence as its own affirmation (an affirmation in which nothing is affirmed, in which nothing never ceases to affirm itself with the exhausting insistence of the indefinite)–this movement is not dialectical.  Contradictions do not exclude each other; nor are they reconciled…. In time’s absence what is new renews nothing; what is present is not contemporary; what is present presents nothing but represents itself and belongs henceforth and always to return.  It isn’t but comes back again.  It comes already and forever past, so that my relation to it is not one of cognition, but of recognition, and this recognition ruins in me the power of knowing, the right to grasp.  It makes what is ungraspable inescapable.”  Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), pp. 30-31.

“Now, in this night, I come forward bearing everything [le tout] toward that which infinitely exceeds the all.  I progress beyond the totality that I nevertheless tightly embrace.  I go on the margins of the universe, boldly walking elsewhere than where I can be, and a little outside my steps [mes pas].  This slight extravagance, this deviation toward that which cannot be, is not only my own movement leading me to a personal madness, but the movement of the reason that I bear within me.  With me the laws gratitate outside the laws, the possible outside the possible.  O night, now nothing will make me be, nothing will separate me from you.  I adhere marvelously to the simplicity to which you invite me.  I lean over you, equal to you, offering you a mirror for your perfect nothingness [néant], for your shadows that are neither light nor absence of light, for this void that contemplates….  I am the origin of that which has no origin.  I create that which cannot be created.”  Blanchot, Thomas the Obscure, trans. R. Lamberton (New York: David Lewis, 1973), pp. 107-108.

Debating Religion and Science with a Post-Secular Prophet

A Time article from a few years ago presents highlights from a debate between two scientists of evolution and genetics, Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins.  The topic: the tension between religion and science (as the article puts it, “God vs. Science”).  I work with a lot of people doing religious studies and theology, and I find that Dawkins doesn’t get the respect he deserves not as a scientist (he gets that respect) but as a theorist of society and religion.  I consider Dawkins an ally in a war against the anti-intellectualism propogated by some forms of religiosity. 

Dawkins and Collins both make some good points throughout the debate.  Perhaps the best point is this: Dawkins (an atheist) and Collins (a Christian) both agree that religion and science are not the non-overlapping magisteria envisioned by Stephan Jay Gould.  For better and for worse, religion and science overlap all the time.

They discuss the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God, although without explicitly designating them as such.  Referring to the statistical improbability of the natural laws that have allowed life and human consciousness to emerge in the universe, Dawkins finds no reason to posit a God to explain the cause of those laws.  Perhaps further research will reveal a unified theory for which those laws and constants are not so improbable, or perhaps our universe is one among multiple universes, thus also diminishing the improbability.  Collins disagrees that a unified theory is coming and, using Ockham’s razor, he claims that God is a better explanation than a multiverse because it is a simpler explanation.  I am not convinced by that use of Ockham’s razor.  The multiverse hypothesis makes fewer new suppositions than the God hypothesis.  Both hypotheses posit something external to the universe, but the externality of the multiverse hypothesis is just a multiplicity of finite things (more universes), whereas the God hypothesis posits another thing (God) and also has to posit a different (transcendent, eternal) order of being for that thing. 

They discuss miracles (Collins is fine with them, Dawkins thinks they’re anti-science and anti-intellectual), but what’s noteworthy is that they both follow Hume (implicitly) in defining miracles as violations of the laws of nature, which I think is simply a bad definition.  They also touch on morality, which Collins derives from God and Dawkins derives from evolution (like Darwin’s evolution of social sentiments, which is Drawin developed out of Hume’s and Smith’s concepts of moral sentiments).  Collins’ divine morality results in cosmic tensions between good and evil, whereas Dawkins takes a more Nietzschean tone is asserting that there is no good and evil as such, there are only good things and bad things that happen in particular contexts.

Particularly interesting is that, throughout the debate, Dawkins reiterates his openness to the possibility that there is something “incredibly grand and incomprehensible” that exceeds our present understanding.  It could be God, but it could be billions of gods, and if it is a God or gods, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily going to be the same as or similar to the God of transcendental monotheism.  Dawkins sounds more agnostic than atheist sometimes.  Not only agnostic, sometimes he sounds prophetic.  Just as prophets criticize idols and call for more authentic engagements with reality, Dawkins criticizes religion and calls for attention to the actual world around us here and now, rejuvenating wonder at the “magic of reality” while resisting any claims that posit an ontotheological superbeing .  A postsecular prophet?

“If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.”

Alien Phenomenology: Of, By, and For Things

I am anxiously awaiting the publication of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.  Alien phenomenology is a great phrase.  It is important to distinguish Bogost’s alien phenomenology from that developed by Bernhard Waldenfels.  Reminiscent of Husserl, Schutz, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas, Waldenfels’ Phenomenology of the Alien explores the place of otherness in human subjectivity, specifically with attention to the otherness given in one’s experience of one’s own body and in experiences of the corporeality of other people.  However, Waldenfels does not address nonhuman aliens (e.g., refrigerators, elk, quarks, fungi, libraries, the climate).  

For Bogost’s alien phenomenology, the alienness under investigation is that of all things, human and nonhuman.  The orientation toward the alterity of all objects calls for a weirder and more realist phenomenology, which uses speculative metaphysics and metaphor to account for things exceeding human access.  Focusing on “carpentry,” which includes operations and procedures for approaching and crafting particular objects, alien phenomenology is a crafty version of object-oriented ontology, making it particularly relevant for address social and environmental issues that call for practical procedures and for the creation of new policies, designs, institutions, etc.  

The development of an alien phenomenology that accounts for the agency and alterity of all things is a benefit to a global society full of real things clamoring for attention, things like farmers, rivers, economies, children, artworks, species, universities, families, subatomic particles, the climate, and so much more. 

Alien phenomenology is a philosophy of the things, by the things, and for the things.

Notes Toward Object-Oriented Linguistics

Words have conventional meanings, but do they also have their own meanings, apart from the meanings that humans assign to them?  For an object-oriented linguistics, a word is its own thing, distinct from any references or any speaker or listener that encounters it.  This would suggest that a word has its own meaning, its own style of being, its own virtual capacities.  This opens up old questions about how much meaning is given in the thing itself and how much it is determined by the word’s references and relations to the conventions and contingencies of speakers and listeners? 

Plato’s Cratylus revolves around the question of whether names are given by nature, which is the position of Cratylus, or by conventional agreement, which is the position of Hermogenes (383a).  Through a series of questions addressed to Hermogenes, Socrates arrives at the conclusion that a name is given by nature if it imitates the essence (and not the accidental qualities) of the thing it is naming.  “Well, then, if anyone could imitate this essential nature of each thing by means of letters and syllables, he would show what each thing really is, would he not?” (423e).  Furthermore, even individual sounds and syllables have the potential to symbolize the essence of a thing.  However, Socrates is aware of the difficulty of taking language to pieces to see if and where this symbolism is present:  we only have our opinions upon which to initiate such a task (425b-c).  Investigations attempted subsequent to Plato’s Cratylus have espoused many more opinions on the question of the relation between the sounds of names and that which they name: Stoics, Medieval nominalists, and modern linguists have all taken up this question of the relationship between signifying sounds and signified meanings.  A standard position held by many scholars today is that a signifying sound has an arbitrary relation to that which it signifies.  Even many textbooks in linguistic theory dogmatically presuppose the arbitrariness of the sign without even hinting at alternative interpretations of the sound/meaning relationship, except for brief mention of onomatopoeia, which is usually shown to still admit of arbitrariness.

Despite the prevalence of the theory of l’arbitraire du signe in modern linguistics, there have been numerous investigations that demonstrate a much more intimate relation between sound and meaning—a relation called “sound symbolism” and “phonetic symbolism” by Edward Sapir, and called “phonosemantics” in some recent studies by Margaret Magnus and John Lawler among others.  This phonosemantics, although present in all language, is immediately apparent when a sign is not reduced to its relations to human speakers/listeners or to any autonomous signified, but when it is understood as a sign, as having its own structure and meaning, functioning poetically (in Jakobson’s sense of poeticity).  When understood poetically, equations of sounds and meanings appear in sequence(s) on the axis of combination, where “-ing” always means “-ing” and “str-” always means “str-”, and within every phoneme and morpheme are differential relations folding together the whole phonology and semantics of the language. 

These sounded meanings of messages themselves are virtual capacities that become manifest in references to a signified or in relations to speakers and listeners.  What are the phonosemantic capacities of messages themselves, and how do they become manifest in the relations and references of the messages?  Consider a  couple examples: 

In “A Study in Phonetic Symbolism” (Selected Writings, 1949), Sapir attempts to demonstrate that, despite the arbitrary allocations of sounds in conventional fields of reference, “symbolisms tend to work themselves out in vocalic and consonantal contrasts and scales” (p. 62).  Sapir discusses an experiment wherein subjects were asked to discern the relative sizes of objects that were designated by artificially constructed words.  Where the word mal was defined as “table,” the majority of subjects defined the word mil as a “smaller table.”  Thus, the /a/ in mal was perceived to symbolize a larger table than the /I/ in mil.  This perception was not based on an established convention, because the words were artificially constructed. 

Sapir hypothesizes that this symbolism may be due to some combination of the acoustics of /a/ and /I/ and the kinesthetic experience of /a/ and /I/ (p. 69).  Acoustically, /a/ has both more volume and more duration than does /I/.  Kinesthetically, /a/ is articulated with the tongue in a much lower position than when articulating /I/.  Thus, /a/ both sounds larger and feels larger than /I/.  From this, Sapir observes “that the symbolic discriminations run encouragingly parallel to the objective ones based on phonetic consideration” (p. 68).  In other words, when a signifying sound occupies more space and time, it symbolizes a larger signified than a signifying sound occupying less space and time.  To put it simply, bigger sounds have bigger meanings, which can become manifest in references to bigger things.  The big/small opposition is given with a vocalic opposition, and thus can accommodate big/small oppositions that appear in particular contexts.

This does not mean that the meaning of /a/ is largeness.  That is one manifestation of the virtual capacities of /a/.  Situated in another language, the same phoneme could manifest very different capacities.  Consider the words of night and day in French and Czech, particularly in light of their vowels (which are grave and acute, roughly corresponding to Sapir’s /a/ and /I/, respectively).  The Czech word for day, “den,” symbolizes the brightness of day (a chromatic sensation) with an acute vowel, whereas the Czech word for night, “noc,” symbolizes the darkness of night with a grave vowel.  However, the French “jour” (day) has the grave vowel in relation to the more acute “nuit” (night).  This apparent contradiction of symbolisms is really just different manifestation of the virtual capacities of grave and acute vowels.  Brightness is but one capacity.  The French language activates not the darkness but the intensity of the grave vowel, such that jour can refer to the work and movement that fill the day in contrast to the relaxed and mild motion of nuit.  In sum, the capacities of phonemes (e.g., grave and acute vowels) can become manifest in multiple ways, and those manifestations can enter into relation with manifestations of the various capacities of things (e.g., brightness and intensity of days and nights).

These are just some initial thoughts on object-oriented linguistics, the main point being that linguistic signs are phonosemantic things, which have virtual capacities (poeticity) as well as manifestations (i.e., references to signifieds and relations to speakers/listeners).  I’ve shown that a phoneme is a phonosemantic thing, but linguistic thinghood is not only at the phonological scale.  Morphemes, words, and sentences are also things.  I’m not sure if individual phonemic features are things or just parts or qualities of things (features like labial or dental, nasal or oral, stop or fricative).  A question I want to think about more is markedness, specifically in showing how a linguistic thing changes, develops, and enters into new relations.

Environmental Philosophy is Activism

“All environmentalists should be activists, but activism can take a variety of forms.  The way that environmental philosophers can be the most effective environmental activists is by doing environmental philosophy.  Of course, not everyone can be or wants or needs to be an environmental philosopher.  Those who are not can undertake direct environmental action in other ways.  My point is that environmental philosophers should not feel compelled to stop thinking, talking, and writing about environmental ethics, and go do something about it instead—because talk is cheap and action is dear.  In thinking, talking, and writing about environmental ethics, environmental philosophers already have their shoulders to the wheel, helping to reconfigure the prevailing cultural worldview and thus helping to push general practice in the direction of environmental responsibility.”

Baird Callicott, Beyond the Land Ethic: More Essays in Environmental Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), p. 43.

Be afriad: an uncanny thing, a good deed, a joyful leap into the abyss

A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome.  Not me.  Not that.  But not nothing, either.  A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing.  A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me.  On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, or a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me.  There, abject and abjection are my safeguards.  The primers of my culture. 

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 2.


Being there when the situation needed you, some third eye finds the right thing to do somehow; then, like coming up with an idea when thinking, it sticks to the bones like a paradigm.  The hard thing is to be ignorant and concerned and afraid the next time.  Out of that ignorance and concern and fear alone the good deed, the brave deed, could come. 

Alphonso Lingis, Body Transformations: Evolutions and Atavisms in Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 2005), p. 152.


In every exhilaration we sense the possibility that the final leap into the abyss will be experienced as joy.

Alphonso Lingis, Dangerous Emotions (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), p. 162.

Overstatement in Philosophy: A Joke

Whitehead observes that “the chief error in philosophy is overstatement” (Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 7).  That sounds true to me, and, like a lot of philosophical statements, it also sounds like a joke.

It’s not that some kinds of overstatement in philosophy can be erroneous to some extent.  Overstatement is erroneous, period.  And it is not simply an error to make an overstatement.  It’s the most erroneous of errors, the exemplary error, the chief error.  The joke: Whitehead’s statement overstates a point about how erroneous overstatement is.  This joke reminds me of a classic that I heard from my dad growing up, “If I told you once, I’ve told you a billion times: never exaggerate.”  Close by are other fun self-refuting statements: There are no absolutes; Never say never; I am against polemic. 

All joking aside, Whitehead is referring to a couple kinds of overstatement and not to all overstatement, so he isn’t really overstating his case.  Regardless, I think Whitehead is the single most important thinker in the entire history of philosophy.  I’ve said that before, surely trillions of times.