Thursday, January 10, 2013

On Knowledge as Such and On the Knowledge of Man

DISCLAIMER: This post introduces a new direction I hope to take in the future, although not with every post I make.  I focus in the following essay on a specific work of nonfiction; although I still certainly intend to write about SF books and cinema, I also hope to, every once in a while, focus on a piece of theoretical or philosophical nonfiction that has occupied my fancy.  I have amended my "Welcome" post in order to account for this shift.  I do hope that any studies of nonfiction works taken up here will contribute to my studies of SF fiction in the future.  Finally, I hope that this slight alteration won't scare away too many readers.  Many thanks, and happy new year!

“Cosmically and causally, knowledge is an unimportant feature of the universe; a science which omitted to mention its occurrence might, from an impersonal point of view, suffer only a very trivial imperfection.  In describing the world, subjectivity is a vice.  Kant spoke of himself as having effected a ‘Copernican revolution’, but he would have been more accurate if he had spoken of a ‘Ptolemaic counter-revolution’, since he put Man back at the centre [sic] from which Copernicus had dethroned him.”

~Bertrand Russell
I include the word “man” in the title of this post in order to further invoke the title of a rather famous essay, on which I will elaborate in the following post.  Of course, the word “man” should be read synonymously as “human,” and I ask that any gendered biases be forgiven.  I like to think that if the writer had been alive today, he would have appealed to our sensibilities and used the word “human” instead.
This post derives its title from two primary sources: Bertrand Russell’s quote on knowledge (cited above), and Walter Benjamin’s enigmatic essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.”  My interest in Benjamin’s essay stems from something of a fascination with it rather than an academic responsibility.  It is a difficult piece, and I don’t proclaim any right or ability to faithfully and effectively explicate his argument, which incorporates an odd blend of Saussurean linguistics, historical materialism, and more-than-slightly mystical theology.  However, I do perceive a potent speculative capability in Benjamin’s work, which I hope to explore in this post.
            This speculative capability resides in Benjamin’s emphasis on language’s material issuance.  Near the end of the essay, he writes:
Just as the language of poetry is partly, if not solely, founded on the name language of man, it is very conceivable that the language of sculpture or painting is founded on certain kinds of thing languages, that in them we find a translation of the languages of things into an infinitely higher language, which may still be of the same sphere.  We are concerned here with nameless, nonacoustic languages, languages issuing from matter; here we should recall the material community of things in their communication [emphasis added]. (Benjamin 330).

Benjamin does not define “language as such” as strictly human; human language merely names things, but the limits of “language as such” lie beyond naming: “It should not be accepted that we know of no languages other than that of man, for this is untrue.  We only know of no naming language other than that of man; to identify naming language with language as such is to rob linguistic theory of its deepest insights.  It is therefore the linguistic being of man to name things” (317).  Beyond the narrow limits of naming, language subsists in all things and takes infinite forms.
            Benjamin delineates two important concepts that require clarification if we are to continue exploring his essay: linguistic being and mental being.  Of these two concepts, he writes the following: “Mental being communicates itself in, not through, a language, which means: it is not outwardly identical with linguistic being.  Mental being is identical with linguistic being only insofar as it is capable of communication.  What is communicable in a mental entity is its linguistic entity” (316).  The linguistic being loses something along the way; it cannot communicate the entirety, or totality, of the mental being, but only the portion of it that is communicable.  Acknowledging the danger of slipping into tautology, Benjamin argues: “This proposition is untautological, for it means: that which in a mental entity is communicable is its language.  On this ‘is’ (equivalent to “is immediately”) everything depends.  Not that which appears most clearly in its language is communicable in a mental entity […] but this capacity for communication is language itself” (316).  Linguistic being testifies to its own existence in language, and this being would go unnoticed (indeed, would be nonexistent) were it not for the expressive capacity of language.  Benjamin has taken something of a brief detour in order to drive home the point that language resides in things themselves.  This is something of a shocker for those of us traditionally educated in the Lacanian symbolic order, the boundary of language that the subject must pass through, so to speak.  In contrast (and prior) to Lacan’s notion of the symbolic, Benjamin radically removes language as something that all things must pass through, and reestablishes it as something that all things inherently possess: “It is fundamental that this mental being communicates itself in language and not through language.  Languages therefore have no speaker, if this means someone communicates through these languages” (315-6).
            It is worth spending just a few brief moments on this argument since it illuminates Benjamin’s intellectual mysticism (and, as I will argue, speculative potency).  An important point underlies his argument: all language communicates itself, thus exposing the linguistic being of things and the mental being of humans.  Language performs this binary function simultaneously, but Benjamin distinctly separates them.  The things that human beings name do not communicate the mental being of humanity through their names, but only their own linguistic being that corresponds to a portion of their mental being; naming is the linguistic mode, and process, by which human beings communicate among one another, navigating the world of things.  The mental being of humanity, in contrast, communicates itself in the general act of naming; in a kind of emergent consequence, the entire complex system of human language communicates humanity’s mental being.  Not individual names of things, but the complex nature of human language itself; therein resides the mental being of humankind.
            From here, Benjamin drafts a kind of hierarchy of languages, and this leads him into regions currently dismissed as either mystical, or hopelessly speculative.  Benjamin prompts this speculative critique by means of a question: to whom does humanity communicate itself?  The short answer (Benjamin’s answer) is: “in naming the mental being of man communicates itself to God” (318).  I think we all saw that coming; but the essay presents material that concerns more than just theologians.  For Benjamin, human language – naming – communicates the linguistic being of the things it names, and the mental being of the organism (i.e. human) that uses it:
Naming is that by which nothing beyond it is communicated, and in which language communicates itself absolutely.  In naming the mental entity that communicates itself is language […] Name as the heritage of human language therefore vouches for the fact that language as such is the mental being of man; and only for this reason is the mental being of man, alone among all mental entities, communicable without residue.  On this is founded the difference between human language and the language of things.  But because the mental being of man is language itself, he cannot communicate himself by it but only in it. (318)

Humans cannot communicate themselves “by” language; they can name themselves, but this only captures a portion of being, the portion that is communicable by naming.  The entire mental being of man emerges only in the presentation of language itself, of the complex human practice of naming.  Benjamin thus aligns this presentation of language, the emergence of such a complex system, with the full mental being of humankind.
            This assertion leads Benjamin to the notion of logos, the Fall of Man, and the problem of revelation, all devoutly theological concepts.  Revelation appears as a kind of mediating term between “what is expressed and expressible and what is inexpressible and unexpressed” (320).  Revelation guides Benjamin through a sometimes confusing explication of expressibility; revelation, he contends, suggests that
the expression that is linguistically most existent (i.e., most fixed) is linguistically the most rounded and definitive; in a word, the most expressed is at the same time the purely mental.  Exactly this […] is meant by the concept of revelation, if it takes the inviolability of the word as the only and sufficient condition and characteristic of the divinity of the mental being that is expressed in it.  The highest mental region of religion is (in the concept of revelation) at the same time the only one that does not know the inexpressible. (321)

The expressible, of course, relies on sound; but “[t]hings are denied the pure formal principle language – sound” (321).  The languages of things, thus, are imperfect; rather, things must “communicate to one another through a more or less material community.  This community is immediate and infinite, like every linguistic communication; it is magical (for there is also a magic of matter)” (321).  Benjamin states that human language possesses a feature incommensurable with other “thing-ly” languages; namely, it operates within a network that is immaterial and (as has been shown) “purely mental,” and its immaterial and mental power manifests in the phenomenon of sound (321).  Benjamin even finds mystical support for this argument in the Old Testament: “The Bible expresses this symbolic fact when it says that God breathes his breath into man: this is at once life and mind and language” (321).  With God as Benjamin’s potential prime mover, I here want to posit a break with Benjamin’s argument.  We will continue to cite it, occasionally, and will indeed have cause to return to it; but for the time being, this is where we part ways.
            Benjamin lays a radical framework for language not as an apparatus in the Lacanian/poststructuralist sense, but as a form of being inherent in things themselves.  It does not exist in its own right, as an independent form, but exists as appearance, as presentation; it forms part of the being of things.  I will always remember when, during a conversation with him in his office at the University of Chicago, Bill Brown described Benjamin as trying to locate a “fossil language.”  At the time I was unsure what that entailed, but I believe that it illuminates Benjamin’s speculative streak, latent though it may be; I intend the speculative potentiality of his argument as an alternative to the more obvious theological program apparent in the essay.  The speculative question can be posed in the following manner: what if things, rather than being possessed of a certain divine being (i.e. a being “breathed” into them by God), instead possessed language strictly in its material form?  This would not be a language bestowed upon things by a higher power, or a metaphysical essence that resists representation or human access (as in Heideggerian phenomenological thought), but a strong persistence of the capacity for communication in inanimate things.  Even if things don’t actively “commune” with animate subjects (animals, humans, aliens, etc.), their potential for harboring language is not precluded; we have to imagine that language does not consist of ideas, nor does it derive from consciousness.  We have to imagine, for a moment, that language is nothing more than matter.
            Language usually ascends to the highest rung of idealistic representation in critical circles.  Quentin Meillassoux most recently emphasizes this point in his book After Finitude: “Generally speaking, statements are ideal insofar as they possess a signifying reality; but their eventual referents are not necessarily ideal (the cat on the mat is real, though the statement ‘the cat is on the mat’ is ideal.)” (qtd. in Brassier 86).  Language appears “ideal” because its content is referential; the subject of a sentence is merely represented by the sentence, but actually exists elsewhere.  Language presents an “idea” of its subject.  While this is true, I want to insist that language fulfills a far more powerful task; just as the very system of language communicates the mental being of humankind (in Benjamin’s argument), so the system of languages in things (whatever these languages may be) also exhibit emergent qualities.  I want to distance myself from Benjamin’s hierarchy of languages wherein human language possesses a greater power to communicate humanity’s mental being because humanity’s mental being is language; the languages of things, presumably, is somehow inferior, or lacking: “the mental entity [of a thing] that communicates itself in language is not language itself but something to be distinguished from it” (Benjamin 315).  Only the mental being of humankind is language; the mental being of things, on the other hand, falls short.  What does the language of a thing then communicate?  Its linguistic being must correspond to a portion of its mental being; just as human names do not express humanity’s mental being, but only portions of the mental beings of things, the units of thing-ly language do not express its own mental being.  We encounter an obvious dilemma at this point: if human language is made up of names, then what are thing-ly languages made up of?
            We must recall that things need not partake of naming in order to partake of language.  Language subsists in things even if they do not practice the art of naming.  But what is this language?  What do the systems of thing-ly languages communicate, and to whom do they communicate it?  How can we fathom language, in a non-naming mode, fashioned into the very matter of the world itself?  In a segment concerning Schelling, in his recent book Less Than Nothing, Slavoj Žižek writes:
In his most daring speculative attempt in Weltalter, Schelling tries to reconstruct (to ‘narrate’) in this way the very rise of logos, of articulated discourse, out of the pre-logical Ground: logos is an attempt to resolve the debilitating deadlock of this Ground.  This is why the two true highpoints of German Idealism are the middle Schelling and the mature Hegel: they did what no one else dared to do – they introduced a gap into the Ground itself. (Žižek 13).

Logos is the divine word, the “breath” of life and language bestowed upon the world by God (and from which is derived our word “logic”); the “pre-logical Ground” is thus the realm of dead, inanimate matter prior to this breathing.  It is the actual, material world prior to the advent of language and history, or what Meillassoux refers to as the “ancestral realm” (Meillassoux 10).  This ancestral realm remains vastly separated from human experience, having existed prior not only to human life, but all life (Meillassoux situates ancestrality roughly contemporaneously with the accretion of the earth), not to mention human language, logic, and knowledge.  If we avoid the solution that God breathed language into all things, then I want to suggest that language has subsisted in things since the very accretion of matter in universe.  If language is material, instead of ideal, then language might have been a consistent element in things since their very material accumulation.  Indeed, language itself is matter.
            The meaning that arises between signifying statements and human linguists is thus, once again, an emergent phenomenon.  Meaning does not inhere in things, nor even in language itself; rather, the complexity of all systems of language results in phenomena that cannot be accounted for when observing singular linguistic units.  Benjamin writes that humankind “alone has a language that is complete both in its universality and in its intensity” (Benjamin 319).  Benjamin insists here on the fact that human language strives to name all things; but names taken at random, in their singularity and independence, cannot reveal either their own meaning or the mental being of humanity.  Meaning among names comes about only through their difference and distinction from one another; meaning is differential.  A word references something, or means something, because it does not reference something else.  Thus, only the entire system of language can ground meaning among its units; furthermore, it reveals the mental being of its practitioners.  Material conditions can explain, and account for, all such emergent phenomena.  Specifically, emergence theorizes how immensely complex patterns and systems can arise from combinations of simple units.  If viewed in the context of emergence theory, Benjamin’s essay might in fact demonstrate how a collective “superconsciousness” could emerge out of the system of human languages; the complex mental being of humanity.  I want to push this idea to include not only human language, but the languages of things as well.  The relevance and practicality of such an idea may seem elusive; but I don’t intend this post as a means to decipher the language of things.  Rather, I want to assess the consequences of language as matter and emergent phenomenon.
            Subsisting within all matter, language would ground an ontological division – as Žižek calls it, the “gap.”  This is because language establishes that which is communicable within matter, and that which is not; through the implementation of its language (e.g. naming for humans), matter cannot communicate everything about itself or the subject of its language.  It can only communicate that which is capable of being communicated.  If language, in this speculative material sense, indeed subsists within matter, then all matter naturally contains a dehiscence within itself.  There is always-already a separation between that which can be communicated in matter, and that which cannot.  This notion conjures the Heideggerian quality of “earth”: “We call this ground the earth.  What this word says is not to be associated with the idea of a mass of matter deposited somewhere, or with the merely astronomical idea of a planet.  Earth is that whence the arising brings back and shelters everything that arises as such.  In the things that arise, earth occurs essentially as the sheltering agent” (Heidegger 168).  However, we have to distinguish Benjamin’s linguistic project from Heidegger temporal-ontological project, because Heidegger’s “earth” relates to something of the perceptive, or sensory, imperfections of humankind; that is, the fault lies with our own inability to properly represent something of things to ourselves.  In Benjamin’s formulation, more radically and speculatively, this imperfection must reside already in the materiality of things.
            How did language achieve this paradoxical position in reality?  Language is, at the same time, both a referential material and a phenomenon of matter.  It refers to that which is communicable in things, but it is also part and parcel of things.  How does language, if it is a material phenomenon, refer to itself?  Benjamin points out that “[a]ll language communicates itself,” but what is the language of language?  We seem to fall, at this point, into an infinite regress of languages and meta-languages.  Benjamin, once again, offers us some assistance:
It is whether mental being [of both humans and things] can from the point of view of linguistic theory be described as of linguistic nature.  If mental being is identical with linguistic being, then a thing, by virtue of its mental being, is a medium of communication, and what is communicated in it is – in accordance with its mediating relationship – precisely this medium (language) itself.  Language is thus the mental being of things. (Benjamin 319-20)

We arrive here at the crux of the entire movement.  Earlier we noted that the mental being of humanity is language; here Benjamin tells us that language is also the mental being of things.  This coheres with Benjamin’s notion of revelation and expressibility; the more firmly rooted in the mind, the more concretely “thought,” the more coherently it can be expressed in language.  Somewhere along the way, humans lost touch with this primordial, original, divine language of things that allowed them to “speak” the mental being of things:
The language of things can pass into the language of knowledge and name only through translation – as many translations, so many languages – once man has fallen from the paradisiac state that knew only one language […] The paradisiac language of man must have been one of perfect knowledge; whereas later all knowledge is again infinitely differentiated in the multiplicity of language, was indeed forced to differentiate itself on a lower level as creation in name. (326-7)

Our “postmodern” historical position allows us to recognize that any pristine, originary language is an ideological illusion.  The ultimate language of the creative breath provides the grounding for Benjamin’s linguistic hierarchy; but we can transpose his framework onto a speculative notion of thing-ly language.  Benjamin argues that what transpired in the Fall of Man was “the birth of the human word, in which name no longer lives intact, and which has stepped out of name language, the language of knowledge, from what we may call its own immanent magic, in order to become expressly, as it were externally, magic” (327).  All we need to do is recognize that the “fall” never took place; language, whether human or thing-ly, has always been the source of gaps in matter.  It is always “stepped out” of itself, subsisting as matter and yet somehow reflexively referencing the material in which it subsists.
            That which is linguistic acts as a medium; but mediums, mediating apparatuses, are material.  Even the “ideas” we propose to think, the images conjured when someone else speaks, are nothing more than the reactions between neurons and synapses firing in our brains.  The meaning expressed in these “ideas” is nothing more than an emergent phenomenon resulting from the vastness and complexity of the entirety of language itself.  In order to achieve the grounding illusion of language (the centeredness of meaning), it must appear as a closed system; but it remains far from closed.  Language is infinite, spiraling always further and further out of control, adapting and evolving, continuing to sever itself from itself.  Benjamin suggests that, prior to the Fall, language somehow possessed an immediate quality; only after the Fall did it become a means of mediation.  But we know that language always mediates, can do nothing but mediate; because language material like everything else, and as matter it effects a radical split in the matter in which it inheres.  By its very communicable being, matter suffers an irreparable rupture.
            The title of this post suggests an analogous relationship between language and knowledge.  Knowledge could not exist without language, and knowledge itself is susceptible to the cultural limits of language, as thinkers like Michel Foucault have taught us.  But if language subsists in all things, then might we conclude that there is also a knowledge of things?  What does this mean?  If we follow Benjamin’s lead, then a knowledge of things is not a metaphysical essence that permeates all things, waiting for humans to discover it; it is not a divine power, an animistic mana that resides in the very earth.  Rather, a knowledge of things would merely be that which can be known about them.  Just as the linguistic being of things is that which is communicable in them, so is a knowledge of things that which can be known about them.  But does this not suggest that there is something that cannot be known about things?  Something that eludes human perception?
            Here we will avoid what Alain Badiou calls the “Great Temptation,” a concept explained by Ray Brassier in his book Nihil Unbound (a book that performs fantastic explications of the philosophical projects of both Meillassoux and Badiou).  Brassier writes that at the heart of matter we encounter a split, a fissure, effected by being’s consistent presentation of its own inconsistency (for Badiou, on whom Brassier comments, axiomatic set theory provides the ontological basis for this argument).  Essentially, this fissure always-already subsists within matter prior to any human, or cognitive, engagement with it.  The flaw lies not in human apperception, but in actual material noumena; an incommensurability exists between being and its presentation: “this is not, as mystics and negative theologians would have it, because being can only be presented as “absolutely Other’: ineffable, un-presentable, inaccessible via the structures of rational thought and therefore only approachable through some superior or initiatory form of non-conceptual experience.  This is the ‘Great Temptation’” (Brassier 107).  The great temptation is to insist that part of reality – some mystical, supernatural, metaphysical essence – must remain unknowable to us, in a Kantian sense (i.e. we can think the noumenon, but we cannot know it).  This, Brassier and Badiou insist, is misguided; in fact, we can know the “thing itself” because this rupture, or fissure, or lack, which we perceive as a hole in our perception, is nothing more than an actually existing hole in the thing.  The blind spot does not prohibit our knowledge of the thing; it is a part of the thing:
Consequently, the metaontological concept of presentation is that of anti-phenomenon; a split noumenon which vitiates every form of intellectual intuition insofar as it embodies the unobjectifiable dehiscence whereby, in exempting itself from the consistency which it renders possible, structure unleashes the very inconsistency it is obliged to foreclose.  The law of presentation conjoins the authorization of consistency and the prohibition of inconsistency in an unpresentable caesura wherein the deployment and subtraction of structure coincide. (107)

Benjamin’s fossil language, like Quentin Meillassoux’s arche-fossil, exposes and occupies a space once thought impossible for humans to detect; a space precluded by the imperfection of human senses and perceptive faculties.  This does not mean that the human organism, with all its senses and strange consciousness, is a perfect sensory entity, prepared for the reception of external stimuli and the perception of the noumenon.  The next piece of the puzzle lies in recognizing this gap, this fissure in things, the rupture of matter, in our very selves.  We must level the human, put it on par with everything else of which we have been speaking: we must see the human as a thing.  The human organism, the human thing, drenched in its thingliness and replete with all its misgivings and shortcomings (the blind spot right in front of our face, our inability to consciously access 100% of our brains, that same consciousness that effectively removes us from our animalistic mode of survival-existence…) cannot entirely conceptualize and understand itself.  Today neuroscience and philosophy of mind are plagued by questions about consciousness: what it is, how it arose, how it is changing, etc.  Rather than perceive those gaps, those caesuras, as spaces of knowledge yet to be filled in, perhaps we should reorient ourselves.  Perhaps the fissures we cannot seem to fill in are not fissures in our knowledge of ourselves; perhaps they are fissures in ourselves.