Monday, January 16, 2012

semiotics cont.


In Using ‘Use’: Pragmatic Consequences of the Metaphor of Culture as Resources Carlos Cornejo attempts to extrapolate an agent with intention from the use of signs.

Cornejo recognizes an antinomy between mechanistic views on agency (behaviourism and evolutionary psychology) and intentionalist views. He sees that current work in cultural semiotics succeeds in bypassing this antinomy by talking about ‘using resources’ but this antinomy remains. He then bravely asserts against the “19th-century suspicion against the individual mind” that the problem can be solved by recognizing the ‘grammar’ of pronouns. He writes:

Beginning with the statement that culture is used, it follows not only that there are different ways of using culture, but also that: (a) there is an agent who is using the cultural resource; (b) the agent is carrying out an action where the resource is indeed such; and (c) the action has a purpose. In other words, the grammatical use of ‘use’ demands not only a thing being used (the resource), but also: a user (condition [a] above); a context in which the resource is used (condition [b]); and a goal (condition [c]), through which a search for the used thing becomes and instrument. (Cornejo, Using Use, p.64-5)

Cornejo naively seeks to invoke teleology or intention towards a future result as if the hemeneuticians of suspicion were behaviourists who would have a problem with intentionality or that the use of grammar is somehow an argument for an autonomous subject. However, when Nietzsche or Freud criticize agency it isn’t in favour of a mechanistic account but rather it is in talking about a causa sui agent without reference to internalized objects which constitute our drives, fixations which form our character, or a confluence of impulses which overdetermine an action. Cornejo invokes the most naïve form of volition: “in the domain of human action… we see or feel within ourselves this relation toward the future [and w]hen this natural state of pre-comprehension is broken, we fall into perplexity… we ask for reasons” (ibid. p.68). We are given no form of development of agency. It is simply a “natural state” and the only evidence given for it is that grammatically to use something requires a ‘user’. Similarly, Cornejo invokes Peirce’s use of a sign, which has triadic structure, but fails to reference Peirce’s concepts of Firstness and Secondness that place the sign in a context of development. He seemingly brings it up just to make an analogy between it and a form of intention in which there is a distal or focal awareness (the interpretant) of intention and proximal or marginal awareness (which brings together the sign and object) (ibid. p. 69). Basically, what semiotics amounts to for Cornejo is lip-service to “varieties of interpretation” so that he doesn’t sound like he is claiming objectivity for the sign as he does for the subject that ‘uses’ it (ibid. p.69). Ultimately, simply claiming an agent who gives himself reasons for acting and relating the use of signs to “how cultural resources are experienced by a particular actor” merely repeats a naïve empiricism and mysticism in regards to volition (ibid. p.68)[1].

Long ago Nietzsche had already showed how an appeal to the pronoun ‘I’ -of belief in grammar- is a false induction. “A thought comes when ‘it’ wishes, and not when ‘I’ wish”, he wrote and a person wrongly “infers here according to the grammatical habit: ‘Thinking is an activity; every activity requires an agent; consequently—“ when there is no direct link between consciousness and choosing thoughts (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil-17). In effect, there is a gap between (self-) consciousness and thoughts and though Freud and Nietzsche recognize that intentionality is in a conscious ego ideal mediated by words do inform our actions, what is called into question are the ‘reasons’ or rationalizations we represent to ourselves about how desire is formed. With Cornejo’s rational, autonomous chooser there is no discussion about how relations with others may make an object desirable. For example, a person may desire a goal because it is the way that he may gain recognition for his potency or courage amongst others. A person may desire a goal that is unpopular with others because he wants to represent himself as being above others. A person may desire to play the role of a father to his children and receive satisfaction from imagining how his children see him. A person may also prefer not to get any attention and get vicarious pleasure through his children or have a more self-effacing relationship in respect to others. There are many motivations, and many ‘language games’, through which we can talk about the motivations of others. It is rare that an agent will represent to others, and even to himself, that the reason he wanted to have a family was in order to play the role of father. Instead he will give us many ‘reasons’ for why one ought to have children or list some of the pleasures involved in some of the activities with the kids or how he might have had them for his wife[2]. Moreover, by talking about desire, we no longer talk about how there is directly one cause of an action. Actions can be over-determined or from a ‘confluence of drives’ but for the people with wisdom or what Wittgenstein calls ‘expert judgment’ the main or strongest motivation can be discerned[3]. In contrast, Nietzsche puts Cornejo’s common error in another light:

The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far, it is a sort of a rape and perversion of logic; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for "freedom of will" in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one's actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society, involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui, and, with more than Munchausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness (ibid. -21)

Marx and Freud hold a similar view and are more explicit about how the subject is formed. “[T]he essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual” Marx writes “in reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach-6). However Marx doesn’t connect the ‘practical activity’ (i.e. technology and political economy) that informs the ‘sensuousness’ (the externalized essence of humans in culture) of people with different epistemological objects nor explanations of how certain means of production produce a certain form of religion. With Freud and psychoanalysis we can get into more concrete examples of how the subject is formed by the internalization of objects. For example, Freud gives us two examples of how we give up our conscience and intentionality in Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego. He draws our attention to how in a mob one can give up one’s conscience to the leader and commit heinous acts one’s conscience would usually prohibit alone. He also brings our attention to hypnotism and how suggestions can be planted in people so that they perform tasks and rationalize their actions as if it was their intention all along. In both cases, the fact that we can have part of our mind taken over by another person betrays that the imago or transference object of intentionality or conscience first existed outside of oneself and was later internalized. If intentionality or conscience were causa sui then the hypnotist and group leader should rightfully be reckoned to possess magical powers as different primitive tribes believe. Lacan takes this reference to the internalization of an imago even further and draws our attention to how even simple logic or arithmetic arises from such an internalization. He gives the example of how a simpleton will make a mistake like, “I have three brothers Paul, Ernest, and Me”, as an illustration of how ability to count is a ‘praxis’— something we know how to do, as opposed to something we understand (Lacan, Seminar XI, p. 20). For if it was something we understood and arose from our rational nature or essence how could the simpleton make such a mistake? Wittgenstein’s work is similarly aimed at dispelling philosophical claims that human nature is rational as opposed to desire based. In the first section of the Investigations Wittgenstein uses the mundane example of a child being sent to the grocer’s to get five red apples. He emphasizes that “the meaning of the word ‘five’” never came into play, “only how the word ‘five’ is used” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations-1). In other words, the child used the praxis of counting and it is in this praxis that the word “five” has meaning. “Five” is to be produced by counting or through arithmetic as opposed to ‘hanging in the air’ as some mental entity[4]. I have memorized that the answer to 2+2=4 but when it comes to a larger number such as 256+298 I must either ‘carry’ on paper or in my head in order to get the sum because there is no intuitional or phenomenal access to mathematical operations which will give me the answer[5]. I ‘blindly obey’ the praxis and having signifiers for the numbers allows me to do the praxis (i.e. carry the one after nine) to calculate bigger numbers. There is mathematical certainty, Wittgenstein acknowledges, but it comes from everyone ending up with the same results as opposed to some individual intellectual intuition.

I appreciate Cornejo’s antinomy between mechanistic thinkers and intentionalists but in regards to the criticism of the subject in Nietzsche, Marx, Freud the intentionalists should properly be called mystics. Intentionalists, along with all other forms of psychology, psychopharmacology, evolutionary biology, and semiotic/narrative studies have an essentially pre 19th century philosophical view on human nature. They cannot explain the transition from animal to human or they have to appeal to a metaphysical element in contrast to the dialectical materialism of the 19th century that shows how the mind is developed through the suppression of material instincts and internalization of objects or imagos.

With this criticism in mind there are properly two main categories based upon the subjective and objective. In the former there are mystics who appeal to a subjective absolute human freedom through reason or through the conscience. In the former case the intentionalists can’t give satisfactory answers on the appearance of reason in a child nor its departure through mental illness or death. In the latter case the spiritualists talk about the eternal moral order in the subjective experience of the conscience. However, they do so as if different religions, moral orders, and revelations didn’t exist from culture to culture. These two are followed by the mechanists who are concerned with causes in relation to humans belonging to a certain genus or culture. With them the physicalists talk about humans as if they were animals and everything was evolutionary and no culture existed. The narrativists talk about culture, its propagation of roles and stereotypes, and the uniqueness of cultural difference as if culture always existed and had no body, or pre-verbal animal, which it was based upon[6]. To appreciate Peirce one must look under these ideological illusions and grasp the transition from animal to human and appreciate objectivity in both a reference to the body and for the signifiers that inform desire.

[1] I’ll explain this charge of mysticism shortly.

[2] This isn’t to say that these can never be the motivations but only that people often misrepresent what their motivations or what they are capable of doing to themselves. For example, a husband may ‘pat himself on the back’ for being good and never cheating on his wife even though he is unattractive, unable to flirt, and would never find the opportunity to cheat even if he really desired it.

[3] It is certainly possible to be convinced by evidence that someone is in such and such a state of mind, that for instance, he is not pretending. But ‘evidence’ here includes ‘imponderable’ evidence… include[ing] subtleties of glance, of gesture, or tone. I may recognize a genuine loving look, distinguish it from a pretended one (and here there can, of course, be a ‘ponderable’ confirmation of my judgment). But I may be quite incapable of describing the difference…— if I were a very talented painter I might conceivably represent the genuine and the simulated glance in pictures (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p.194).

[4] It is a property of this number that this process leads to it; it is the end of a process (is itself part of the process) (Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, I, #84).

[5] Ask yourself: Would it be imaginable for someone to learn to do sums in his head without ever doing written or oral ones?– ‘Learning it’ will mean: being made able to do it (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations-385, emphasis added).

[6] Wilhelm Reich coined and criticized the lack of dialectical thinking in the mechanists and mystics (See Ether, God and Devil). The two types ignore the multiplicity of transferences, drives, and instincts that comprise the individual or ignore the self-consciousness which we have of some of drives that have a teleological nature.

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