Archive for the ‘Heidegger’ Category

[Audio lecture summary] John D. Caputo: Agamben and the flesh

June 16, 2010

These are my notes from an extremely informative lecture by Caputo on Agamben. He covers a lot of ground, including the books The Open and The Coming Community, while also referencing Heidegger, Deleuze, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre and a few random Scholastics, as part of a lecture series on ‘philosophies of the flesh’. This can be found HERE all Caputo’s lectures can be found on his website, which is HERE

Agamben sketches out a history of metaphysics according to the anthropological machine. This is the history of humanism defined as politics. Heidegger is seen as the last thinker of humanism (as Dasein is the possessor of superior essence) yet is also the great renouncer of humanism: as the ‘human’ doesn’t reach the real essence of humanity which is separated from animals by an abyss. Agamben’s notion of ‘the open’ is that which is a reconciliation of the human with its animality via an ‘attitude’ that opens the condition of salvation. This messianic moment of salvation is the post-historical end of the anthropological machine that produces exclusively human history.

(more…)

[Quick quote] Heidegger and Fink: Heraclitus Seminar

June 16, 2010

Now come, fire!: The sun is blasting through onto my desk today and it’s reminded me of old Heraclitus. Here’s a quick quote from Fink in regards to the Heraclitian notion of Helios:

The times of the day and seasons apparently stand in connection with fire, a fire that does not, like lightening, suddenly tear open and place everything in the stamp of the outline, but that holds out like the heavenly fire, and in the duration, travels through the hours of the day and the times of the season… The heavenly fire brings forth growth. It nourishes growth and maintain it. The light-fire of Ηλιοζ [helios : the sun] tears open – different from lightning – continually; it opens the brightness of day in which it allows growth and allows time to each thing. This sun-fire, the heaven – illuminating power of Ηλιοζ, does not tarry fixed at one single place, but travels along the vault of heaven; and in this passage on the vault of heaven the sun-fire is light – and life-appropriating and time measuring. The metric of the sun’s course mentioned here lies before every calculative metric made by humans. We must think radiant Zeus together with Ηλιοζ as the power of the day which illuminates the entity of τα παντα [ta panta: the many].

(from Heidegger and Fink’s seminar on Heraclitus, p.37 and 39)

Heating up: the transmutations of media-beings: Part 2

November 19, 2009

In my previous post I experimented with a tetrad-fourfold hybrid analysis of media and discovered that the tetrad could be used to look at non-human specific media. Laws of Media (LOM) was a fascinating read that has encouraged me to seek out some more McLuhan. This post brings together insights from The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, of which I can report that there is a lot more to  them than this simple tetrad. This article aims to outline many of the arguments from LOM towards a questioning consideration of Heidegger and technology.

One of the many surprises from reading the McLuhan’s LOM, is their reading of Heidegger and the phenomenological tradition. Firstly, they are aware of the importance of the ground/figure relationship for Heidegger and the limitations of his approach. The McLuhan’s want to not only recognize the ground/figure dif-ference, but the figure is the ground and visa versa: ‘[Heidegger] has not noted that the ground is formed as a mosaic, structured acoustically, nor that its structure is entirely due to its interface with figures’ (LOM, p.63). Essentially, the McLuhan’s critique the notion of thinking being beyond beings. For the McLuhan’s, Graham Harman and Levinas, this is impossible.

LOM is not the only place the McLuhan (senior) has commented on Heidegger. In The Gutemberg Galaxy (TGG), he makes the claim that “Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave” (TGG, p.248). Heidegger claims that technology is a mode of enframing, which as the McLuhan’s explain “is not a batch of concepts, but a special technique of perception that reveals the ground” (LOM, p.63). Heidegger understands this in the negative as ‘fleeing from the question of being’. It is in the notion of ‘question’ that we must question. If we no longer question being, then we no longer respond to the absent gods as they beacon us to wonder at being. Put simply, if there is no longer an absence that brings us to question the relation with beings, we have lost the RTH and have become PAH automatons. Thus, Heidegger’s favourite philosophical demon (not daimon), Descartes, whose mechanical and mathematical metaphysics of presence, is the main culprit for our modern ontologically degenerate forgetting of the question. Or so he thinks.

Descartes championed the mechanical which was then repeated by Newton. McLuhan comments with wonderfully dry whit in Understanding Media that Newton “in an age of clocks, managed to present the physical universe in the image of a clock”. Whilst “Blake spoke of the need to be delivered “from single vision and Newton’s sleep,” knowing very well that Newton’s response to the challenge of the new mechanism was itself merely a mechanical repetition of the challenge”. Concurrent to Blake, it would be an understatement to say that Heidegger was not fond of mechanization. However, McLuhan notes that Heidegger champions the electrical. McLuhan makes the claim that Heidegger has a non-literate bias in his philosophy and language. Heidegger wants to ‘turn’ the being of Dasein towards the ground of being, the RTH withdrawn essence in contradistinction to the PAH revealed relations of scientific and mathematical representation. In LOM we learn that media which focus to the figures of visual space are conceptual, while acoustic space brings focus to the ground. It is in this acoustic space that Heidegger sees the no-thing which characterizes Eastern oral traditions of the non-literate. This turning towards the acoustic is hampered by the medium Heidegger’s work circulates within: the phonetic [orthographic] alphabet.

‘The interiorization of the technology of the phonetic alphabet translates man from the magical world of the ear to the neutral visual world.’ (TGG, p.21). The manner of his work is abstract and visual, even though he is trying to ‘explore the occult (hidden) area’ of beings (LOM, p.63). In McLuhan’s terms, Heidegger’s concern for the essence and saving power of technology is a response to the ‘left brained’ visual/conceptual logos interpreted as logic which characterized western philosophy since the instantiation of metaphysics with Plato amplified by Descartes and culminating with Nietzsche. Graphocentricism followed in the 17th century, which is why Heidegger re-enacts the pre-Socratic logos of Heraclitus, a logos of the oral tradition of beings gathered by speech. Heidegger’s turn towards poetry exemplifies the ‘right brained’ acoustic/perceptual spiritual line of flight away from the PAH, towards a ‘hearkening’, a hearing beyond sound and tone, that indicates a deeper dense of perception of an openness to the simultaneous withdrawing and the taking place (On the Essence of Language, p.88).It is this ‘hearkening’ to acoustic space that Heidegger’s ideas can ”surf’ along the electronic technological revolution commanded by the mosaic image of the television and visual display unit, while simultaneously, his message is replicated through the medium of the printed page, the flat visual space Heidegger despises. To compromise, he turns to poetry.

The poetry of Trakl, Holderlin and Rilke (and Heidegger himself) is a ‘cool’ medium that requires participation. Like Nietzschian aphorisms, which signal an incomplete reasoning, poetry presents a gap which forces the reader to think instead of swallowing a complete package or method of thought. This is in contrast to Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ (B&T), which is hot in it’s attempt at an exhaustive deconstruction of the meaning of being. The fact that B&T was never finished, party shows the movement from hot prose to cool poetry that would characterize his later work. Although, in essence, his tool analysis fourfold was present as early as 1919, B&T was a product of the hot medium of phenomenological analysis, whose practice of the epoché created mountains of paper analysis in the name of phenomenological ‘seeing’. Thus the momentum and style of Husserlian phenomenology was still in top gear as Heidegger was writing B&T, only later to ease off the accelerator and take the fourfold’s cool structure seriously.

There is no essence of Dasein that needs protecting and saving through the poetic return of the gods: McLuhan stresses that “the acoustic power available to the poetic establishment that Plato warned against was puny by comparison to the sensory stress exerted by any one of our technologies and its grounds” (LOM, p64). The human essence is always already a fluctuating media-being through the facticity of worldly equipmentality. There is no ‘clearing’ (lichtung) which sets the horizon of meaning, as human Dasein’s worlded horizon changes according to newly acquired media practices. Heidegger fails to notice that new media all always demonized before they are normalized. As McLuhan observes in TGG, there was ‘considerable alarm and revulsion’ at the mounting use of of books in the late 17th century which contrasts with the modern concern for the ‘end of the book’. Technology itself does not have a moral dimension, but provokes a moral response because of its transformative powers: technology is not itself a disaster, only the myopia of being unprepared for the fundamental changes to human perceptions, habits, values they could bring.

NB – Heidegger’s logocentricism was deconstructed by Derrida, who, through McLuhan’s eyes, was responding the hypocrisy of Heidegger surfing the electric (i.e. the visual space of writing) while promoting the acoustic space of speaking. Heidegger was in neglect of the arch-writing that makes speech possible and thus Heidegger remains committed to a metaphysics of presence: as writing involves the absence of the speaker, whereas the speaker is always present to the listener. Derrida’s archi-writing seems to not only recognize speech and writing as modes of signification, but that neither is subordinate to the other when seeking being qua being. McLuhan knowingly  deconstructs himself when he notes that contained in the fourfold structure of the self proclaimed amazing revolutionary thought of the tetrad itself is its reversal into ‘the external logical method’: hardware (the physical stuff of the world) becomes software (word), “thereby losing their murky, non-linguistic materiality” as Harman writes in his article ‘Phenomenology and the tetrad’. He wants to make us aware of the acute workings and transformations of media, just as Derrida wants to engage in inter-textual deconstruction while making us aware of the impossibility of the end of his task.

This is a particularly interesting clip of Heidegger’s. Most people use TV’s and Radio’s yet have no idea how they work, except for a few technically minded people,  in the same way, most people think they are thinking, yet only a few people actually know what it means to think. For Heidegger. what we think is thought is the message which hides a medium which enframes how we think. This analytic visual space prioritizes being expressed through its presence in visual space. Thus, beings forget the acoustic space of being.

In my previous post I experimented with a tetrad-fourfold hybrid analysis of media and discovered that the tetrad could be used to look at non-human specific media. However, I have now finished Laws of Media (LOM), about which I can report that there is a lot more to it than this simple tetradic structure. This article aims to outline many of the arguments from LOM and correspond them to developments in object-oriented philosophy (OOP).

One of the many surprises from reading the McLuhan’s LOM, is their reading of Heidegger and the phenomenological tradition. Firstly, they are aware of the importance of the ground/figure relationship for Heidegger and the limitations of his approach. The McLuhan’s want to not only recognise the ground/figure dif-ference, but the figure is the ground and visa versa: ‘[Heidegger] has not noted that the ground is formed as a mosaic, structured acoustically, nor that its structure is entirely due to its interface with figures’ (LOM, p.63). Essentially, the McLuhan’s critique the notion of thinking being beyond beings. For the McLuhan’s, Graham Harman and Levinas, this is impossible.

LOM is not the only place the McLuhan (senior) has commented on Heidegger. In The Guttemburg Galaxy (TGG), he makes the claim that “Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave” (TGG, p.248). Heidegger claims that technology is a mode of enframing, yet understands this in the negative as ‘fleeing from the question of being’. It is in the notion of ‘question’ that we must question. If we not longer question being, then we no longer respond to the absent gods as they beacon us to wonder at being. Put simply, if there is no longer an absence that brings us to question the relation with beings, we have lost the RTH and have become PAH automatons. Thus, Heidegger’s favourite philosophical demon (not daimon), Descartes, whose mechanical and mathematical metaphysics of presence, is the main culprit for our modern ontologically degenerate forgetting of the question.

Descartes championed the mechanical which was then repeated by Newton. McLuhan comments with wonderfully dry whit in Understanding Media that Newton “in an age of clocks, managed to present the physical universe in the image of a clock”. Whilst “Blake spoke of the need to be delivered “from single vision and Newton’s sleep,” knowing very well that Newton’s response to the challenge of the new mechanism was itself merely a mechanical repetition of the challenge”. It would be an understamemnt to say that Heidegger was not fond of mechanization. However, McLuhan notes that Heidegger champions the electrical. McLuhan makes the claim that Heidegger has a non-literate bias in his philosophy and language. Heidegger wants to ‘turn’ the being of Dasein towards the ground of being, the RTH withdrawn essence in contradistinction to the PAH revealed relations of scientific and mathematical representation. In LOM we learn that media which focus to the figures of visual space are conceptual, while acoustic space brings focus to the ground. It is in this acoustic space that Heidegger sees the no-thing which characterizes Eastern oral traditions of the non-literate. This turning towards the acoustic is hampered by the medium Heidegger’s work circulates within: the phonetic alphabet. ‘The interiorization of the technology of the phonetic alphabet translates man from the magical world of the ear to the neutral visual world.’ (TGG, p.21). The manner of his work is abstract and visual, even though he is trying to ‘explore the occult (hidden) area’ of beings (LOM, p.63). In McLuhan’s terms, Heidegger’s concern for the essence and saving power of technology is a response to the ‘left brained’ visual/conceptual logocentricism of western philosophy since the instantiation of metaphysics with Plato amplified by Descartes and culminating with Nietzsche. Heidegger’s turn towards poetry exemplifies the ‘right brained’ acoustic/perceptual spiritual line of flight away from the PAH, towards a ‘hearkening’, a hearing beyond sound and tone, that indicates a deeper dense of perception of an openness to the simultaneous withdrawing and the taking place (On the Essence of Language, p.88).

The poetry of Track, Holderlin and Rilke (and Heidegger himself) is a ‘cool’ medium that requires participation. Like Nietzschian aphorisms, which signal an incomplete reasoning, poetry presents a gap which forces the reader to think instead of swallowing a complete package or method of thoughts. This is in contrast to Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ (B&T), which is hot in it’s attempt at an exhaustive deconstruction of the meaning of being. The fact that B&T was never finished, party shows the movement from hot prose to cool poetry that would characterize his later work. Although, in essence, his tool analysis fourfold was present as early as 1919, B&T was a product of the hot medium of phenomenological analysis, whose practice of the epoché created mountains of paper analysis in the name of phenomenological ‘seeing’. Thus the momentum and style of Husserlian phenomenology was still in top gear as Heidegger was writing B&T, only later to ease off the accelerator and take the fourfold’s cool structure seriously.

What Heidegger failed to see, was how technologies are not simply inventions which people employ but are the means by which people are re-invented. There is no essence of Dasein that needs protecting and saving through the poetic return of the gods: the human essence is always already a fluctuating media-being through the facticity of worldly equipmentality. There is no ‘clearing’ (lichtung) which sets the horizon of meaning, as human Dasein’s worlded horizon changes according to newly acquired media practises. New media all always demonized before they are normalized. As McLuhan observes in TGG, there was ‘considerable alarm and revulsion’ at the mounting use of of books in the late 17th century which contrasts with the modern concern for the ‘end of the book’. Technology itself does not have a moral dimension, but provokes a moral response because of its transformative powers: technology is not itself a disaster, only the myopia of being unprepared for the fundamental changes to human perceptions, habits, values they could bring.

Heating up: the transmutations of media-beings: Part 1

October 28, 2009

energy-bulb-615Graham Harman’s fourfold is very different to the tetrad of McLuhan, but there is a firm link between the two: each has fours poles intersected by two dualisms; the poles interrelate and transform each other; each part exists together simultaneously; they could be universal. Thus, Harman’s fourfold, which is largely inspired by Heidegger’s fourfold [das geviert] needs supplementing with McLuhan’s tetrad. As he explains, “All that is lacking is a detailed account of the mechanics of how the four poles [gods, mortals, earth, sky] interact with one another. Such an account is found only in ‘Laws of Media’. I believe that Harman will cross-pollinate these two fourfolds in his upcoming ‘The Quadruple Object’ and which is already hinted at in his articles ‘The McLuhans and Metaphysics’ and ‘The Tetrad and Phenomenology’.

First of all I will review Harman’s fourfold and then look to see how this intersects with McLuhan’s tetrad. Harman’s fourfold consists of these interlinking features: time, space, essence, eidos.

    Essence is that which ontologically withdraws from view (in Heideggerese, the ready-to-hand, RTH). It is the absence at the heart of the object which cannot be reduced to a relation. It is that part of the object which stays the same from one moment to the next (the persistence of a unity of multiple parts). It is the Real object. It cannot be exhausted by any number of ‘notes’ (to use Zibiri’s terms): complete description is impossible.

    The eidos is that which presents itself in ontic relations (the present-a-hand, PAH). It is that which is made manifest to us and other objects. It is the relational usefulness of an object.

    Time and space are not a continuum (i.e. two structuring principles that support all beings in them and beyond), but a by product of the tension between the essence and the eidos of objects. The changes in relations give the impression of movement in time. Objects are not in time, they are through time. Objects are time-space. But it is only because objects have both related and withdrawn sides (one could say light and dark, or chiaroscuro), that time is possible at all. Thus because all objects (semiotic, non-semiotic, material or imaginary) have both relating and non-relating parts, we cannot ontologically prioritize one over they other. Each object is a real event which unfolds as time.

The tetrad of McLuhan relies on a similar dualism of relational/withdrawn objects via his well known maxim of ‘the medium is the message’. This means that the medium not its content is the vehicle for the message of the object. The real object and its essence is the medium which is withdrawn from view. The content of the medium is the relational eidos, the RTH which engages vicariously with other objects. However, the McLuhan’s remain staunch correlationists who insist that their tetrad is only applicable to human related media. To support their anthropocentricism they bring in Fritjof Capra and quote from his ‘The Tao of Physics’, which explains that ‘all things and events we perceive are creations of the mind’ (cited in McLuhans and Metaphysics, p.107). Harman shuns this modest claim seeing the tetrad as having implications beyond the idealism of the internal world of the human mind and a powerful axis within a robust realism. How then does the tetrad account for object-object relations?

I’ll try to experiment here using pollen as my medium:

tetrad pollen

Primitive plants reproduce using flagellated sperm which must swim through water to find and then fertilize ova [obsolese]. This obviously puts great limitations on where a plant might live and still reproduce. The solution is the development of a desiccation-resistant capsule that is capable of transporting sperm through the air [enhance]. This innovation we call pollen. Pollen consists of the male gametophyte and the haploid mitotic product of that gametophyte: sperm nuclei [retrieve]. Mcrospores develop into pollen grains, which mature to become the male gametophytes of seed plants. The pollen grains can be carried away by wind or animals after their release from the microsporangium. In seed plants, the use of resistant, far-traveling, airborne pollen to bring gametes together is a terrestrial adaptation that led to even greater success and diversity of plants on land [reverse] (p. 600, in Biology by Campbell & Reece, 2008).

I’m not sure if this is a correct analysis, but it is the best I can do as of now.

The point, I think, for Harman in the quadruple object is not to merely bring these together but show how change occurs. With Levi Bryant’s onticology, object’s have endo-relations:  the aspect of an object eld in reserve in order to give the object consistency. It’s endo-relations give the conditions for the possibility of ex0-relations, thus endo-relations consist of affects, i.e. the capacity to act and be acted upon.  Exo-realtions are relations between objects. Exo-relations can, however, affect the endo-relations of objects. He calls his brand of speculative realism ‘onticology’ or object-oriented ontology. He wants to focus upon how the withdrawn (or barred, as he calls it, mimicking Lacan) ontological endo-relations of objectile’s form and entropy within networks (exo-relations) and to examine the process of their ‘genesis’. Whereas Harman is focused upon the ontico-ontological dif-ferance. This ontico-ontological moment requires an engine of change, to propel ‘vicarious causation’ into linking and translation between object assemblages. I think we will see Harman use the McLuhan’s concept of ‘heating’ for his own metaphysics.

Heating, for the McLuhan’s allows for change. ‘All change in the world occurs through some transmutation of an existing figure/ground relationship’ (McLuhans and Met, p.116). Media are now defined by a thermodynamic scale between hot and cold. A hot medium does not allows the relating object room for interpretive maneuver, whereas a cold medium does. In the last couple of years the TV has been reinvented. From the small black boxes that were fuzzy and blurry with analogue static, we now how large plasma screen HD TV’s with digital receivers and blu-ray DVD hyper-detailed movies. Thus what was once a cool medium (compared to the cinema which was a hot medium), has heated into the hot medium of the cinema (or ‘home cinema’, as we now call it). Although due to the possibilities opened up by digital broadcasting, there is now more scope for interaction, thus it becomes a cooler medium. The cinema which was previously hot, now gets even hotter with the introduction of hyper-immersion 3D movies and iMax mega-screen cinema complexes. In contrast to this, Ye Olde Shakespearian theatre (such as The Globe) is a cold medium, as it leaves a lot up to the imagiglobe4nation of the relating object: the viewing public (where the antiquated authenticity of the ‘experience’ becomes its main selling point – could this be an aspect of the reversal of both cinema and theatre?).

When a medium thrusts upon another object an over-abundance of information, the relating object cannot decipher all this info and thus abstracts it into a pattern: ‘data overload equals pattern recognition’ (p.117). The figure becomes the ground; the message becomes the medium. The hot hyper-details of ‘figures’ (message) in our day to day lives, over time, are cooled into a narrative ‘ground’ (medium) of phases and moments we remember with fondness or embarrassment. Using the TV and cinema example, the medium overheats when the demands on cinemas to get newer technology, equipment and regulations to keep up with the logic of consumer desire: more detail equals greater immersion and a better ‘experience’, so the advertising tag line exclaims. This ‘detail’ is another word for ‘information’. As the information levels get ramped up, the medium starts to heat up until it exposes the limitations of the medium itself and reverses into a new medium.

For cinema’s, Disney’s ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!’ ride in Disney Land takes this immersion to a farcical level of ‘realism’ (water squirted in your face, air blasted at the back of your legs and giant 3D snakes leaping out from the screen). The heating of any medium takes work. To make and maintain this Disney Land ride takes a lot of work. So much work that very few places and people can replicate its model. It’s selling point is its unique ability to sustain its essence and eidos over time in a very few instances. If we look at this tedradically, then the logic of the cinema should reverse into a new medium which exploits the high definition immersion, but without the crippling limitation of the cost, size and work required to sustain these qualities. There may even be interactive elements.

I will try and expand upon this in the next few weeks with a new post which details further this flowering of ideas between McLhuan and Harman.

‘Awakenings’ and Disinhibitors: Thoughts on the human-animal distiction

October 1, 2009

image127In his book, ‘The Open’, Georgio Agamben unfogged another area of his intellectual terrain which has cross-pollinating implications to his work on biopower, law and humanity. Through a reading of Baron Jacodb Uexkull, a zoologist who aimed to abandon anthropocentric perspectives of life-sciences and understand the life-world of insects and animals, Agamben seeks to follow and go beyond Heidegger in an attempt at uncovering the unthought between the animal and the human. Like Heidegger, Agamben’s focus is on the notion of ‘world’. By defining ‘world’ we define the human. For Uexkull, a life-world (Umwelt) is the environment-world dictated by ‘carriers of significance’, ‘marks’ or as Heidegger puts it ‘disinhibitors’. These disinhibitors are things of interest. More importantly, they are the only things of interest for an animal or insect. Using this observation as a starting point, this article aims to use the film ‘Awakenings’ and Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy to tease out a more appropriate definition of world which is big enough for humans and animals.

tick-main_Full

In one fascinating investigation of the Ixodes ricinus, which is commonly known as a ‘tick’, Uexkull discovers that a tick responds exclusively to three disinhibitors: 1) the odour of the butyric acid contained in the sweat of all mammals; 2) the correct blood/bodily temperature of 37 degrees; 3) the skin’s typology (if it has blood vessels). If these disinhibitors are never encountered, the tick will lie dormant, in a ‘period of waiting’. Once the criteria has been met, the tick acts indiscriminately on any substance or creature defined only by the presentation of these qualities. The animal, Heidegger notes, is fully closed in the circle of its disinhibitors. Beings are not revealed to the animal, but they are not closed off. It is never revealed to itself as being, neither is its environment. How does the animal relate to the world and to being? For Heidegger, the animal never relates to being as being. They are always “suspended.. between itself and its environment” (H in A, 54). “If [animal] behaviour is not a relation to beings, does this mean that it is a relation to the nothing? No!” writes Heidegger, yet “it must be a relation to something, which must itself be?”. By conclusion, animals must be open (offen) but not disconcealled/openable (offenbar). What this means for the animal is that it has something, but does not have a world, it has only disinhibitors.

The problem I see with this is Heidegger’s necessity to keep the human mode of access to being superior via his concept of ‘the open’. It is through ‘the open’ that Heidegger wants to counter the ‘monstrous anthropomorphization of.. the animal and a corresponding animalization of man’ he sees in the work of Nietzsche which is ‘the oblivion of being’ squarely at work (H in A, 58). For Heidegger, it is fundamentally this fleeing from what is uniquely Dasein’s being that equates to nihilism. It is only through ‘the gaze of authentic thought’, Dasein’s being-towards-death whose being is of concern for it, ‘can see the open which names the unconcealdness of being’ (H in A, 58). The whole of Heidegger argument rests on his notion of the open (or the clearing, as it is better known), who has access to the open, who is in the open, which is reserved elusively for Dasein.

It is here that I hear an interjection from Graham Harman: “there is no free transcendent clearing, in human Dasein or elsewhere” (Tool-being, p. 288). The possibilities-to-be that are presented to Dasein by it’s openness to being are not purely futural, as Heidegger states in Being and Time, they are conditions of the actual relations of objects as they unfold as events. But, as Heidegger says, “the animal is excluded from the essential domain of the conflict between unconcealdness and concealedness. The sign of such an exclusion is that no animal or plant “has the word”’ (H in A, p. 58). [For a rejection of this, see my last post HERE] The word does not bring us any closer to being and does not mean Dasein has a world any more or less than an animal. To make his point, Heidegger refers to the experience of profound boredom as something unique to Dasein which proves that Dasein has a entirely different relation to the as-structure of being than animals. Profound boredom is the feeling of being ‘abandoned in emptiness’ to objects that ‘have nothing to offer us’. They have nothing: no-thing; no specific being that seeks to captivate us. There are no disinhibitors which can engage us in a task or project, nothing to be taken with, there is no captivation, yet we are held to it. If I wait in a super market queue I become bored because I am not captivated by anything, my range of disinhibitors doesn’t include the glossy magazine full of useful calorie counting tips that stares at me from the display which includes tooth rotting temptations and a range of insurance products. In this nothingness, I am handed over to a proximity to being equiprimordial to the captivation of animals towards abstract disinhibitors.

In the film ‘Awakenings’ Malcolm Sayer , the doctor played by Robin Williams, brings a set of catatonic patience ‘back to life’ through the administration of a new drug called ‘L-DOPA’. There are many wonderful themes throughout this film that I won’t cover here (I might write a post about it), but for our purposes it is enough to look at how the film (and I’m sure, a lot of actual medical case history to go with it) gives credibility to Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (OOP) against Heidegger using Heidegger’s own notion of disinhibitors. Such is the simplicity and power of the film ‘Awakenings’ it was quite clear how these issues overlap. The patients in the film do not respond by themselves but require a push start or some kind of sensual provocation. Although there are many examples, the clearest example I like the most is when Lucy (played by Alice Drummond) tries to walk over to the water fountain but stops. Dr Sayer believes he understands the problem based upon his ‘borrowing of will’ theory. Lucy stops before she reaches the window because her field of vision is broken. The chequered pattern of black and white squares under her feet come to an end. There is nothing to ‘will’ her onwards. Dr Sayer and nurse Eleanor colour the floor to match the chequered pattern. When they watch Lucy this time, she doesn’t stop at the edge but continues forward but not to the water fountain as Dr Sayer thought, but to a fan. The floor acts as a visual disinhibitor, in the same way my boredom in the supermarket is only broken by my turn at the checkout.

L-DOPA

L-DOPA

The difference between me and Lucy is that the disinhibitors have been reduced for Lucy. Although I may suffer profound boredom at the supermarket, the number of disinhibitors are still greater than Lucy’s although my orientation towards beings is one of ‘inactive possibilization’, the refusal and indifference towards beings as being something in particular. Scientifically, boredom is said to be related to a lack of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is formed by the decarboxylation of L-DOPA (according to Wikipedia). The massive doses of L-DOPA administered to the patients in the film were enough to create enough dopamine to expand their range of disinhibitors. I would like to define disinhibitors as ‘paths of abstraction’. For instance, I look at the lamp in front of me. I intend the lamp. Before it was there it was not there. Silent and invisible yet being. I knew it was there but I haven’t thought about it since I last turned it off, about 12 hours ago. What do I think of when looking the lamp: 1) it is something 2) It’s a lamp 3) it’s a pink lamp 4) it head droops down like a wilted flower. I could go on, but I won’t. My first line of abstraction was the ‘isness’ of the lamp, my next line of abstraction was its species identification as a lamp. Next was the abstraction of an identified colour relation. And finally, a metaphorical abstraction. Notice that even the first indicator, ‘isness’, is an abstraction. One way of looking at the difference between human beings and animals is down to the control of disinhibitors. I see human disinhibitors in a spectrum. The activation and deactivation of disinhibitors is caused by any number of environmental stimulae (i.e. a change in object-object relations) which form and break ‘lines of abstraction’ within sets of object assemblages.

As Harman explains, “abstraction is not a feature of the human mind, but of any relation whatsoever, since two events are so utterly concrete that they make contact at all only at the price of abstracting from one another, dealing with a small portion of each other rather than the totality” (Prince of Networks, p. 55). I abstract the world by a different set of disinhibitors than Lucy, just as a tick abstracts the world by a limited number of disinhibitors which given the correct conditions are activated without discrimination. For a tick, these disinhibitors are easily identifiable through testing those conditions to gage a response. I disagree with Heidegger on the ontological implications of my refusal of beings during profound boredom, as he states “the refusal is a calling, it is that which makes authentically possible the Dasein in me” (H in A, p. 67). For Lucy, the refusal of being is the absence of any disinhibitor, the ultimate disinhibitor being dopamine, which brings with it a whole set of new disinhibitors.

The tick examined by Uexkull was kept alive for eighteen years without nourishment, in absolute isolation from its environment. He concludes that ‘without a living subject, time cannot exist’, the world of the tick lies in suspension. For the catatonic patients of the hospital a similar fate has befallen them. When they wake from their catatonia, time has not mentally passed. Their mental disinhibitors that allow for self-reflexivity were not activated. They awoke to a new world which mixed two new sets of disinhibitors: their psychophysical condition and the concrete world of actual relations. The difference between their condition and that of the tick in isolation can now be explained. The tick’s body is not engaged enough in a world of relations to cause tissue degeneration. For the patents, their bodies are still heavily engaged in relations with the environment, hence the effects of ageing are more than apparent. The psychophysical body cannot avoid the environmental abstractions between itself and its world. In profound boredom we find the experience that link the catatonic patients to the isolated tick and to my experience in a supermarket. Thus the difference between human Dasein and animals is not an ontological difference but a difference in the ‘lines of abstraction’ which disinhibits reactions under actual conditions of any object’s thrown facticity.

NB – ‘H in A’ means: Heidegger quotes from Agamben’s ‘The Open’

Language and ‘Tool-being’

September 29, 2009

HorizonI did this in a bit of a hurry as I want to get off to the library, but this should hopefully explain a little more why Harman is not in ignorance of his ‘medium’ and understands exacty what is meant by language as the horizon and ‘house of being’.

In the middle of a room there is a table. The table stands with four legs on the floor. If I say, the table is related to the floor through a meaningful relationship of abstraction several objections can be made. 1) That meaning cannot be given to object-object relations, they are only meaningful to humans who observe these relations where meaning is a product of language. 2) Objects cannot abstract each other, only humans can perceive something in an object which is only a part of it against what is given in reality. As I pointed out in the review, Harman tries to redefine abstraction and meaning, giving them a universal ontological application. The status of beings, meaning and language are thrown into dispute. Is there not something special about human language that gives us greater insight into the world and into being in general?

Anyway, back to the table and floor. Are these things ideal or real? If they are ideal, it means that they are objects that can be made present to human understanding from comprehension of language. Within this context, the table and floor are both objects, as each could be separated, yet they are used here as an example machine, and thus are one object (or more accurately an assemblage of objects within objects). What type of object are they? Do they exist only as ideal structures? Is an ideal structure something transcendental or material?

Let us say that the ideality of a thing necessitates a non-semiotic medium in which to reside. The word table doesn’t reside in a transcendental realm exterior to the material world, as Platonism is understood, but is something with materiality. The table and floor have materiality through text on a computer screen. The word ‘table’ as text is itself ideal in that its medium could be almost anything. The meaning of the words (as signifiers with signifieds) is in infinite play depending on who reads them: the intention of the object is unknown. Are the table and floor real? Or are they imaginary? How do they have existence? Yes, they exist. They have an ‘iness’. Before the word means anything it could be said to ‘be’. It is being. Yet, we can go further. It could refer to different types of objects. Yet in this example, there is a clause that narrows down the type of table (one with four legs). The word table is a ‘rigid designator’ (Harman is favourable to Kripke’s term). It is something exterior to any relation that can be put to it. The text ‘table’ is thus something which refers and withdraws: it refers to things outside itself for its own context, yet all actual relations do not make present all that ‘is’ the object.

The table refers to something outside itself (a table thing) , yet its referral is not its only feature. Anything that could be known about why the word ‘table’ is, could never be described, listed or noted in full (to start with, the word ‘table’ is not a table, it is an assemblage of letters; it is an English word; it has two syllables; etc). Thus any view of it I may have must necessarily be one of abstraction. What is the importance of language here? Before the word ‘table’ is anything linguistic it ‘is’. If anyone of any language was to see it they would see something and nothing (no-thing in particular, as the signifier ‘table’ would not be understood to point to any particular signified, but there is relation and thus, would have some kind of meaning). What difference does language make here? It makes some difference to how the word table is abstracted but not all the difference to what it ‘is’.

If we think cannot know anything outside language because language is our only medium of access to the ‘world’ and each other, then language immediately becomes present-at-hand (PAH). Necessarily, if we don’t want to mistake language as PAH we must acknowledge it’s withdrawn essence which is before our exhaustive encounter with it. Language is nothing linguistic: it is nothing but the freeing of movement that leads from the appropriating event (Ereignis) to man’s speech. Put simply, language allows for the movement of being as nothing to its appropriation as something in particular. Language is not just a tool to manipulate words and communicate. It does not only exist as something pragmatic, put to use through one’s projects. Language must, if we are to take Heidegger seriously, be something that is always already withdrawn from the linguistic. To define a theory of language through its use is to reduce it to PAH. This message is echoed by Badiou whose confrontation with set theory leads him to the conclusion that although language bestows identity on being, being is in excess of language. The inscription in language requires that existence be in excess of what the description defines as existing.

The RTH of ‘table’ cannot be described through language and social practises. It is not that the philosopher must only recognise their medium (i.e. language): the philosopher must recognise the their medium of which language operates within. Our lives are at the disposal of more than a purely linguistic reality. Heidegger concludes, “Language in its essence is neither expression nor a human deed. Language speaks”. The speaking of language as done by human Dasein summons the world to things, yet preserves things as things. Language, like art, reveals the tension/strife between world and thing. Not only that but language is the concrete interpenetration between world and thing in their dif-ference (e.g. ‘table’ as is, and with all referential interpretations). Language is world, but world is not just something that humans have, it is a universal structure non-reducible to human Dasein’s access to being.

Heidegger centres human Dasein by making the distinction between world (human logos), world poor (animals) and world less (rocks, water, etc). He insists that these classifications demarcate the ‘accessibility’ of beings to being. The essence of world coincides with the essence of the world forming character of human Dasein. However, Harman does not deny that we are different from animals and rocks, only that there is a base line, ontological principle that animals and rocks do not escape from: the RTH. For Heidegger, human Dasein is the being that can approach being as being through Angst. It is this being-towards-death that brings recognition of ones finitude thus making care a primordial existential condition of Dasein’s being-in-the-world. Thus human Dasein has world animals do not. Yet human Dasein can never encounter being as being separable form beings. Harman appropriates Levinas’ ‘insomnia’ against Heidegger’s Angst to show that it is not beings standing against a blank screen of being that blurs beings against being.

For Levinas, insomnia shows that being is only beings. Insomnia shows the ‘is’ structure and not the ‘for’ contextualization of beings. Harman reveals neither Levinas or Heidegger can push human Dasein to the top of the ontological rankings as Angst and insomnia reveal being as being, but not the ‘being in general’ (RTH) that is withdrawn from any world relation: this is the transcendent that no being has exclusive access to. Human language cannot bridge this gap to the ‘being in general’ and so we must look at language as something which isn’t the limit of our world or intrinsic to our pragmatic concerns but an aspect of our engagements in the world of beings that makes a difference to being, but not to the detriment of non-semiotic actors which make differences in their own ways. To use the terminology of Levi Bryant, language makes a difference but not all the difference. Harman recognises this and it provides the imperative to speculate on an object-oriented philosophy.

I found this quote from Badiou to support this idea of language by Harman. They very different imperatives as to why they want to ‘abandon’ philosophy as mediation on language: Harman wants to watch a ‘carnival of objects’ while Badiou has political machinations of universality which can depose the tyranny of the universality of capital):

“If philosophy is essentially a meditation on language, it will not succeed in removing the obstacle that the specialization and fragmentation of the world opposes to universality. To accept the universe of language as the absolute horizon of philosophical thought in fact amounts to accepting the fragmentation and the illusion of communication [this is a Lacan reference: see my article on (mis)communication] – for the truth of our world is that there are as many languages as there are communities, activities or kinds of knowledge. I agree that there is a multiplicity of language games. This, however, forces philosophy if it wants to preserve the desire for universality – to establish itself elsewhere than within this multiplicity, so as not to be exclusively subordinated to it. If not, philosophy will become what in one way it mostly is, an infinite description of the multiplicity of language games”

(From ‘Philosophy and Desire’ in ‘Infinite Thought’ p. 47)

Review of ‘Tool-being’ by Graham Harman

September 23, 2009

tool_beingIn this book, Harman alludes to truth being more like a key to a lock than adequatio or the revealing/concealing play of alethia. The mind numbing drudgery of thousands of pages of Heidegger’s gesamtausgabe are unlocked from their semi-mystical confusion (as Harman points out, Heidegger does get confused by his own discovery) and brought into a profoundly simple freshness and engaging clarity.

As a confessed Heideggerian now for more than two years, I’m constantly stuck by the tiniest of details that can reorient myself towards his work in quite bizarre and absurd ways. Last year I was decrying the absent gods and celebrating the call for their return, vouching to set on a course for the poetic reawakening of beings towards being, leading the charge against the technological dragon that stalks our essence, causing us to flee from being by cutting us off from the its own questioning. I even become obsessed with the mystical and religious currents of Heidegger’s talk of gods, which led me to read Caputo and other such religio-Heideggerians. From this I came away with wonderful answers and new insights into figures such as Meister Eckhart and D.T. Suzuki and the world was now a more magical place. Now, in contrast, I’m about to drink to the health of what I, and many others in the know, see as a redefining phase of philosophical brilliance… the speculative realism movement and in particular the work of the object-oriented philosophers and ontologists (most notable are Graham Harman and Levi Bryant). How right old Paul De Man was when he said that each profound moment is one of insight and blindness.

There is always a level of total bewilderment and deep understanding with Heidegger. When I first read ‘Question Concerning Technology’ which quickly made me a convert, I feel I grasped Heidegger almost as much as I do now, although now I am several thousand pages of dense text the richer. This is because, according to Harman, Heidegger has actually very little to say, he just says it in lots of fancy ways about many thing over many years. Heidegger’s master key, the famous hermeneutical ‘destruction’ runs thus: anything that prioritizes presence (PAH) is metaphysics, thus metaphysics is bad and I can clobber any philosophy which prioritizes PAH with a great big hammer for being a sucker to destiny of being they inevitably fall victim to. What we then get, says Harman, is 18000 pages of historical writings which appraise philosophers in their relation to the metaphysical myopia they are destined to regurgitate. This means that from Plato onwards all succumb to Heidegger’s tag line: metaphysics of presence. Harman seems to have learnt a similar trick from Heidegger as a condition of his object-oriented philosophy (OOP). Harman re-reads and re-constructs the history of philosophy from what could be described, in Deleuzian terms, as Harman’s minor literature: that which can be appropriated into something new outside the context of its own creation. Harman re-reads not only the past masters (neglected or well known) of philosophy against the lens of his OOP but those so called Heideggerians, who confidently decorate the halls of academia with their butchered interpretations of Heidegger’s basic concepts.

Chapter 1 puts the record straight: Heidegger is still within metaphysics because there is a world outside our own that we do not have access to. This is the ready-to-hand (RTH), the  endo-relations of objects (to use an expression from Levi Bryant). Objects are always more than their ontic present-at-hand (PAH) relations. No object, human or otherwise, can draw any deeper from the dark well of the object’s being than each other: there must necessarily always be withdrawn, subterranean aspect of an object. All modes of absorption in the world are ontologically identical: Buddha does not have any special ontological privileges any more or less than ‘Berlin lawyers’ or electrons. If this point is taken seriously, Harman discovers that the ‘question of the meaning of being’ must be a reverse tautology, as I will explain.

Objects have two dimensions (at this point in the book they do anyway): their references and their withdrawal. Their references point to something beyond themselves, to something else, as a relation to another object. When an object is at work there is always a part of them that is in withdrawal. Harman takes the word ‘refer’, which in German is Sinn, to be ‘to mean’. If an object refers it is being. Thus to be is to mean. Sinn = Sein. The meaning of objects comes from their relatedness to the world, this is true for Dasein, who is a being ‘in’ the world of relations, but for all objects. Objects are being ‘in’ not being ‘for’: they are not representations. Thus Dasein is no longer elevated to be the only entity that has meaning and can uncover the meaning of being. All objects refer and must therefore have meaningful being. Which means all objects are Dasein! Ta da!

This may seem like some semantic chicanery, but following Heidegger’s own stance regarding the depths of objects, this logic must be taken to its fullest conclusion, which Harman sees as a the start of a full blown realism. He then goes on to trace the interpretations of Heidegger’s tool analysis from the Aristotelian continentals, such as Bernasconi who understands Heidegger’s notion of historicity to be the imperative to read the history of philosophy. As such Bernasconi reads Heidegger with and against Aristotle’s notion of poiesis. Harman emphasises that Bernasconi reads RTH as production. Which has a disastrous logical domino effect: production is teleology, teleology is PAH, PAH is metaphysics, thus Heidegger is still within a Greek ontology of PAH.

After more or less demolishing this position he moves on to the analytic pragmatists. These guys (and it mainly is guys) are obsessed with the idea of tools in use. Whereas Bernasconi saw Heidegger’s tool analysis not to do with actual tools but with the ‘exchange of presence’ between an objects RTH and PAH. The analytic pragmatists got one look at those tools and though, yes! The world is there for us to ‘understand’, to gain knowledge of in the form of ‘competence’ in its practical use: being = understanding. Harman say: wrong! Verstechen does not mean ‘knowing how to do something’ but is an unthematic ‘being-with’ that occurs in every moment of Dasein. Thus Okrent, Rorty and Dreyfus are seen off, although he is more favourable to Dreyfus for suggesting that Heidegger could be used for a ‘robust’ realism.

Harman seems to pull all this off through what seems to be his own interpretive trick-shot stating, “Heidegger must not be regarded as the absolute authority” on his own ideas! For Harman, all the interpretations of Heidegger have got themselves in a twist because they have tried to stick to the masters order of prioritizing human Dasein as something that has ontologically superior access to being than all other beings. Harman suggests to read tool-being against Heidegger’s own anthropocentricism and his failed experiments to explain it (such as his discourses on animal and insect ‘captivation’, Dasein’s ‘profound boredom’ and worldless rocks). Harman thus knocks Heidegger from his anthropocentric high-horse and, in true clockwork orange style, makes him watch the carnival of objects unleashed by a flat ontology.

The icing on the already overly ornate cake is Harman’s analysis of the fourfold. Put simply:

sky = the revealed process and tangible forces to be reckoned  within our lives. It reveals entities which are events unfolding as processes. It is an ontological category for ontic specific things.

earth = the withdrawn serving-bearer (load bearer?) of being.

gods = who comes to presence only in the absence of what is present. The Godhead is the ‘concealed sway’, the gods are the hidden messengers which remind us to wonder at being.

mortals = things capable of death as death. It is a grasping of the finitude of all that exists. Mortals means being as being. It is for all Dasein and not only human Dasein.

Harman has finally removed any hint of ontic appropriation or absurd taxonomy of beings from Heidegger’s mysterious das Geviert (fourfold/quadrate). What this means is that we can start having serious conversations about this later work and not snigger behind his back at the obscurantist later moments of Heidegger. The result of this is very important for tool-being as it helps to remove Heidegger from the hoards of linguistic philosophers who have pounced on his later writings on language. Harman makes it clear, Heidegger can teach us as much about non-language as he can about language (if you remember, ‘silence speaks’, apparently). His position can be summed up as this: the speaking of language summons the differentiation of the onefold of the world and thing, but is not the only thing that does so, and so shouldn’t hold a higher ontological importance than non-language in the questioning of being.

Zizek is a tougher nut to crack, although he necessarily has to be ousted. He too prioritizes the human subject as that which has an ontological passport to reality. However, Harman, like a bully in a playground, pushes Zizek out the way to grab Zizek’s flashy theoretical toy: retroactive causation. Harman however wields it not to gather all the other kids in the playground to marvel at it, but strides out into a vast jungle of objects: retroactive causation is a global ontological structure. The Real is that which is the gap between what is revealed and concealed by all objects where objects fantasies the ‘what is’ of other objects in specific configurations, contrary to their unknown depths. For example, not only do I fantasize my relation to other people by thinking they are complete beings who are what they display, but objects interact with other objects, deny their depths and engages in a phantasmatic relation to that object as a projection of its own desires. Abstraction is something all objects do, it is not unique to human Dasein.

What we are left with are Harman’s best friends: Levinas, Zubiri, Ortega y Gasset and Whitehead who encircle the now born-again realist of Heidegger. They join him for what look like his first tentative steps towards an object-oriented philosophy that he is still building. I have not yet read ‘Guerilla Metaphysics’, but I’ve read ‘Prince of Networks’, so I can see how the questions he left at the end of ‘Tool-being’ have been taken up fiercely in his recent work. For me, one serious consequence of Harman’s analysis is how he treats Heidegger’s work on technology. But I will leave that for another post. In conclusion, if you want to ‘get’ Heidegger (and become very unpopular with many Heideggerian’s in doing so), if you want to be part of a new wave of exciting philosophy now optimistically called ‘the speculative turn’, read this book.

The Two Ronnies and The Tower of Babel: The (im)possibility of communication

September 16, 2009

“And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.”

This sketch by the two Ronnies brilliantly demonstrates several things: 1) that blogging and computers present us with previously impossible immediate intertextual possibilities, as we can’t (yet) watch youtube clips embedded in books or magazines. And 2) that the subtlety of comedy consists in holding open the gap which separates what one thinks from that of actuality. The only thing one can do when faced with this void is to cry or, as is the more frequently desired response from BBC comedy programming, is to laugh. 3) from the classically timed and practised miscommunication of the two Ronnies, we can infer that communication is, in fact, miscommunication.

This leads strangely, yet appropriately, into thinking about the Tower of Babel, as articulated in Genesis XI. If you remember from coerced cub-scout Church visits or even from school Religious Education lessons, the Tower of Babel was the project of a peoples with one language to build an almighty tower which was to have “its top in the heavens.” This could mean (I’m not going to say this is the only reading of the story, after all, free-play of signifiers and all that) the homogeneity and perfection of their language meant there were no boundaries to what they could manipulate and command, being totally and indefatigably empowered by their unmediated access to enjoyment, jouissance, and thus in no need of God.

What the Tower of Babel story and the Two Ronnies seem to be announcing is that we are stuck with imperfect language, which essentially translates to miscommunication not as the exception but as the rule. What also runs parallel in these two stories is the theme of language and desire: the desire to use, obtain and manipulate objects.

I will give two readings of the Tower of Babel story, one along Heideggerian technophobic lines and the other from a Lacanian position of the castrated subject (which actually run nicely together, as you will see a bit later).

The Heideggerian approach could read the Babel story as metaphor for the dangers of technology. Once we can freely manipulate our world to achieve all our wildest calculative desires, we will have fled from being into the nihilistic mechanical abyss of technologically determined Being. To paraphrase Heidegger, if technology solves all our problems, this will be our biggest problem. That is why God comes down and heroically ruins the party by given them different languages and we’re back to ‘four candles’ again. The Tower of Babel is a kind of Heideggerian prophesy, where human Dasein builds his technological tower of domination, his supreme all commanding phallic posture will be overcome by the returning gods (or God in this case) who will save us from our godless selves. As Holderlin once optimistically poetized, ‘where the danger grows so to does the saving power’.

This understanding of language and technology is important, but first a few contributions from psychoanalysis. In Lacanian terms, the story is equivalent to the myth of sexuation so humorously spoken by the comic poet Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. This myth recycles old Greek tales of the splitting of an original singular sex of super beings into two sexes. Before this separation they had almighty power and flaunted their relationship to the gods. This simplistic yet tongue-in-cheek example of a sexuation myth symbolizes the desire is to become complete, whole and thus fully constituted, against the punishment of our divided essence, which limits our power and makes us dependent upon the other sex. The Tower of Babel provides the same myth but this time for language (which as we will see, is not totally divorced from sexuation). According to the old Bible story, human beings were once capable of powerful world manipulating abilities. Incredible things can be achieved within a community with a unidirectional mindset, structured by complete comprehension and understanding of each other (no squabbling family arguments and thus no storming out the room screaming ‘you just don’t understand’ within this society). According to the story, language was once complete, whole and fully constituted for the people of Babylon, and thus our frustration at miss communication can be traced back to the behaviour of cretinous human beings who dared to push their capabilities to ever greater heights and were finally stopped when they were faced with the castrating powers of God.

Now, I have used two key words that may have picked up on: phallic and castration. Thus, the obvious point is that the Tower of Babel is a gigantic phallic gesture. Remember, in Lacan’s sense, phallic or phallus does not mean penis. The phallus is phantasmatic power. Since we are all castrated subjects, as Lacan goes to great length to discuss (you need a forklift truck to pick up Ecrits), no one has the phallus. That’s right, no one, not men or women, millionaire sky scrapper owners or Gandalf. No one has the phallus. There is only an imaginary relation to the possession of power which comes from the desire of the Other. As the Other is language, the symbolic mask to the unsymbolizable Real. It is through the acquisition of language that we are able to articulate our demand to try and reclaim the lost love object, object a, that unconsciously structures our desires, the phantasmatic memory of a lost unity. This object, the spectre of the mother we enjoyed with orgiastic polymorphous perversity, gave us  unconstrained jouissance. Entry into language is needed to overcome the terror of the absence of the mother (Daddy has to have some fun too!), which causes the dependent baby no end to agony. Yet once the first structures of language begin to form there is no turning back, we are ripped from the world of the Real and thrown into a world of symbolic mediation.

As the sketch goes on, Ronnie Corbett (the little one) gets more and more frustrated. He wants to fulfil the Others desire but is foiled by the rich polsemy of each word Ronnie Barker utters. What does he want? What does the Other want of me? If I don’t have an accurate idea then how can I be successful? How will I please the Other? How will the Other love me if I can not give them what they want? The dilemma develops, each time a mistake is made the more Ronnie Corbett thinks its a prank. Is the Other mocking me? “You’re ‘avin me on!!?”. Each object that gets brought out plays upon the literal interpretation of the phallus. The ‘fork handle’, the two types of hoes, even the letter’s ‘o’ could be said to have sexual resonances, while finally ending on the unspeakable, the object which causes Ronnie to walk off, the written words alone are enough to jilt him and storm out: ‘bill hooks’ (a type of knife). This last tool acts as the final symbolic gesture, the final ‘cut’, which amplifies the repeated demonstrations of linguistic castration from each previously miserable failure.

This is a vulgar interpretation of the sketch and its symbols, but it all seems to fit so well! I’ve done it now anyway, and you’ll no longer be able to see the program again without thinking of these inferences!

The sketch works on more levels even than this. For instance, the size of the two Ronnies matters. Corbett’s short stature stands in contrast to Barker’s relative height advantage adding another dimension to the lack inherent in the satisfaction of desire. The demands Barker makes of Corbett emphasise his lack. The use of the ladder extends the effort required to please the Other which for Corbett has now passed from bother and into discomfort: the subject suffers for the Others jouissance! All this invokes a feeling of pathos in the audience, adding further to the subjects castration. Perhaps the joke works not just because of the desperation of their miscommunicate, but because Corbett never overcomes the lack inherent is miss interpretation with laughter (laughter being the rupture in the symbolic caused by the proximity to the Real). Something is holding him back. His work. One can imagine a similar situation, such as as home, where instead of frustration, it is seen for what is is, an absurd case of miscommunication which could be overcome by sharing laughter. However, the serious worker wants to do his job properly and capably, yet he is faced with the stark reality of being limited by something he cannot control: language, which is inseparable from the demands of the Other.

Going back to Heidegger, the technological capabilities of human Dasein comes from its orientation towards Being. For instance, it is not that there is something called technological progress, only the destiny of being drawn from an interpretation of the logos as logic. Heidegger saw the nihilism of technological fetishism and mastery coming from the logos defined as logic, which promotes scientific reductionism and thus falling victim to a metaphysics of presence which cuts off the questioning of being from being instead of ‘letting beings be’ (i.e. understanding the necessarily withdrawn nature of objects and not representing them as defined solely as something or other). Language is therefore very important for Heidegger, as changes in the understanding of language, what it is and what it is for, reorientates our being-in-the-world, calls us to abstract our world in new ways, which can mean we flee from being as being, into a purely calculative and instrumentalized notion of being as representation or face being with authentic resoluteness.

The Tower of Babel story ends with the people of Babylon now scattered across the land, with different tongues incompatible with each other. It is now very difficult to collaborate as they don’t understand each others desire and have no homogenized inter-subjective desire of their own. For Heidegger, language acts as a horizon. This means that the limits of our language limit the world of our engagement. We engage in the world of symbolic importance where things have place (topos), meaning (logos) and purpose (telos). This is why we have temporality, as our being is stretched over time, where the past and the future both have meaning in the actuality of the present moment. We are always projecting forward and back to maintain our own place within the symbolic life-world and to gain our measure of being from what is inter-subjectively gauged as important.

The story of the Tower of Babel is not, I believe, supposed to be taken literally. What I have demonstrate is that miscommunication as an essential part Dasein’s facticity (the fact of being bound and handed over into a world of engaged relation) and the desire to transcend this horizon is something demonstrable in ancient historical texts such as the Bible and in modern television programs. The Tower of Babel story works as a story which reveals the finite capacities of human kind in relation to the infinite powers of God, and thus uses the trauma of castration as a vehicle for religious belief. The two Ronnies however have no such agenda. Comedy here acts not as some kind of Schopenhauerian anesthetic to the anxiety of existence, but as the affirmation of the very lack that allows for the formation of the subject. Corbett’s escape into the back room only emphasizes his fixation to the unpassable rock of castration. Yet it is the sketch itself uses the ambiguity and confusion of language to achieve jouissance: only the viewers who perform the function of Corbett’s mocking super ego recognise the farcical situation with an affirmative laugh.