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06 October 2010

Methods, Material Semiotics, and the Text

I'm currently taking a class in Anthropological Theory, for which I'm supposed to write a paper with a theoretical focus, but applicable to my research.  I talked today with my professor to explain what I want to write about and elicit some suggestions and comments.  I realized in meeting with her that I have a very hard time describing my theoretical framework.  I don't know if it's a problem with the way I describe things, a flaw in my language, or just that where I'm coming from is so different from the way most of my professors think and how they were taught.  Whatever the issue is, whenever I try to explain it all I get is blank stares and attempts to steer me in other directions.

So today I met with the professor and explained that I'm interested in theorizing methods as techniques for creating realities - like what John Law argues for in After Method.  I mentioned material semiotics (since Law uses that terminology in his book) and a bit about Latour, since he is probably my strongest theoretical influence right now.  She questioned me about how Latour's materialism differs from other materialisms - I explained that for Latour material plays a significant role in societies but that Latour doesn't reduce societies to material processes.  Somehow we got into talking about texts, and I said that texts are material...
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, texts exist as physical things."
"What if you send it through email?"
"It's still electrical signals sent over wires."
"Does the materiality of the text matter?"
Here I fumbled and gave in saying that in my case (writing a text for the BLM) it probably doesn't.  But I should have given an emphatic "Yes!"  It's one thing to write something by hand on the back of a bar napkin (which I'm sure the BLM wouldn't appreciate if I did with their report) and another to type up a nice paper, putting it in a clear plastic cover (thank you Calvin & Hobbes) and turn it in.  It's also one thing to present the text as a physical document and another to send it as an electronic document.  The whole set of material-semiotic associations that went into creating personal computers comes into play, the relationships that are fostered by those associations, the ecological impact of paper versus electronics - these are all parts of this picture which may be emphasized or ignored given the circumstances, but they never disappear.  All of this has implications for how my text will be received by others (i.e. the BLM and the Shoshone tribes), how it will propagate, and how it will last.  The bar napkins might get discarded after last call.  The typed text may get filed in a draw and never seen again - or discovered 50 years from now and treated as the great masterpiece that it is!  The electronic text may become completely irrelevant if the code is not available in the future to access it, if the thumb drive it's on gets put through the wash, or if the oil economy collapses making computers useless pieces of plastic.  All of that matters on some level, and to varying degrees depending on the conditions.  And none of that can be reduced to the semiotic nature of the text (nor, I would argue, could the semiotic nature of the text be reduced to these material qualities).

Anyway, the gist of this is that I'm supposed to read more Derrida.  If anyone can suggest a cgood introduction or summary of Derrida's work - whether by Derrida himself or otherwise - please let me know.

PS - I should say, I don't have anything against Derrida, and I didn't follow the recent Derrida debates on the blogosphere.  It's just that dealing with Derrida in the context of what I want to write about seems like an unnecessary aside.


Circling Squares said...

I sympathise. At times I've felt pushed into reading Derrida and his epigones when they actually have very little to do with what I'm interested in. (I think this is probably due to the rather ignorant assumption that all French philosopers say the same things, or at least if you use one you've got to use the rest too.) Still, it should be pretty easy to tear Derrida apart from a Latourian perspective.

Insofar as Derrida is useful Latour already agrees with him (the critique of the metaphysics of presence is basically a critique of foundationalism, which Latour aims to do away with as well) and when it comes to Derrida's limits (which are many), that is where Latour picks up from (not endlessly closing himself in on language or texts just because there is no 'unproblematic' reference to something 'outside').

Derrideans endlessly harp on about how there is no 'unproblematic' reference to a world outside of language. This is a fair critique of the moderns as far as it goes -- a quest for absolute foundational 'presence' from which all else could be deduced is indeed central to the modernist project. However, from this insight they infer that any claim to reality is necessarily a linguistic 'violence' and must be 'critiqued to dust' as Latour might say.

Latour makes precisely the same criticism in his Politics of Nature where he discusses what basically amounts to the same foundationalist urge in relation to Plato's cave allegory and argues that foundationalism is the aspiration to the unrefutable proposition -- a proposition that simply IS true, regardless of its history or context and which, thus, cannot be disputed or interpreted differently from its pure form. For Latour this ideal is fundamentally anti-democratic because such a 'fully present' proposition could never be disputed. Moreover, such an ontological assumption (the pure, self contained immanence of a transcendent truth) makes no sense.

So, to an extent he agrees with the critique of foundationalism. But he goes far beyond Derrida. Derrideans are only interested in how any given relation is 'problematic' -- they therefore see their role as pointing this out over and over and over again. But for Latour relations are real BECAUSE they are problematic. Recall his axiom that you cannot have any translation without deformation. The deformation MAKES the translation. (To put it another way, you can't have repetition without difference.) The same model of difference can be found in Michel Serres' The Parasite.

Of course, a true Derridean would, firstly, refute the label and, secondly, say that I am imposing limits on Derrida and his texts and this itself must be deconstructed so as to 'go beyond' to some 'limit beyond limits' or somesuch. At that point I just tend to yawn and wander off -- not much else you can do!

Not sure if any of that helps.

Jeremy Trombley said...

It does help - a lot!
I think I'm going to focus on the limits of an epistemological understanding of methods, and the possibilities that an ontological focus can bring. From there I'll look at some critiques of the ontological approach, and how we might deal with those.
Derrida will certainly come in with the critiques, but as you suggest, it should be easy enough to dismiss.

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