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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

3Jane's Semiotic Straylight: Repeating Derrida's Rupture in Reading Neuromancer

Since I typically repudiate my father in my blog posts, I will set out by identifying with my current Foster Father. I will attempt to sketch out a reading of Gibson’s Neuromancer through the lens of Derrida, specifically the work “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” from Writing and Difference. Derrida’s analysis of Levi-Strauss, who was originally in the audience when Derrida presented this work, presents the concept of bricolage as “a critique of language” that “could ‘be applied almost word for word’ to criticism and especially to “literary criticism” (Derrida, 4). Bricolage is a mode of critique that affirms deploying multiple and heterogeneous instruments the bricoleur has readily available. My reading of Gibson through Derrida illustrates the way in which “if one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur” (4). The implication being, that our forms of knowledge and literary analysis are always mediated by the baggage of our tools of discursive analysis and the entirety of texts. Derrida considers the engineer of language, a critic/subject who thinks that discourse can be created ex nihilo is a “theological idea” (5). But once it becomes acknowledged that there can be no distinction between the bricoleur and the engineer, the idea of the bricoleur loses its uniqueness that it was first introduced with. Rather than being a mode of critique that one could adopt out of their own choosing, it is an always already present condition of engaging in literary criticism. 

Derrida begins with an analysis of “the whole history of the concept of structure” (1) in which he shows how the idea of the structurality of structure has been displaced, “neutralized or reduced, and this by a process of giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin” (1). This history proceeds as “a series of substitutions of center for center” (1). The continuous desire to determine or fix a center to structures, thought, or metaphysics is concerned with the search for a nonexistent origin. The center represents the attempt to determine being as presence, from the idea of consciousness, God, Man, Subject etc. Hegel for examples problematizes the Deist conception of God, or the idea that God is unknowable to point to a similar contradiction Derrida brings up. Derrida writes of a centered structure as “contradictorily coherent” since it supposes the center is both inside and outside, part of and separate from the totality or that “the totality has its center elsewhere [emphasis original]” (1). I would make the conjecture, though I’m uncertain, that Hegel was sensitive to a similar sort of problematic at the heart of the debate between theology and philosophy, Hegel thought it was illogical to consider the finite, or man, as separated from the infinite, or God. The infinite by definition has to include the finite, such that God ought to be considered as immanent and the development of man or spirit as the realization of God within consciousness. Derrida would see Geist as another “transcendental signified” (2) or centered structure, Hegel’s move and method seems to embody the idea of “coherence in contradiction” (1). The center attempts to limit the free-play of a structure, but as its becomes clear that one is always already implicated within the infinite games of substitutions and permutations, an attempt is made to master anxiety by tying free-play to a grounded foundation.

The work also deals with the question of a ‘rupture,’ a ‘disruption’ or ‘event.’ Derrida’s event is not something new but a repetition of a process that’s already occurred. Levi-Strauss has already done much of the work  When the structurality of structure begins to be thought it became necessary “to begin to think there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a being present” (2) that the center was “a non-locus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play” (2). Language has replaced God or man or whatever was before it as the transcendental signified; but language is different in the sense that language is perpetually immersed in itself. It makes no sense to think of language as outside of the totality, such as the structuralist distinction between language and speech, or the sign and the signifier. Derrida writes “If one erases the radical difference between signifier and signified, it is the word signifier itself which ought to be abandoned as a metaphysical concept” (2). Rather than reducing the sign to thought, it is by holding open the opposition between “the sensible and the intelligible” (2) that “puts into question the entire system in which the preceding reduction functioned” (2). This line of thought occurs not just in philosophy or science but is “political, economic, technical and so forth” (3). The decentering of culture and metaphysics and its concepts occurred in the moment that the processes quit considering themselves in terms of reference. Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger wagered a “multiplicity of destructive discourses” against metaphysics, yet they could not escape the terms they sought to oppose. The moment one proclaims one is somehow outside of or against metaphysics their thought has “already slipped into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest” (3). One necessarily makes a metaphysical claim simply be invoking the idea at all. I’m uncertain at this point, but I believe Derrida is making the argument that metaphysics as an idea doesn’t exist at all unless it exists either including or because of the concept of the “sign.” If these great destroyers of metaphysics wish to destroy any notion of a transcendental signified than they ought to extend their refusal to the “concept and to the word sign itself-which is precisely what cannot be done” (2). It cannot be done because these destructive discourses rely on the concept of the sign to leverage their assaults.

 Derrida traces a movement within Levi-Strauss’ work to show how the fact that “the language of the human sciences criticizes itself” (4) is a part of the nature of this event or rupture. The earlier discussion of bricolage shows the ways in which Levi-Strauss was more than willing to substitute one means of engaging criticism for another quite readily, and that his reliance on empiricism was one of relative efficacy not an absolute methodology. These changes in approach to ethnology are symptoms of the larger linguistic disruption. Derrida analyzes the ways in which the Levi-Strauss’ analysis of myths had to be mythomorphic themselves. The analysis of the reflexivity of mythic discourse seems indebted to Adorno and Horkheimers The Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which they demonstrate the ways in which rationality and myth are entangled. Enlightenment is mythopoetic just as much as myths embody the spirit of critique. It further seems to rely on the notion that thought must become adequate to its object. Perhaps Derrida is saying that thought will always already slip into the form or logic of its object, mythic analysis being a myth in itself, but also that the acknowledgment of this aspect should be affirmed. Gibson’s Rastas are both premodern and postmodern in a sense, they believe in a form of Christianity yet they reject all forms of systemization of human life and rigid identity categories. They believe in religion but not under its modern constraints. The mythic nature of Rasta beliefs and their fragmented sayings pay testament to this entanglement. They see their relationship to religion that informs their relationship to technology and objects partly as their saving grace.

I view this line as indicating that Derrida is giving me permission to play, “And what I am saying here about the sign can be extended to all the concepts and all the sentences of metaphysics, in particular to the discourse on “structure”” (3). When the Finn is showing Case around the Villa Straylight, its structure itself speaks to him, giving a sort of meta-commentary about its own coding. Finn explains that it was an essay of 3Jane’s about semiotics that she wrote when she was twelve but never totally finished.  The Straylight,
Is a body grown in upon itself, a Gothic folly. Each space in Straylight is in some way secret, this endless series of chambers linked by passages, by stairwells vaulted like intestines, where the eye is trapped in narrow curves, carried past ornate screens, empty alcoves… (172)
Could we not interpret this coding of cyberspace as the creation of a sort of substructure of a totality that defines itself by its difference in terms of relating to the other possible codes. If we take each space to mean each sign we could interpret the “secret” as the irreducible tension between the sign and the signified. The movement through passages represents the signifying chain itself. Molly often would go linearly always forward Case struggling to identify exactly which route she will take, which associative trajectory she will follow. We see here the breakdown between the written code and the creation of real spatial experiences. The structural aspects of the code that seem fixed spatially give birth to a new series of relations when experienced temporally as Case lives through Molly.

The essay continues to say “The architects of Freeside went to great pains to conceal the fact that the interior of the spindle is arranged with the banal precision of furniture in a hotel room” (172). Freeside is centered structure that attempts to conceal that the center exists outside of itself, that it wants to hide how it has limited free-play via some grounded or guiding principle. Whereas,
In Straylight, the hull’s inner surface is overgrown with a desperate proliferation of structures, forms flowing, interlocking, rising toward a solid core of microcircuitry, our clan’s corporate heart, a cylinder of silicon wormholed with narrow maintenance tunnels, some no wider than a man’s hand. The bright crabs burrow there, the drones, alert for micromechanical decay or sabotage (172).
The attempt to determine being through presence here is anxious. Gibson writes “the convolutions of our home reflecting that age. But reflecting something else as well. The semiotics of the Villa bespeak a turning in, a denial of the bright void beyond the hull” (173). Here we see the point Derrida made about the ways an idea is loaded or impregnated with the various transformations of the idea or the conditions under which it emerged. To speak of any of metaphysics is always already caught within this game of associations. The system of Freeside was a displacement of the original Freeside to a certain degree, but it also contained something of the other systems within itself. Is the “denial of the bright void beyond the hull” (173) similar to what Derrida indicates we need to avoid “that violence which consists in centering a language which is describing an acentric structure” (5)? Or is the void beyond the hull space of free-play beyond the determinations of presence?

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Monday, March 7, 2011

Projectively Identifying with Brennan

The fact that Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect is “not a history of the affects”(22) inhibits some of its ability to draw its conclusions out beyond the clinic. While Brennan is willing to agree “that what defines the significant affects varies, especially across time or through history as well as cultures” (22), she also argues, “that there are constant potentials at work, and they are universal-for  now-in that they are potentially present in all human psyches as we know them” (22). Her paradox between the proliferation of boundaries and the denial of affect seems reductive in a few ways. Is it true that “boundaries may matter now because there is too much affective stuff to dispose of, too much that is directed away from the self with no place to go” (15)? Isn’t the opposite just as likely, that there are now too many places where the self can invest its affective energies, in negativity toward terrorists, immigrants, homosexuals and so on or against neoconservatives of any religious flavor? Doesn’t knowledge of the increasing complexity of a globalized economy and its subsequent production of new threats and risks of catastrophe give birth to a whole new series of anxieties for the modern subject to deal with? How can one choose between investing themselves in preventing ecological catastrophe or nuclear proliferation? Are we truly “in a period where the transmission of affect is denied” (15)? Or is it the case that everything from cyber fandom to the electronic displays of the national security threat level at the airport calls for our affective energies?

Brennan is very conscious of the possibility that this is the case. What is relevant to her is not “whether the negative affects are increased by a social order that abets their production or diminished in a civilization that counters them” (22) but just that “their potential is present” (23). I think that people repress the idea of a subject that is not self-contained because the current state continually reminds them that it is not such a pervasive manner. By this I mean, that the subject is continually forced to realize the ways in which it is insufficient and finite in a material sense as existential threats become more real to its imagination. But further in a psychological sense the ways people are increasingly aware of ways that they can exist virtually and in a multiple places and times. The fantasy of agency and individuality is a great fabulation to deal with our radical ineptitude in fundamentally altering historical circumstances, let alone our personal state.

On the one hand, it seems that Brennan’s anxiety that emotion has been turned away from in recent times is misplaced since so much attention has been paid to it, at least recently in the academy. On the other hand, within public discourses the fantasy of individuality still rules supreme in many contexts, especially political ones. Brennan’s examples of some of these new ‘maladies of the soul’ point to the contradictory nature of our contemporary condition. There are problems on both ends of the spectrum, psychoses both of hyperactivity and depression. The interpretation of this dynamic could lend itself to a couple paths; it could either follow Brennan in searching for the universal aspects of affect which exist or it could reject the clinical interpretation as a fictional analytic that should not be applied trans-historically.  But then again perhaps this is a false choice.. What is hard to reconcile however, is that if these forms of affective investment oscillate throughout history, what exactly is remaining universal? And how can people develop the capacity to receive or transmit more affect? Is there a certain reserve of affect people have always had and they simply materially evolve to develop more? It can’t be purely cognitive though either so what drives this change?

In Brennan’s analysis of ADHD and FMS she points to the relationship between the infant and their mothers. But it seems that alcoholic parents and poor mothers have been around for a significantly longer time then the uniquely contemporary condition of pharmacology. There must be forces which are particular, rather than universal in this case than simply a relationship between an infant and a mother.

And as a small aside, I feel Brennan’s off-hand dismissal of Deleuze is rather misplaced. For someone who has contributed so much to the field of affect studies its odd she would relegate him to the dustbin of poor theorists so quickly. Perhaps she is still recovering from the traumatic experience of reading Anti-Oedipus? But what is problematic in my view of her reading of Deleuze is that she reduces his theory simply to the BwO as some sort of primal state “that preexists and underpins the horrors of the Oedipus complex” (14). A Thousand Plateaus seems to do exactly the work she points to when she writes “The point is that energies and affects, after the Oedipus complex, still cross over between us” (14). Isn’t this exactly D & G’s point in writing their work, that affects and the self can invest itself in ways beyond the reductive aspects of psychoanalytic theory. I think her work and Object-Relations theory based interpretations of Freud are far less reductive, but that this is a part of the project Deleuze and Guattari were also very intimately concerned with.

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