Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Saussure’s system of signs beneath and McLuhan's respect for the formative background

When strong is weak from The Immanent Frame by David Smilde
Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics has become the seminal text in linguistics precisely because it succeeds in portraying language as an irreducible formal system of signs beneath the messy details and disorder of actual speech. Emile Durkheim sought to create a foundation for sociology in turn-of-the-century France by arguing that society was a reality sui generis that needed a new discipline to study it. Talcott Parsons sought to do the same in the U.S. context through his thesis that scholars from different disciplines and countries had simultaneously and independently converged on the “voluntaristic theory of action,” in which values and norms were irreducible. And most recently, Jeff Alexander has largely succeeded (if we judge by the burgeoning numbers in the ASA Culture Section) in creating a foundation for cultural sociology by arguing that culture is an autonomous phenomenon that has causal power. […] 
Instead of trying to continually prove that religion matters, we should take the “stronger” starting point that “of course religion matters,” and simply concentrate on what it is and how it is involved in contemporary social and political issues. Not “why does it still exist?” but “how does it exist?” “how does it relate to its ‘others’?” “how does it affects people’s lives?” and, of course, “who creates it?” “who has the control of its means of production?” “who has an interest in its moving in this direction or that?” In such an approach, religion can plausibly be either cause or effect (or non-causal), and either good or bad (or neutral). Such a robust engagement of the problems of modernity is what will make the sociology of religion a vital subfield and contribution to our social world.

interview now posted rom Object-Oriented Philosophy by doctorzamalek (Graham Harman) Laureano Ralon has interviewed me for FIGURE-GROUND COMMUNICATIONS.
Initially I was interested in Jean Baudrillard, who I still think has some important underused insights, despite his tendency to be viewed (even by my friend Latour) as the most horrible of the postmodern sophists. In Chicago I once heard someone say “Baudrillard stole all his ideas from McLuhan,” and though my first instinct was to defend Baudrillard, this made me think that I should read McLuhan too. […]
Not surprisingly, what I most like about Marshall McLuhan are two factors that are crucial for my own work: (1) his respect for the power and efficacy of individual things, and hence his refusal to put the human subject at the center of everything as in most modern philosophy; (2) his respect for the power of the formative background over the surface figure, and his resulting greater interest in rhetoric than in dialectic.
Rhetoric still has a bad name: it’s “mere rhetoric,” you know. But rhetoric is really the art of the background, and if philosophy is not the science of the background then it is nothing. Even Socrates, the supposed champion of explicit dialectic, is actually a rhetorician insofar as he thinks we must know what virtue or friendship is before we know what its qualities are. And given that any explicit statement about anything means enumerating a list of its qualities, Socrates is pointing us toward a deeper reality that dialectic cannot reach. Aristotle, too, puts enthymemes not only at the center of his Rhetoric and Poetics, but possibly at the center of his entire philosophy— if, like me, you interpret primary substance as that which is not just a material basis for qualities, but as something deeper than all qualities.
Rhetoric is not “mere rhetoric”: it was half a day’s instruction in the Lyceum, and Aristotle wasn’t just teaching rhetoric for “regrettable practical reasons” such as that “we live in an imperfect, irrational world.” No: in some ways the background medium (in McLuhan’s sense) really is the subject of all philosophy. Heidegger even calls it Being. In my opinion, McLuhan was one of the most significant figures in the humanities in the entire twentieth century. We’ve barely begun to catch up with him.

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