Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Apotropaicism: Aura and Trace

In the opening to Jean-Michel Rabate's recent book Given, he presents the history of aesthetics through considerations of aura, trace and neuter. I will leave to one side whether the neuter is a third aesthetic category or a development of the trace in face of the fading of the aura.

In presenting the aura and the trace in this manner, Rabate at one point he cites the perfect dialectic of aesthetics unearthed in Benjamin's Arcades project as located between the trace and the aura. It goes as follows:
'The trace is an appearance of nearness, however far removed the thing that is left behind may be. The aura is the appearance of a distance, however close the thing that it calls forth. In the trace, we gain possession of the thing; in the aura, it takes possession of us.' (Cited in Given 21).

The apotropaicism of this comment goes to the very heart of the aesthetic as such which is always in our culture presented as a dialectic and certainly since Hegel a dialectic posed between materiality, trace, and ideality, aura.

The work of art itself is something apotropaic or problematic as Derrida calls it in Aporias (from the Greek problema to project and project). One could the perhaps pose the problem as the dialectical other to apotropaicism. If apotropaicism attracts and repels in equal measure, a protection against an evil which appeals otherwise why does one need an active prophylaxis, then the problem both defends one against this threat and yet also projects or promotes one into its sphere of dire influence.

Of course at this stage it becomes impossible to resist the evil influence of perhaps the most nefarious of all dialectics, that between object and subject. The aesthetic object is fundementally apotropaic in that it tries to take command of one. In contrast the aesthetic subject is problematic as it resists apotropaic objectivism by its trespass into the object of its own exterior relations and for that matter interiorised alterity. Again, returning to Derrida, he seems to combine the two terms into his translation of prosthesis, as we all know essential to artistic techne, which he contends means both before and towards a place.

The aesthetic therefore consists first of apotropaicism which might be termed an aesthetic classicism: the demands of the external world on the subjective. This world is both presentative and re-presentative, indicated by the dual dynamic of apotropaicism which attracts, here I am, and repels, in other words repeats (here I mean representation literally as simply presented again in the very first instance of presentation, pushed away by repetition precisely as one comes before its presence for the first time).

Then there is a period of aesthetic modernism of which Kant and Hegel are the fathers. Here the subjective element of the problem overtakes the demands of the object. The subject wishes to protect itself from the very element its art must project into: the world at large, transcendental truths, death, and sensuousness as such. It would be easy to say projection is protection, a pushing forward and away, but this would be false. Protection is rather a projection. The art work is cast forward into the avant-garde as much to protect the subject as to liberate the aesthetic into a futural moment. If apotropaic classic object aesthetics attracts so as to reveal the repellant law of presentation without presence, then problematic modern aesthetics projects endlessly into novelty and the future to protect the subject from its own difference from itself, which is in fact difference from difference as such. Subject as ever the same as itself but never in anyway trascendentally self-identical.

It is all too easy to present the aesthetic as a historically orientated dialectic naming names and epochs in support but when I speak of the two moments of the aesthetic I do not see them has historical at all or indeed temporal in anything but a necessarily attenuated form of language that we seem to demand to be temporal, before, after and so on, when it merely uses temporal terms to convey a certain set of non-temporal and non-spatial positions and relations.

What I contend is that the aesthetic thus far in the west is first object-apotropaic, then subject-problematic and then a rather complex, baroque even decadent dialectical interpositioning of the two. Thus finally in all aesthetics one has a suspensive moment wherein the dialectic of the aesthetic: apotropaic objectivism vs. problematic subjectivism is first revealed as a doubled doubling. Rather than sublation one might cringe at the hideous appositeness of the term doublation, for that is indeed what the aesthetic performs.

Here the dialectic is not moving towards synthesis via self alienation but internal division. Not an endless internal division or dialectic in reverse, but a moment of identity that immediately becomes difference which then results in an identity of difference which then ceases at precisely this point. Let me try and possibly fail to explain.

The object, I argued, both attracts and repels, the problem both protects and projects. Here the term prosthesis is useful in that the aesthetic both takes us towards a place and yet inculcates us in a temporality of previousness. We head towards a place we have already proceeded from. Naturally this is echoed in Derridean differance and many other versions of this ontological temporality, see Badiou's theory of the event, Deleuze on difference and repetition and so on, but in a differentiation of self-differing diffentiations.

The object orientation of the work of art differs from itself in that it exists only to be repelled by subjects and in so doing comes to its self-indentity. This identity is not simply something that differs from itself, the age-old Eleatic problem of the one and its others. It differs from itself by resembling that from which it is fundamentally different. This is the problematic subject which again exists as such only by trespass into an exterior, transcendental materiality into whose radical and endless difference it projects itself to protect itself from the revelation of its own non-identical identity and presence-less present. The subject of enunciation in other words.

It would seem therefore there are a number of para-parallel levels of identifying differentiation in play here.
  • The object differs from itself by coming to presence only by re-presenting itself to the subject after the subject has repelled it. It is not enough for the object to remain at one remove from the subject, it must affect the subject so that the subject rejects it.
  • The subject differs from itself by projecting out into that which will dissolve it: exteriority and alterity. The subject therefore operates as the negative echo of the object. The object presents so as be be re-presented in the repetition of its rejection. The subject comes to presence only through a projection out into a world against which it must protect itself. Here representation, subject in the objective world, comes about only through and act of depresentation: total withdrawal from the game.
  • It is not enough to say that object and subject aura and trace are dialectically opposed. They are also opposed to themselves in a manner which relates the two areas not by structural similarity but by a perfect structural dissimilarity of absolute reversal.

Language Ideas

If we are to take language and/or writing as the essence of truth whether this be language as such (Agamben), as writing (Derrida), house of being (Heidegger) or as logical form of propositions (analytical philosophy) then why not do so in full?
Rather than positing elements of language in contestation, is not truth-being the totality of language including those elements that we can easily observe in language that are not necessarily taken up by philosophy.
If this is the case the first work would be a taxonomy of the qualities of what we call language, the second a reconciliation of contradications and oppositions, the third a full presentation of what truth is: language in its entirety.
Language List:
Structural Linguistics
Continental Philosophy
Generative Grammar
Analytical Philosophy

Structural Language is a system of signs used by a community to approach a commonality of meaning. These signs are used, it is said, to encode information by pairing sound with concept, and decoding information by conventional agreement as to which concepts these sounds signify. The link between sound and sense is arbitrary, but the means by which signs generate meanings is not. This system is dependant on presuppositions as regards symbolisation, pre-existence of intended meanings, common sense shared meanings, the difference between siginifier and signified, differential systems, and identical meanings. Central elements
  • sign as bifurcated
  • the combination of arbitrary and convention
  • network of differentials
  • diachrony as a form of trace
  • preupposition of structure and of information
  • symbolisation
Continental Philosophy: Three positions. Heidegger, language is the house of being. Derrida language is writing. Agamben, language is immediate mediating support.
Heidegger's placement of Being within the habitude of language is a central moment of concession that the modalities of language recommend it to Being. I see this in two ways. First the paradox of Being can only be accessed through language. Second that certain elements of language highlighted in poetry share a commonality with Being. Language can express Being to a degree because language operates in a fashion similar to Being.
Derrida's work adds to structuralism the following critiques. The presupposition of meaning or voice before mediation in material means is false. Meaning does not precede language but is always already inscribed in language. Elements of language which are essential such as trace, deferral, differentiation, and spacing mean that all language is ostensibly writing. The symbolisation theory retrospectively infects backwards the presupposition of a direct meaning. Finally the model of freedom within confines for Derrida undermines confines resulting in destructurisation.
Agamben retains the Heideggerian and Derridean point that Being is only presentable in language. Yet he also proposes that language is not bifurcated between Being and poetry or phonology and grammatology, but that language is the immediate mediation of all categorisations. Language is the place wherein such categories come into conflict in the first instance.
All three thinkers retain and element of poetic alterity. In each case it is language's singular non-identity that gives it the modality of the presentation of 'meaning'.
  • language replaces truth or meaning as the origin of Being
  • language does not communicate meaning but composes meangifulness
  • linguistic alterity must run alongside everyday communication
  • materiality is not in service of communication but is the essence of communication
The presupposition that meaning precedes language is undermined by Derrida and others by revealing that meaning is essentially a construct of language use. This is particularly dependant on the differential elements of trace and deferral. Thus all meaning is always already inscribed within language and hence all language is to be termed writing. Aside from difference, trace and deferral, other qualities of language as writing would have to be taken into consideration such as materiality (semiosis), transmissibility and prophylaxis. Naturallt here therefore language is not the transmission of information but the construction of conceptualisations of meaning. There is not active process of encoding and decoding as all is already code.
Language as such: Here Agamben and others propose a pre-writing element to language which is pure Voice. Here the division between phonological and grammatological versions of language is put to one side with language presented as the pure medium of support for meaning. In this model meaning does not precede language, nor writing precede voice as pure self-presence, but voice and writing come together by virtue of the medium of language as such.
Deep Structure: For Chomsky and others language is a cognitive procedure. It consisted intitiall of two elements, surface and deep structure. Surface structure's vary but all are reducible to deep structures common to all languages. Language is not learnt therefore but is hardwired and projects from this core the language variations. This has since been abandoned in favour of the minimalist program. What this indicates is the core ideas at the heart of all contemporary theories of grammar.
  • abstraction: grammars can be built on abstract logical rules not on empirical observation allowinf us to reduced all languae to NP VP Aux and build from that.
  • derivation: grammars indicate how infinite complexities are derived from limited sets of rules
  • transformation and recurrence: language consists of transformations within recurring and limited structures.
  • Grammaticality: a well composed sentence is one that is grammatically correct even if meaningless
  • Perfection and Economy: related principles really, the complexity of the system of language is reducible to a limited number of rules which are perfect, i.e optimal and economic, ie. reductive.
Here language is defined in terms of syntax rather than sign and in terms of transformative derivations rather than symbol.

Analytical Philosophy:

These sustained positions on language do not constitute language in its totality and thus a final element of language, a logopoietic element, must be added into the mix.

  1. Structuralism: symbolisation, materiality, differentiation, network, double structure, trace, arbitrary convention
  2. Continental Philosophy: Language presents being, singularity, deferral, trace, materiality, medium, difference, dialectic, spacing
  3. Transformation Grammar: Language is an innate mode of all human thought based on the evolution of the brain. It moves to a simple structure from which transformation and derivations can be determined. It is motivated by perfection of optimality and economy.
  4. Analytical Philosophy:

Logopoiesis: Tautology Example

What if one took say the categories of analytical philosophy and logic and returned them back to a more broad brush metaphysical style. Rather than, as some have done, try to make metaphysics analytical, continuing the project of Kant but in a modern register, one should aim to make analytical conceptions metaphysical.

Thus for example tautology. Here one would take the conceptualisation of tautology which is one half of the original logical empricists schema of truth as either tautology or verifiable, and develop from that a work on tautologies potential to generate meaning within culture or thought. This is the application of the the logopoiesis axiom: to think what is embedded potentially within a concept.

Thus potential thinking could consist of thinking a category rather than categorical thinking. The self-evident then would be related to issues such as potentiality in Agamben, the obvious in Heidegger, tautegory in Lyotard and Nancy and so on.


A traditional error when thinking about language is to reduce it to the mere act of naming, and all the paradoxes inherent therein.  However complex and thought through Badiou's theory of the event is, its being named opens it up first to these paradoxes, and second to an attenuated vision of language that remains supicious.  Preferable by far is the wider focus on language as composed of relational phrases to be found in Deleuze. 

Phrases or sentences if you prefer, raise their own set of problems.  The primary amongst these is how to contend with the subject-predicate coupling which is the basis of the very philosophical tradition Deleuze is trying to overturn.  Aside from this, possibly insurmountable, problem there is of course the nature of relation within the phrase unit, especially if the subject-predicate copula is retained.  And of course the relation between phrases which necessitates that one address simple ontological questions such as where does the phrase begin and end, how do we differentiated phrases from each other?  Deleuze's genius is to see these problems and, to my mind at least, compose credible means of resolving them. 

The first thing to be said therefore is that any philosophy of language needs to pay equal attention to language as name and language as phrase.  Naming can never be a only relation between word and thing, a relation we find time and again radically non-relational, but must also be between names and names and names and verbs and predicates.  By the same gesture while Deleuze is certainly correct to stress the importance of linguistic construction over that of denotation, something he shares with Foucault, this cannot be at the expense of the name as and experience of philosophy

Language in this model becomes a form of mediation between two worlds traditionally unable to communicate.  Words point to things in the world, while phrases point to the relation between worlds.  Language therefore produces some form of relation between an extensive relation (word-thing) and an intensive relation (phrase-phrase) necessitating a view of the world as bifurcated between world as common, language founded on naming what there is for all of us, and as proper, the actual infinity of the relations between phrase-worlds.

If we adopt this model of language many new issues come into focus.  The first of these is that however complex our new model is, accepting language as word-thing, word-word, word (noun)-phrase (verb) and phrase-phrase, it is still a bifurcated identity-difference construct and so well within the confines of our metaphysical history.  To militate against this we can observe that the outer limits of language as word and as phrase begin to decompose the snug intimacy of the subject-predicate presupposition which is at the heart of the model I have just laid out. 

The word, after all, is not the minumum or most primitive unit of language.  Before any word as such is uttered, the material-ontological preconditions of enunciation must be met, these are of course a self-enunciating subject in actual or constructed fact, and various other matters such as marking, absence, silence, reptition, redundancy, rhythm, expletives, glossolalia and so on.  Put simply before each word there must be met the preconditions of utterance that philosophy has usually distributed along the lines of subjects and matter. 

At the other end we have to consider that while a phrase-based linguistics is certainly more relational and constructivist, it is still of limited relationality and really only a primitive form of construction.  It is, after all, not phrases that interest us but phrases in frameworks, phrases composed into significant 'paragraphs', phrases in consort with other phrases, and out of kilter with other phrases, phrases through time, across place, under the auspices of power, and phrases as events.  All of these could be held under the heading 'discourse', or specifically the operativity of discourse and the inter-relationality of multiple but not infinite discourses.

These removals of the traditional epoche of ideas of language do no free it from binaristic, identity-difference structures.  But they begin the slow process of entirely reconsidering the nature of language to a such a degree that such a noun may eventually be adandoned as not naming anything to be found in this world.  Before we get there however the program is clear:
  • Reconfigure language as neither word based nor phrase based but as word-phrase based
  • Be open and honest about the aporias to be found therein of both systems and their relation
  • Open both the internal borders of language, let word consort with phrase, an the external, let word consort with matter and let phrase consort with discourse
  • Which may in turn even open discourse to matter and vice versa
Such a 'philosophy of language' would far exceed the reductionist contesting models we tend to encounter but even this expansion would be insufficient.  It does not, for example, begin to contend with the fundamental belief in Agamben and Deleuze that language is primarily performative.  Nor does it yet contemplate the fundamental belief in Agamben and Foucault that language is also pure communicability as such. 

For us to proceed beyond language we need to consider the performative at both the primitive level of subjective enunciation and the multiple level of power through territorialisation.  And by the same gesture a consideration of communicability at the base level, for example Foucault's stipulation that all statements need base material presence, and at the discursive level: the wider sanction of communicability as such as a sanctioned form of pervasive and relatively consitent intelligibility.