[65호] The Idea of Onto-Cartography / 레비 R. 브라이언트 『존재의 지도』 한국어판 출간 기념 강연 원고
The Idea of Onto-Cartography
On the occasion of the book launch for Galmuri Press’s Korean translation of Onto-Cartography
Levi R. Bryant
( Professor of Philosophy, Collin College )
August 29, 2020
I would like to begin by thanking Galmuri Press for their translation of Onto-Cartography and for setting up this book launch today. I am profoundly grateful for them making it possible for this book to reach a new audience and hope that it will generate future discussion with the people of South Korea, leading my own thought in new and exciting directions.
It has now been over six years since Onto-Cartography was published, and many more years since it was written. As I thought about what I wanted to say for this book launch, I was reminded of a line from the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s 1878 essay “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”. There Peirce writes,
It appears, then, that the rule for attaining the third grade of clearness of apprehension is as follows: Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.
I first read this article around the year 2000 when I was still a graduate student at Loyola University of Chicago, and there is a very real sense in which this principle-- what is sometimes referred to as the “pragmatic principle” –has guided my thought ever since, though probably in a sense quite different than he intended it. What impressed me so deeply about Peirce’s principle was the relationship between ideas or concepts and action that he asserted. You see, I had-- and often still do –struggled with the question of why philosophy matters or what purpose it serves. Often works of philosophy are highly abstract and seemingly remote from life. Likewise, the debates between philosophers seem to be arid and of no consequence to how we live in the world. And, I’m afraid to say, sometimes this is true.
However, what Peirce taught me is that ideas or concepts matter. In the passage above, Peirce says that if we want to make our ideas or concepts clear we should ask ourselves what practical consequences follow from that idea with respect to both how we perceive or apprehend the world and our action. What would this concept lead me to look for or notice about the world or universe? What practices or actions would follow from this idea? For example, my concept of a hammer might be all of the uses to which I can put it.
Peirce is interested in how we might make our ideas clear. While I am certainly interested in making ideas clear, I draw a somewhat different lesson from his principle. To my thinking, Peirce’s principle implies that our perception of the world around us and our action are based on our ideas or concepts. We will never see more than our ideas or concepts allow us to see and our actions will only ever be as good as our concepts or ideas. Our actions are based on our ideas. What we apprehend in the world around us, what is given to us, is based on our concepts.
Let us take an example of this with respect to what we apprehend or what is given in the phenomenological sense. The given is that which presents itself to consciousness. The computer upon which I am now composing this talk is given to me. It presents itself to me in the field of my experience. Now suppose someone, Paul, says to his friend John, “Jeff, we should go to the bookstore.” Most people, even John, would say that Paul made a simple mistake and think no more of it. Paul meant to say John, but said Jeff instead. Perhaps Paul was distracted. Perhaps he was tired. Maybe Paul had a few too many drinks. In all of these cases, the given, what Paul has said, is attributed to a mistake or error and we don’t give it a second thought.
However, if we have been trained in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, we will perceive this given, this statement, in an entirely different way. Rather than apprehending this infelicity of speech as a meaningless error, we will instead hear it as an index of a repressed unconscious desire. Perhaps Paul would prefer to be spending time with his friend Jeff. Perhaps he feels guilt because he told his friend Jeff something that John told him in confidence and wishes to be forgiven for this betrayal of their friendship. Those who have the concept of the unconscious apprehend these ubiquitous errors that make up the fabric of everyday life quite differently. They see them as pervaded by meaning and expressive of the unconscious and repressed desires that people have. I leave my favorite jacket at my friend Jeff’s house by mistake when moving to another state. This is perhaps an indication that I don’t want to move or that I want to return. The concept of the unconscious completely transforms what we perceive, what we apprehend, in these small little events that make up the world of our experience.
In a completely different domain, I wash my hands. Washing hands, of course, is an action. Why do I do this? I do this because I have the concept or idea of germs such as bacteria and viruses and the belief that these things cause sickness. My action, in this instance, is premised on my concept of germs, what germs cause, and how this can be prevented. My action is based on my idea.
The lesson I take from this is that ideas are never just ideas. Rather, ideas, concepts, bring entirely new worlds into view. They allow the given to be given in entirely new ways. Moreover, ideas or concepts open up entirely new fields of action for us. Where before we would have simply ignored that infelicity of speech or slip of the tongue, now we follow the path of meaning to discover desires within ourselves that perhaps we were not ready to face or acknowledge. What before seemed meaningless now becomes pervaded by significance by virtue of the concept of the unconscious, how the unconscious works, and the concept of repression… That there is no repression without a return of the repressed. We now discover that there is something that thinks within us of which we are unaware that is nonetheless at the heart of our being and our life.
In this regard, we can think of concepts as being akin to the eyeglasses that I wear. When I take my eyeglasses off, the world about me becomes indistinct and fuzzy. I can’t make things out, read signs from a certain distance, nor distinguish one thing from another. Everything is a haze and buzzing confusion. I then put my eyeglasses on and the world comes into relief. That which was fuzzy and filled with confusion now becomes distinct. The world and the things of the world stand forth. It is the same with our concepts. Our concepts bring something of the world, something of the real, into relief allowing these things to stand forth. The cook apprehends the kitchen and those things that populate the kitchen in an entirely different way than those who have never cooked. Like the person with poor eyesight without glasses, the person who does not cook sees the objects that populate the kitchen as an indistinct, buzzing confusion of meaningless things not unlike we might apprehend a dense fabric of underbrush in a forest. Nothing stands forth. For the cook, by contrast, all of the implements of the kitchen stand forth with meaning and function.
However, the major difference between a pair of eyeglasses and a set of concepts is that concepts make us blind as well. In bringing a domain of the world into relief, in freeing it to stand forth as given, another domain of the world is plunged into darkness. For the neurologist the world of the psychoanalyst, with its dreams, symptoms, bungled actions, slips-of-the-tongue, and jokes all pervaded by unconscious meaning produced through repression is invisible. For the psychoanalyst, the world of the neurologist with its electro-chemical signals is invisible. When our concepts bring one set of things into relief, they plunge another into darkness.
Most of the time we are unaware of the ideas or concepts that structure our action and how the world is given to us. These concepts are so seamlessly integrated with our apprehension of the world and our action that we treat conception, world, and action as identical to one another. Indeed, to become aware of our ideas a traumatic encounter where things don’t work out is often required. Something must go awry or fail to work. When an encounter erupts into the world in this way we potentially-- it is never guaranteed –become aware of the difference between conception and world. We perhaps discover that something is amiss with our concepts.
It is in the context of these claims that I understand the work of philosophy and why philosophy matters. My hypothesis is that philosophy attempts to bring our concepts into relief. Philosophy works on the concepts through which we act and apprehend the world. The great novelist Lewis Carroll said that we can mean what we say or say what we mean, but that we cannot mean what we say and say what we mean. As I suggest a moment ago, most of the time our concepts are unconscious. We are too busy acting through them and using them to even notice that our concepts structure our apprehension of the world and action. We “live” our concepts, and in living them they become invisible to us. Our perception and action become seamless with our ideas such that they seem to be one and the same thing. I scarcely notice that the world that is given to me and that I act in is a “thought world”. It’s just the world, or that’s how we take it, anyway.
What philosophy attempts to do is rescue our concepts from unconsciousness, bringing them into relief so that we might determine what, in the world, these concepts give to us to apprehend, how they inform our action, and what they render invisible. Returning to the metaphor of eyeglasses, where most of the time we look through our glasses, philosophy instead attempts to look at our glasses. In this endeavor, philosophy cultivates a strange and paradoxical double vision that is perhaps impossible to ever completely achieve. On the one hand, it looks at the concepts through which we encounter the world. On the other hand, it attempts to see the world without these concepts. Through this attempted double vision our concepts are set in motion undergoing all sorts of bending, transformation, twisting, and becoming. What we began with becomes something else by the end of this work. And this is why philosophy matters. This is why philosophy makes a difference. By bringing our concepts into relief, by bringing them before thought, our concepts are transformed. After our critical scrutiny, they will not be the same as the ideas we began with. And if it is true that the world we apprehend, the world that is given to us, and our action are based on our concepts, then through this philosophical work of the concept a new world will come to be given to us and our action will be transformed.
It is in the context of this concept of philosophy that the project of Onto-Cartography should be understood. I wrote Onto-Cartography not with the intention of intervening in philosophical debate and taking sides, but rather in hopes that this work would make some modest contribution to the practices of people. My ardent hope in writing this book was that people would take it up and use it in their worldly practices. In this regard, I measure the success of Onto-Cartography not by whether it makes it into the pages of respected philosophical journals-- if that was the only way the book registered in the world, I would count it as a failure –but rather by whether it has been taken up in practice. In this regard, I have been gratified to see, and be involved with, archaeologists who have taken up concepts from this work and The Democracy of Objects, in their fieldwork pertaining to climate change and the Anthropocene (they too are trying to render certain things visible). I have been pleased to see these concepts put to work among architects and designers in their design practices. Likewise with artists and various political practices. What this book aimed at was for people to do things differently.
In retrospect it seems like such a simple and self-evident thing, yet strangely the central aim of Onto-Cartography doesn’t make it into the thesis of the book. It wasn’t until much later that this concept occurred to me. What I aimed at with Onto-Cartography, what I was after, was the construction of a set of conceptual tools that would help people achieve what I call “escape velocity”. Escape velocity is the rate an object must achieve to escape the gravity of another body such as the planet earth. It takes quite a bit of energy to achieve escape velocity. What I wanted to do in Onto-Cartography was provide a set of conceptual tools that would help people develop practices that would allow them to escape the assemblages within which they are trapped.
One of the central concepts of the book is gravity. Gravity is my word for power. From thinkers like Foucault we are familiar with that vast body of literature that explores how power structures discourses and the very subjects that we are, along with questions about how we might escape this power to achieve new ways of being and living. Why not, then, simply use the word “power”? Why introduce this strange use of the term “gravity” when a perfectly good word is already there? In his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”, the 19thcenturyphilosopherFriedrichNietzschetalksabouthowconceptscanbecomelikeworncoinswhereyoucannolongerdiscerntheimagethatwasonceonthem. A concept becomes a worn coin when it no longer calls us to think or where we use the word in such a way as to treat its meaning as self-evident without any longer registering the sense of the word.
I believe the signifier “power” has today become such a concept. Everywhere we use the word without really thinking about what it signifies. When we look at the vast body of literature in critical theory, in those forms of theory that aim not simply to represent the world, but to forge concepts that would be like weapons aimed at transforming the world, we see the concept of power deployed in a very systematic way. At the risk of over-generalizing, power in this literature is conceived as falling on the side of the discursive. The tendency is to conceive power in terms of representation. Power, then, lies in what people believe, the norms that structure our action, systems of signs by which we categorize people and through which identities are formed, and all the rest. With this conception of power we then conclude can then change the world by demonstrating that these beliefs are mistaken or by transforming these signifying systems.
It is important to understand that I do not wish to deny that the realm of the discursive-- what I generally refer to as the symbolic or semiotic –exercises tremendous power in our lives. Here in the United States, between me and an undocumented worker, there is no meaningful material or biological difference. We are both human beings, occupying the world, with more or less the same cognitive and physical capacities. What, then, is the difference between the two of us? What is it that accounts for our very different lives? The vast difference between the two of us is a signifier. My existence is captured in the signifier “citizen”. The undocumented worker’s existence is caught in the signifier “non-citizen” or “illegal”. These signifiers are nothing material or physical. They are not properties or features that could be discovered by doing a scientific analysis of either of us. They make no difference to our weight or health or our cognitive capacities.
Yet nonetheless these incorporeal signifiers make a dramatic difference in our lives. Take something as simple as driving. I might think nothing of driving ten or fifteen miles above the speed limit. Why? What’s the worst that can happen? I am pulled over by an officer, given a ticket, have to pay a fee and my auto insurance goes up. This is directly related to my status as a citizen of the United States. For the undocumented immigrant, by contrast, matters are very different. If they are pulled over, they face the possibility of deportation or incarceration. Perhaps they have a partner at home and children. In something as simple as being pulled over for speeding, they face the possibility of being imprisoned and deported without their family knowing anything of what happened to them. The undocumented immigrant therefore has to be mindful of all they do. For example, perhaps she might not seek recourse against an abusive employer or speak publicly against injustice because in doing so she risks deportation. And why? Because of a signifier, something that is no-thing or nothing at all. That signifier that is no-thing at all profoundly structures every aspect of her life. This is the power of the discursive or the symbolic. Like a spider’s web, all of us are entangled in the symbolic in one way or another.
A moment ago I mentioned that to the same degree that our concepts bring certain things in the world into relief, they also render other things invisible. If my concept of power is restricted to the discursive, then I will believe that if we wish to change the world, it is sufficient to change these discursive or symbolic fields. And indeed, we change much in our lives by doing this. However, at the time of writing Onto-Cartography, one of the things that struck me is that despite the powerful discursive or symbolic critiques we had from figures like Foucault, Derrida, Judith Butler, Zizek, and all the rest, the world didn’t seem to be changing much. At the discursive level, we were busily dismantling ideology, heteronormativity, patriarchy, sexism, racism, etc., yet still things seemed to go on much as they had before. How was it possible that we could dismantle these discursive systems and convince people of those deconstructions and critiques, yet things remained as they had before? Something was missing.
We are not merely caught in webs of signifiers, mistaken beliefs, and ideology. We are also caught within the materiality of the world, both the world that we have built and the natural world. When Einstein thought of gravity in the context of his general relativity, he did not conceive it as forces attracting and repelling bodies, but rather as a curvature of space-time produced by the mass of an object. The moon orbits Earth because of how the mass of Earth creates a curvature of space-time that the moon then follows. This is how I conceive gravity in the sense I propose it. We are caught in the gravity of both the symbolic and the material, and through this gravity paths are created along which we move. We have already seen an example of how this gravity functions in the symbolic with the signifier “illegal”. We find all sorts of other cases in the architecture of buildings, city design, how goods are produced, supply lines and their distribution, and all the rest. We might indeed change our beliefs yet still find ourselves enmeshed in fields of materiality that direct our movement in action in particular ways despite our intentions.
The question of Onto-Cartography is that of how to achieve escape velocity from the semiotic and material paths that delineate our movement. To do this we must first practice cartography or the art of mapping these assemblages. If we do not understand how these assemblages are put together, then we cannot hope to change them and achieve escape velocity. There is then deconstruction. Deconstruction occurs at both the symbolic level and the material level. At the symbolic level it is a matter of rending signifying systems that trap us so as to open up new possibilities of being and living. At the material level it consists in dismantling material assemblages that force our movement along certain paths. Finally there is terrformation or the building of new worlds at the level of the symbolic and the material. It is my hope that all of you will find ways to practice onto-cartography in the production of new worlds.
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