11 January 2010

The Secret Discourse of All Things

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:08 pm

“However, it is not possible to describe all the relations that may emerge in this way without some guide-lines.”

This is the fifth of seven randomly-selected sentences from which I’m hoping to derive some guide-lines for my own personal 2010. It comes from the first chapter, page 29, of Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge, and I have to say that, on the face of it, the sentence isn’t particularly rich in connotations. Still, the sentence points away from itself toward its own meaning — which relations? in what way? — and it’s in those referents that something significant starts to emerge.

Foucault describes a threefold project from which this particular book takes shape. Most importantly, he wants to explore “discontinuity” and “rupture” as they appear in discourse. In order to do so, he needs to clear away the usual unifying themes that block the discontinuities from awareness. Foucault contends that there is no unifying force linking multiple texts within a genre or field, or even texts within a single author’s body of work, except through the interpretations that readers impose on those texts. By exposing these socially constructed unities and setting them aside, the intrinsically fragmentary composition of texts is revealed. Only then can Foucault’s third agenda begin to take shape, namely the identification of unexpected unifying themes that link discursive fragments across texts, across authors, across genres.

On page 25 Foucault renounces the traditional insistence that behind every discourse lurks the identity and intentionality of its speaker/writer as a unifying force that transcends the actual words and phrases. It’s as if the whole discourse is “already said” in the speaker’s mind even before any actual words are spoken. The job of the listener then becomes one of listening for this unspoken discourse behind the words, “the silent murmuring, the inexhaustible speech that animates from within the voice that one hears,” which is whole psychological presence of the speaker. This is crap, says Foucault: it points to an ever-receding point of discursive origin that can never actually be reached. Listen to the discourse itself: its irruptions and non sequiturs and dispersions are more real than the unified speaking subject in whose intentional and unconscious thoughts you imagine the discontinuities can be neatly tied together.

“Once these immediate forms of continuity are suspended, an entire field is set free. A vast field, but one that can be defined nonetheless: this field is made up of the totality of all effective statements (whether spoken or written), in their dispersion as events and in the occurrence that is proper to them. Before approaching, with any degree of certainty, a science, or novels, or political speeches, or the œvre of an author, or even a single book, the material with which one is dealing is, in its raw, neutral state, a population of events in the space of discourse in general. One is led therefore to the project of a pure description of discursive events as the horizon for the search for the unities that form within it.” (pp. 26-27)

But Foucault doesn’t want “to spread over everything the dust of facts,” merely listing and cataloging the discrete elements he encounters empirically in actual discourses. Breaking the hypnotic spell of psychological unity, he seeks other relations between elements, other unifying fields and forces that link seemingly disparate and incommensurable source materials. But, Foucault cautions with regard to these newly-linked discursive events, “in no way would they constitute a sort of secret discourse, animating the manifest discourse from within.” Consequently he suggests some “guide-lines” to avoid this sort of mystifying operation.

*   *   *

It’s at this point, however, that I must part company with our eminently reasonable guide and his systematic project. My project isn’t reasonable; it’s fictional. I allowed randomness to select seven disconnected “discursive events” for me, and now I’m seeking the “secret discourse” that animates and unifies these events for me. It’s like invoking Kabbalah for discerning the hidden portentious meanings of seemingly ordinary occurrences. Or like listening for an immanent and universal spirit of discourse from which all manifest discourses emerge.

One of the projects I’m considering, to which I’ve alluded in recent posts, is to write about an iconist. This character specializes in discerning the secret discourse behind manifest discourse, or behind manifestations that aren’t usually regarded as discourse: objects, assortments, gestures, scents, and so on. The iconist is also able to speak the language of secret discourse, assembling things that speak in silent murmurings to the universal interlocutor who exists behind and before all. Under what guide-lines will the iconist perform his mystic praxis? Will the paranoiac chaos into which his world is descending start making sense again? Will he be able to restore some hidden source of unity, or will he usher in some irreversible rupture in the fabric of the universe? Where at last will he reach the vanishing point: at the beginning of all things, the invisible arche-fossil; or at la fin absolue du monde, where every manifest thing culminates in extinction? Or will the iconist find no hidden language that holds together the hermetically isolated objects of the universe, the spaces between them gaping onto the profound and depthless void?

That sort of thing perhaps. Fiction, of course.



  1. Prop Harman? ;)


    Comment by Asher Kay — 13 January 2010 @ 8:27 am

  2. Now you’re talking, Asher. [Asher has read at least some of my first novel, to which he’s alluding here.] I’ve already told Graham that his Guerrilla book seems to me like a philosophy existing inside a steampunk novel. And I think he’d also make a great fictional character in his own right. I’m thinking of a trio of characters inspired by Harman, Meillassoux, and Brassier collaborating as a kind of nihilistic SR trinity, joining forces with the Fellowship and with Karas in trying to channel the Elohim toward the apocalypse. Can the Salon and those Props who haven’t already sold out mount an effective counterforce? And whose side is the Iconist on? This might be the way to go. What is that substance of Harman’s again — not dark matter, but dark something else? It should infuse the mise-en-scene.

    Maybe there should be a forerunner announcing the immanent Fin Absolue Du Monde and the unveiling of the Elohimic messiah (or antichrist) — call him Asher Kay perhaps?


    Comment by john doyle — 13 January 2010 @ 8:56 am

    • And I think he’d also make a great fictional character in his own right.

      But…he is, Blanche. (to paraphrase Bette Davis in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’). Dejan has already made of him the ‘Egyptian Temptress’, which is much too glamorous for the character (unless that was the point, i.e., an Iowan at an American University who is ‘intimidated by Alex’ is hardly going to be confused with Cleopatra on the streets of Cairo, even if it isn’t quite as storied as ‘Alex’. But whether or not you approve of the Parody Center (and you do), it is unfair not to give credit to Dejan in this case, although she wants it, of course, even when she hasn’t earned it as well. In fact, she has made of Dr. Sinthome a fictional character as well, although I never cared for the nomenclature ‘Narcissistic Cat’ doesn’t really have any punch. You cannot say that Cartoon Parodies are not forms of fiction, because you already yesterday referred to the ‘fiction’ in movies, as in books. Therefore Dejan’s not terribly successful cartoon series about the Harman-Bryants must be given credit as the Noble Failure it is.


      Comment by butch cazza — 13 January 2010 @ 11:43 am

    • Graham Harman wrote on his blog that he doesn’t include acknowledgments in his books, deeming them too personal for intended audiences unfamiliar with the names cited. I imagine an expatriate character co-authored by Graham Greene, William S. Burroughs, and Saul Bellow. The Egyptian Temptress would doubtless prove influential at an unconscious level.


      Comment by john doyle — 13 January 2010 @ 1:18 pm

      • ‘Graham Harman wrote on his blog that he doesn’t include acknowledgments in his books, deeming them too personal for intended audiences unfamiliar with the names cited.’

        Well, what is he going to do next, fall off the edge of the world? Yes, I see you do have a character here. One of the dowagers I had to deal with early on (and is in the 3rd chapter of our book, which focusses on the 70s), was a wealthy Southern society dame who married into the De Rham family of Lausanne, and Christian knows a lot of them there even now. Mrs. De Rham described her husband Casimir’s family as having ‘the most puh-fectly chah-ming mann-ahs’ and she was a big-time East Side Fag Hag too, but made all the boys never say they were gay to her–because she found that ‘offensive’. I have two other homos that weren’t in ‘the Aunt Luce Club’ in there too, they just lived across the hall in this Park Avenue luxury building that Mrs. De Rham said was ‘cheap and not stylish’, and they had two Schnauzers named Artichoke and Anchovy. Isn’t that heaven? Because every last one of them, in her ‘Aunt Luce Club’, as she called it, was gay, including one 50 years younger that she made fuck her! She then once got all cozy with me and asked me if I’d seen ‘Deep Throat’.

        So I guess someone worried about the “intended audiences’ feelings getting hurt” if they didn’t know the ‘in crowd’ thinking that, as acknowledged, surely they were necessarily ‘more up close and personal than they could ever hope to get to the legendary author’, then we have here subtleties never imagined not only among the De Rhams, but even in the salons of the Guermante…although things do change up in those stratospheres of course, with Oriane talking about how ‘filthy an omelette’ she had at someone’s house recently. But Christisn said the De Rhams still in Lausanne are all in big real estate there, and do not have ‘puh-rectly chah-ming mann-ahs’ AT ALL.

        Very Iowa (I have an aunt there and she’s also very over-democratic to people) to worry about offending people with acknowledgments that might make them feel ‘left out’. Oh my god, that is so funny you have made my day.


        Comment by butch cazza — 13 January 2010 @ 3:24 pm

      • Who needs fiction when one knows such people?


        Comment by john doyle — 13 January 2010 @ 9:50 pm

  3. I like it!

    By the way, I finished the novel not too long ago. I kept meaning to tell you that I really enjoyed it. The idea of the two men/goats, the living and the dead, has especially stuck with me. If I remember correctly, Miguel resisted seeing the duality as mere metaphor, but it’s a beautiful example of how metaphorical thinking works — how we literalize our metaphors and make inferences from the isomorphism. The literal “walking away” from the dead me means that I can take into account things like whether I look back, how fast I walk, what direction I move in, why the dead me remains where he is at the moment of departure, why I choose a moment when the others in the garden are asleep, etc., etc. If I can solve my problem (how to escape – how to take a path whose stations were never mapped) in the literalized isomorphism, I have solved my problem. If it’s the right isomorphism. Fancy as the language of philosophy, science and mathematics can be, there is really little more going on than there is in Miguel’s exercise.

    So… If there is a Prop Kay, to mind mind he is asking the “transcendental” question that Bhaskar asks: How must the world be for it to speak to us the way it does? He is asking why the isomorphs connect — what’s “behind” the patterns. The invisible hand of fate isn’t a hand at all, but a conversation. It talks to itself – its parts talk to its other parts. Determinism, sensitive to initial conditions, generates eddies that alter its own flow, accidental flourishes with the form of necessity, fractal images of the conversation in icons as small as an exit interview and as large as a social movement.

    Maybe the Elohim can’t turn away from us because we are their isomorph — we’re the literalized metaphor that generates a solution to their problems.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 13 January 2010 @ 10:43 am

  4. I’m psyched that you finished and enjoyed the book, Asher. I like very much your reading of the walking-away to “a path whose stations were never mapped.”

    “The invisible hand of fate isn’t a hand at all, but a conversation.”

    I agree with that. It’s is where the “good guys” have to go in countering the mystification and nihilism of the Elohists. The isomorph idea is of course troubling for those humans who voluntarily become avatars for the Elohim, ceding human agency to purportedly larger forces at work in the universe. But if creation takes shape in conversation, then so do problems and solutions and new problems. I don’t want to get completely rational-empirical, nor is it likely that the actor-network gang will save the day, nor am I certain that a happy resolution is assured, but this is where the battle lines get drawn if you will.


    Comment by john doyle — 13 January 2010 @ 11:54 am

    • I don’t want to get completely rational-empirical, nor is it likely that the actor-network gang will save the day

      I can only imagine them making it worse ;).

      Maybe a good backdrop would be the slow failure of the rational-empirical, in which we’re beaten (as we probably will be in real life) by distance, energy, time, and complexity.

      The SR trio has some really rich possibilities. I can see them in cahoots with Karas, but they would definitely throw him off balance.


      Comment by Asher Kay — 13 January 2010 @ 9:12 pm

  5. So, what advice would you give to a biblical exegete? Should s/he take Foucault’s advice, go the route you are going, or take an entirely different trajectory?


    Comment by Erdman — 14 January 2010 @ 3:12 pm

  6. I’ve not read very much of Foucault’s book, Erdman, but on first look I think he understates the psychological presence of the speaker/writer, whose sometimes disjointed discourses hide an underlying unity of position. On the other hand, sometimes I don’t know what I’m thinking until I write it down, which suggests that my own discourse is the source of my psychological unity. And certainly I entertain mutually contradictory positions, which may be revealed by looking at what I’ve said. And of course I do change my opinions over time.

    The Bible is of course a tougher case. Whose psychological presence is the exegete trying to discern behind the words: the human writer, or the divine one?


    Comment by john doyle — 14 January 2010 @ 6:51 pm

  7. Yes. Discerning whose intent is intended is always tricky!


    Comment by Erdman — 15 January 2010 @ 11:25 am

  8. An interesting alternative hermeneutic for explaining apparent inconsistencies: God spoke through the various Biblical writers, but God wasn’t “of one mind” when he did so.


    Comment by john doyle — 15 January 2010 @ 12:21 pm

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