Category Archives: Semiotics
[This is yet another essay on Environmental Politics, in response to the essays "Farewell to the Green Movement? Political Action and the Green Public Sphere" by Douglas Torgerson (a bastardization of Habermas, featuring Arendt, probably likewise bastardized, though I've not read her) and "Politics Beyond the State: Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics" by Paul Wapner (which seeks to extend the scope of 'politics' beyond its traditional moorings, e.g. activist groups). My main argument is that what is (by some) called 'Green (political) Discourse' is merely parasitic upon other forms of discourse and has no autonomy whatsoever; this discredits the notion of a 'green public sphere', which in turn discredits the efficacy of politics regarding environmental problems. In case my pessimism seems disconcerting, I have come to view my position as a theoretician as being akin to that of the hacker who is hired by a bank in order to expose the weak points in the system so that the bank can duly fix them.]
[This essay is from a couple of years ago.]
The problem with defining ‘civil disobedience’ as a political concept is that such a definition is far too often formed within the limits of a particular legislature, ideology, and historical period. Hence, ambiguity arises; civil disobedience in North Korea has a far different meaning than the term does in the USA. With such cases in mind, the only way to avoid narrowness is to change one’s form of description from the empirical to the theoretical, attempting to find the highest common factor of each ideology. I will argue that each political perspective is socially constructed, and that each perspective’s status as a system/model (as opposed to simply a description of empirical events) can be revealed by that which it leaves out. This essay will show that a political model is created when a prescriptive definition of a political concept is offered instead of a descriptive one, so that this prescriptive definition becomes the criterion by which the concept is judged1, that civil disobedience is the violation of a present model in the name of another, and that no act of civil disobedience can be justified, since any act of civil disobedience can only be defined in terms of the political model in which it takes place.
However, in the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein abandons the idea of language as axiomatic representation of the world, and the idea of the ‘unspeakable’. Discussions with [Piero] Sraffa seem to have played their part in his abandonment of the latter. In this connection, there is an anecdote that Wittgenstein himself liked to tell his pupils, one of whom – Malcolm – recounts it thus in his biography of the master: one day, as they were travelling together on the train from Cambridge to London, ‘Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans and meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger tips of one hand’.21
The gesture can only acquire a specific meaning from the context in which it is performed, thus contradicting Wittgenstein’s idea that every proposition had to have a precise place in the axiomatic order of rational language, independently of the various contexts in which it may be employed.22
21: Malcolm, 1958: 69.
22: According to Malcolm (1958: 69), the object of the discussion was Wittgenstein’s idea ‘that a proposition and that which it describes must have the same “logical form”, the same “logical multiplicity”’; according to von Wright, as Malcolm reports in a footnote, the object of the discussion was the idea that each proposition should have a ‘grammar’. In a conversation (21 December, 1973) Sraffa confirmed the anecdote, telling me that von Wright was right.
Roncaglia, A. (2000). Piero Sraffa: His Life, Thought, & Cultural Heritage. New York: Routledge, pg. 23, endnotes pg. 44.
For a brief skeptical discussion of whether Wittgenstein was really refuted, see here.
The well-known quarrel between Lacan and Derrida over Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” did not come from nowhere. Consider in this regard Lacan’s formulation from “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” that one is to grasp the letter à la lettre, that is, literally, and Derrida’s counter in the title to section one of his Of Grammatology, “Writing Before the Letter,” in French, avant la lettre, that is, before the fact, before, that is, the literal. Never to shirk a provocation, Lacan responded in the points edition of the Écrits by instating that his insight into the “instance/agency of the letter preceded any grammatology.” This in turn appears to have prompted The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan by Derrida partisans Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe. The titular phrase, le titre de la lettre, might also be rendered as “the deed to, or rank of the letter.” Here is not the place to elaborate the stakes of this face-off, but suffice it to say that at issue is the nontrivial problem of whether philosophy can think the general economy of signs that conditions the possibility of language, whether spoken or written.
~John Mowitt, in Lyotard – Discourse, Figure, Editor’s Introduction, pg. 397, endnote 7.
Chaos and instability, concepts only beginning to acquire formal definitions, were not the same at all. A chaotic system could be stable if its particular brand of irregularity persisted in the face of small disturbances. [Edward] Lorenz’s system was an example…. The chaos Lorenz discovered, with all its unpredictability, was as stable as a marble in a bowl. You could add noise to this system, jiggle it, stir it up, interfere with its motion, and then when everything settled down, the transients dying away like echoes in a canyon, the system would return to the same peculiar pattern of irregularity as before. It was locally unpredictable, globally stable. Real dynamical systems played by a more complicated set of rules than anyone had imagined. The example described in the letter from Smale’s colleague was another simple system, discovered more than a generation earlier and all but forgotten. As it happened, it was a pendulum in disguise: an oscillating electronic circuit. It was nonlinear and it was periodically forced, just like a child on a swing.
It was just a vacuum tube, really, investigated in the twenties by a Dutch electrical engineer named Balthasar van der Pol. A modern physics student would explore the behavior of such an oscillator by looking at the line traced on the screen of an oscilloscope. Van der Pol did not have an oscilloscope, so he had to monitor his circuit by listening to changing tones in a telephone handset. He was pleased to discover regularities in the behavior as he changed the current that fed it. The tone would leap from frequency to frequency as if climbing a staircase, leaving one frequency and then locking solidly onto the next. Yet once in a while van der Pol noted something strange. The behavior sounded irregular, in a way that he could not explain. Under the circumstances he was not worried. “Often an irregular noise is heard in the telephone receivers before the frequency jumps to the next lower value,” he wrote in a letter to Nature. “However, this is a subsidiary phenomenon.” He was one of many scientists who got a glimpse of chaos but had no language to understand it. For people trying to build vacuum tubes, the frequency-locking was important. But for people trying to understand the nature of complexity, the truly interesting behavior would turn out to be the “irregular noise” created by the conflicting pulls of a higher and lower frequency.
~Gleick, J. Chaos: Making A New Science, pg. 48-9.
My question: what if van der Pol could not have noticed the patterns he did if he had simply used a graph? What if the structures of music (e.g. chord progressions, key, octaves) can allow insight into patterns that cannot be fully conveyed via visual media, i.e. graphs?
There is a flash game which is quite pertinent to this context here. Though I normally frown upon such frivolous things, this one is quite simple, yet allows for a great amount of creativity. I highly recommend it to all. If Noam Chomsky could develop syntax out of a little grammar game he would play between sessions of ‘serious’ linguistic work, so, perhaps, one might be able to gradually come up with some practical application for a plaything like this…
Intellectuals’ seemingly inherent attraction to games is something that I still don’t understand, but it is nevertheless quite fascinating, not to mention (potentially) useful, as is the case here.
Trying to Get Immanence Out of a (Philosopher’s) Stone: Archetypes, Sociobiology, & Harry Potter, And What They Have To Do With The UK Riots
[This is too late in the game to do anyone much good, I realize, but I feel that I still ought to put in my two cents regarding the August riots in the UK. I wrote this during my breaks at work when I was on 12-hour shifts, so all that I had time to do when I got home was to read blog entries about the riots; nobody hailed the end of them, so I (amusingly) did not realize they were over until the 23rd, after reading the Wiki page. To my credit, at least, I successfully predicted its outcome (though I feel silly in saying that); I will therefore leave the tense unaltered. In order to make my linking of Harry Potter to the Tottenham riots seem less farfetched, I recommend readers to first peruse this.]
There are a number of popular (i.e. non-academic) intellectual movements whose objective is to find an immanent basis for the meaning of signifiers. One such example is Jungian archetypes, which states that various symbols are innate in the human mind, and thus that symbols are “universally recognizable.” As well, the sociobiology of Desmond Morris seeks to ground social phenomena in biological instinct (once again, innate), e.g. he ascribes the tradition of women coloring their lips red to the fact that when a woman becomes aroused, her lips become engorged with blood, appearing fuller and redder; thus lipstick is a display of availability for mating, just as is the peacock displaying its feathers. A third, more contemporary instance of this tendency can be found in the Harry Potter series. In Hogwarts, students of witchcraft & wizardry are taught combinations of signifiers (e.g. a “swish & flick” of one’s wand combined with the words “Wingardium Leviosa” pronounced in a specific way) which are somehow inherently connected to their magical function. There is no talk of ‘inventing’ spells; presumably experimental wizards merely spout out Latin-sounding words in hopes that they’ll bring a result connected to their etymology. This essay will outline the three views described above; show how meaning is in fact not immanent, but for the most part purely arbitrary; and show how this immanent treatment of signifiers resonates within the UK riots, perhaps to the point of precluding any significant cultural change.
[These are my notes for a presentation I made on Structuralism a couple years ago for an assignment on schools of thought related to literature, though I admittedly don't dwell on literature at all. The presentation is about as accessible as I could make it, though many of my colleagues found it overly complicated. Most of the material is from the book European Intellectual History Since 1789 by N. Roland Stromberg, the "Structuralism" entry in the Colliers Encyclopedia, and some websites that I have since forgotten. For a magnificent & extremely accessible comparison of structuralism to poststructuralism (the best I have read on the topic), I direct the reader to John Lye's essay Some Post-Structural Assumptions here.] Read the rest of this entry