Wittgenstein, Realist?

This semester, my term paper for my Wittgenstein class was an attempt to read Wittgenstein in light of a Deleuzian account of immanence. I was interested in this in part because what became clear to me after a semester or so of reading Wittgenstein: contrary to what’s become the dominant continental reading after Meillassoux, and contrary to a lot of his antirealist interpretation in analytic circles, I don’t think that Wittgenstein’s thinking is rooted in a correlationism. Here’s some scattered thoughts on why I think such a project could be worthwhile—I’ve been thinking that it’s something I may come back to down the line to expand at greater length.

The conventional reading is summed up pretty well, I think, in terms of Meillassoux’s account of ‘strong correlationism’ in After Finitude. Basically, the correlationist reading of Wittgenstein would interpret Wittgenstein’s reservations about talking about a world outside of language, and of the impossibility of giving final grounds for language’s access to things-in-themselves, as referring to a situation in which you have a thinking subject on one side, who apprehends a world on the other, and whose access to that world is mediated by what renders her thinking intelligible: language. Subject and object are correlated in language, and thinkable only on the basis of language, and so language becomes the transcendental correlate without which neither subject nor object are considerable in-themselves. The subject’s only ‘access’ to the world, then, is via language-games that render the world intelligible, and so one is always forced into a position of skepticism about any knowledge that would claim to be real regardless of the formation of a given language-game. Meillassoux, of course, thinks that this formation leads to problems—ancestrality becomes unthinkable in any ordinary sense, and fideism becomes inevitable with regard to claims about the fact that ‘there is a world.’[1]

Wittgenstein himself, while reluctant to label his own position (in part because he was famously leery about ‘theory’ in philosophy) did at least provisionally use the term ‘realism’ to describe the basic orientation of his thought.[2] This should strike one as strange, if the correlationist reading is the correct one. What sort of realism is possible if, as Wittgenstein thinks, to ask about what is ‘outside’ language is always a confused project?

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why this has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking questions. As long as there continues to be a verb ‘to be’ that looks as if it functions in the same way as ‘to eat’ and ‘to drink’, as long as we still have the adjectives ‘identical’, ‘false’, ‘possible’, as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space, etc. etc., people will still keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up. 

And what’s more, this satisfies a longing for the transcendent, because in so far as people think they can see the “limits of human understanding,” they believe of course that they can see beyond these. [3]

To use a well-worn metaphor Lacanians like to throw around to talk about the Symbolic order, we might say that there is something going on with the structure of language, something akin to the way a slightly mis-sized rug produces wrinkles that make it look like something sits underneath the rug, causing the wrinkles.

Faced with this feature of our language, we are tempted toward two options. One temptation is to insist on the priority of what ‘lies’ underneath the rug: we attempt to discern the shape of the invisible givenness that ‘bends’ the rug, and in so doing we generate fantasms of transcendence which are retrojected as causes or conditions for the rug. We might detect something like this temptation in the fixation on givenness found in certain strains of post-Husserlian phenomenology, or even a in neoplatonic metaphysics of participation which underlies so much theological-philosophical thinking.

The other temptation that faces us is to flatten the rug—recognizing that nothing lies beneath it, we try to ’subtract’ this remainder. We might recall here the ideal-language philosophies of the early 20th century, or attempts to reduce the world to a ‘flat,’ de-mystified ontology, a scientism, or even the various speculative realisms. Here the emphasis is on ‘subtracting’ the subject to gain the world, to think the world apart from the subject and the ‘transcendences’ her language retrojects.

It’s here that—even though Wittgenstein doesn’t give anything like a theorization of immanence—there’s an opportunity to give Wittgenstein the sort of monstrous offspring that Deleuze liked to give to various philosophers.[4] Both of the above strategies, I think, enact transcendence. Both—in an attempt to think the world as it is before or without the subject—double the world in thought. Both think the world and something apart from the world: the world and the subject, the world and its transcendent condition—and this and, this possibility of doubling and the mediation entailed therein precisely is transcendence. Transcendence and immanence are, after all, relations before all else—relations enacted in thinking.[5] To think a radical immanence, then, is to refuse both of these temptations, and Wittgenstein thinks at least part of the way in that direction, proceeding in terms of an investigation into the ‘logic of sense’ that starts only from determinate sayings and follows their logic wherever it leads. Thinking from immanence, however allows us to suspend the remaining quasi-transcendence operating in Wittgenstein’s thought: namely, the relative transcendence of sense in relation to nonsense. It’s no secret that, for Wittgenstein, there is a certain priority to sense in the context of philosophical investigation; the task of a philosopher is to examine how meaning and sense are made, how words are used. What is excluded in this formulation is the way in which the question of sense may not in fact be the same as the question of use. The specter of madness consistently haunts Wittgenstein’s investigations; in examining how it is that words come to mean for their users, words and statements which do not mean—mad statements, nonsensical statements—are viewed only from the perspective of sense. Madness is broken sense, incorrect or incomplete sense. In light of an explicit theorization of immanence, however, we are able to think nonsense in its constitutive relationship with sense—not as a privation of a prior sense, but as mutually given alongside sense, as itself doing things in a variety of ways.

 

1 The problem of ancestrality, for the uninitiated, goes like this: there seems to be a problem that emerges when ‘correlationist’  philosophies attempt to think a discourse that would claim to be able to speak about objects and events which are not only prior to the correlation in question, but in which the correlation itself arises as one event among others. It’s not that the correlationist philosopher has nothing to say about the discourse of the scientist, but that the she must posit a layer of meaning more primordial than the scientific one, so that what the scientist is really saying requires a kind of translation. The scientist’s language is subtly translated by the philosopher’s meta-reflection on the correlate: what the scientist’s reflections amount to more precisely is not simply ‘x occurred,’ or ‘there is y,’ but x occurred/there is y for humans, for the kind of observer who can make sense of x and y. Meillassoux thinks this forces you into a fideism, not with regard to manifest facts, but with regard to speculative claims about any absolute which gives the world as such.

2 “Not empiricism, and yet realism in philosophy, that is the hardest thing.“ Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, 325.

3 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 15.

4 Wittgenstein’s anti-theoretical stance would, of course, preclude him from offering this kind of account.

5 Daniel Colucciello Barber’s reading of Deleuze has been invaluable in clarifying this point for me. See in particular Daniel Colucciello Barber, Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

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Theology’s Icon and its Idol

The following is largely excerpted from my upcoming talk on icons:

The icon has, from a very early time, marked a central trope in theological thinking about Christianity’s God. From Paul’s formula of Jesus as “icon of the invisible God” springs the icon as perhaps the paradigmatic object of thought for figuring representations of the divine in the finite, whether in terms of names, images, or concepts. In addition to an object for thought, the icon names a practice: the “writing” and the “veneration” of painted images, particularly on wood, of devotional figures in Orthodox Christianity. For theological thinking, these ‘icons’ have been thought as mirrors of each other: the icon as an object of theology legitimates and theorizes the icon as venerated image, while the venerated image provides specific content by which theology knows that it does not—when it speaks of the icon—speak in vain.

Insufficient attention has, I claim, been given to the distinction between these two icons; indeed, the linkage between the two is precisely a source of significant currency for the icon of theology, even in traditions in which the veneration of images does not figure significantly. Typically, the phenomenological engagement with the icon—schematized according to a looking “through” or “beyond” the icon to that which lies behind it—is compared analogically with religious speech. The structure is always one of a word, a picture, or a concept that stands in; the unique experience of seeing-through becomes the basis on which intelligible God-talk is possible without the reduction of that God to an entity given to metaphysics. It is in part this uniqueness that I wish to challenge.

The icon as I’m considering it here is primarily the icon as an object of thought; an object for theology and for philosophy of religion. To give an account of writing and veneration would always require a specificity of place, of material, of power and practice unavailable to theology’s presumed self-sufficiency to think the icon.

A Competition of Phenomenologies

Jean-Luc Marion’s God Without Being will serve as my model of theology’s use of the icon. Marion frames his account of the icon in terms of two competing visibilities. Eikōn is necessarily opposed to eidolōn; both are only available to traditional theological discourse as they are approached in their mutual antagonism. Rather than a conflict between, say, pagan and Christian art, the idol and the icon manifest “a conflict between two phenomenologies”[i] An object that manifests as an idol in one time and place might manifest iconically for another and vice versa. Thus, the distance between idol and icon is not a question of the choice of referent, which is why you can find Jewish and Christian prohibitions of “idols” of even the “correct” God. Both idol and icon are semiotic; their ability to take one or the other position depends on their ability to refer to something other than themselves. Each takes up a different relation to the gaze, and each ‘signs’ differently as a signifier of some signified.

Eidolōn

The idol is, from the perspective of sense, primary for Marion. This is in large part because of the special relationship the idol holds with sense as such. The idol does not, strictly speaking, lie. It is not a question of an object that prevents one from seeing what is, or that shows one something that strictly isn’t there, but of perfect visibility; the currency of the idol lies in its ability to exhaust sense, to give sense perfectly, to construct the visible for the subject and (it follows) to construct the subject herself.

The gaze, then, “precedes” the idol; an object’s ability to exhaust visibility derives from the gaze that gives it sense. The idol is that object which “catches” the gaze, or which falls into the structural hole already opened by the gaze as the representation of sense. Rather than precipitating or suggesting a beyond, (as, we will see, in Lacan) the gaze cuts off a beyond for Marion, fixing on an object that renders all other thing visible; in other words, available to sense.[ii] The idol “concretizes” the gaze’s stop; its entry into full vision. Before the idol, the gaze does not strictly see, but ‘transparently transpierces’ the visible. Without the idol as the object that falls into the gaze and concretizes its arrival into the visible, no seeing—no sense—is possible. “The idol thus acts as a mirror, not as a portrait.”[iii] The idol gives the subject herself as constructed by the aims of her gaze. The idol is thus a model of perfect ideological interpellation: “If the idolatrous gaze exercises no criticism of its idol, this is because it no longer has the means to do so.”[iv]

Eikōn

How, then, is the icon’s visibility to be figured, in contradistinction to the idol? “The icon does not result from a vision but provokes one.”[v] The visibility of the idol is inverted in the notion of the icon. In the idol, the distinction that arises is between seen and not seen (or sense and nonsense), and what is not seen is figured as precisely unseeable; it’s simply not there; disqualified. Conversely, in the icon, the invisible is rendered as invisible; the invisible is figured as present but behind—or more correctly beyond—visibility. The invisible (nonsensical) manifests as excessive in the sense of an addition to­—or transcendence of—the visual field.

“The icon,” Marion writes, “lays out the material of wood and paint in such a way that there appears in them the intention of a transpiercing gaze emanating from them.”[vi] The gaze as figured in the icon then, is precisely the gaze from the icon. It is a gaze that manifests as emanating from the icon and apprehending the viewer, enjoining the viewer to peer beyond or behind the icon, towards the origin of the gaze. As we are seen, we see that we do not see.

Theology’s Icon and Ideology

The icon, in the traditional account, depends on its idol. The coherence of this form of the icon is guaranteed only by its distinction from an object that is strictly cut off from any gaze that is not identical with the look of the viewer. In this respect, one might note that the idol is structurally homologous with the panopticon of screen theory; it perfectly constructs the visibility of its viewer, leaving no indeterminacy. The idol is the enemy of uncertainty, of any indeterminacy on the part of the visible. On might pose a rather simple question, then, to this panoptic model of power: if the discourses that construct the subject construct her perfectly, then how do these discourses themselves arise in history? If the only terms for figuring the world are those already given, then the emergence of new regimes and new figurations cannot be accounted for; perfect construction leaves no room for the emergence of constructive discourses in the first place.This is not, on the face of it, of a problem for the idol/icon distinction, however. It is, in fact, precisely the argument that this icon depends on for its legitimation: if vision produces (only) vision, if sense produces (only) sense, then under the traditional argument, it follows that one needs a transcendent condition or outside provocation to figure the encounter with the gaze. The mechanism for any possible novum must come from beyond.What I want to suggest then is not that, in the duality of the idol and the icon, the icon is formally impossible. Rather, I want to suggest that it is the idol that is is formally incoherent. If the structure of vision as such depends on the interpenetration of sense and nonsense—if (as Lacan would tell us) vision is always-already haunted by definition by the play of light—then an object that functions as an idol in the traditional sense simply cannot exist. An object which refers to and makes sense of a thought world without the gaze of the Other—in other words, without some dimension beyond bare representation, an image—could not occupy the idol’s constitutive role as an infuser of sense into the surrounding world. The only way to maintain this division would be to divorce vision from its dependence on sense. Without this dependence, however, the traditional distinction between idol and icon again collapses; the whole phenomenological distinction by which an object might manifest variably as one or the other disappears. Without the idol to infuse the icon, we are left in the domain of the gaze, in which the icon as figured by the traditional account corresponds with the gaze as a means of control.[vii]


[i] Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being : Hors-Texte, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 7.

[ii] The concept is the privileged form of the idol in modernity for Marion. Art objects can’t, for the modern subject, as readily occupy this space as they once did.

[iii] Ibid., 12.

[iv] Ibid., 13.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid., 19.

[vii] I have in mind here a distinction that Gilles Deleuze highlights in the work of Michel Foucault; whereas disciplinary society reaches a zenith in the 20th century, “control” names the way formerly institutional sites of subject-formation (the school, the factory, the hospital, etc) that make up disciplinary society de-materialize into simultaneously differential and generalized forms under late capitalism. “The different internments of spaces of enclosure through which the individual passes are independent variables: each time one us supposed to start from zero, and although a common language for all these places exists, it is analogical. On the other hand, the different control mechanisms are inseparable variations, forming a system of variable geometry the language of which is numerical (which doesn’t necessarily mean binary). Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point.” Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992): 4-5.

Theology and Pedagogy III: Aesthetic Considerations

So far in this series, many questions have been raised, and in my contribution, I’m going to begin to untangle some of the answers. Thankfully, Luke and Sean have framed the problem very well and have raised some really important questions: How do we navigate the double commitment theology seems to have to both the academy and Christian practice? How do we initiate a theological discourse that isn’t self-legitimizing? Is that necessary or even possible? Why do we need theology at all?

We might find it useful to consider these as aesthetic questions. Aesthetics has this same double commitment to theory and practice and this same problem of legitimization. Aesthetic theory has also already faced (and continues to face) a problem that seems central to theology these days: systemization.

I think the first two can actually be answered through the third. It may seem to some that theology is, without question, a systematic discipline. “Systematic Theology” is one way we refer to the discipline in seminaries. Theological systems usually take as their starting point a number of first principles. These are concepts that ground a system and can’t be deduced from any other concept within the system. (What Derrida calls “centers” in “Sign, Structure, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”) What those are may change, but probably all theological systems include “God.” Some might include sin, love, wisdom, Man, etc. Aesthetics too, from the time of Kant, included an attempt to establish some principles from which to begin evaluation and understanding of the aesthetic object.

While Kant identified three spheres of judgment, understanding, reason, and aesthetics, only the first two have a realm of objects in which they are interested: sensible objects and moral objects, respectively. However aesthetics is a disinterested sphere according to Kant because any object has the potential to be an aesthetic object. Because of this disinterest, in order to determine whether or not an object is aesthetic and its aesthetic value, one must employ judgment by subsuming the object under general categories of aesthetic understanding. These categories are first principles which ground what it is for an object to be aesthetic (beauty and so forth.) It’s important to note that Kant isn’t trying to say that aesthetic judgment can be objective in the same way that the understanding is (in the First Critique.) Rather, Kant’s aim is to separate the aesthetic from the teleological. To establish a purposiveness without purpose for the aesthetic. If the telos is removed from the aesthetic object (i.e. we can no longer say the aesthetic object exists for the purpose of inspiration or the portrayal of divine beauty, etc.) then a completely new way to understand how we know when an object has aesthetic value must be derived. That is Kant’s aim, and his solution is to say that we use the categories. That is, of course, a huge oversimplification, but for our purposes, I won’t be going into the details of exactly how the categories are implemented in aesthetic judgments. It is enough to know that Kant thinks aesthetic objects are subsumed under the categories in making aesthetic judgments.

There are some very important differences between the aesthetic object and the theological concept (particularly with regard to purpose), so I don’t want to say there is a 1:1 relation. But I think the problem that Luke and Sean outlined in their post with regard to the rigidity they find in theological discourse and pedagogy finds a helpful analogy in the problem of systematization in aesthetics.  Namely, theological discourse has typically demanded that the discursive practice of the discipline be subsumed under certain first principles which must result in a system in which every element hangs together with every other without any room for contingency. The discipline, particularly in orthodoxy, becomes a practice of eliminating difference in the hopes of banishing contingent possibilities. It may seem like the solution is just to say we should eliminate systems altogether. But I don’t think that’s the solution. Indeed, I’m not sure such a thing is really possible. Instead, systems need to be laid open, made contingent, not just to allow for the movement and flux of concepts for the sake of concepts, but to make the politically mobilizing potential of theology actual. Adorno’s aesthetics starts us down this path.

In Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno agrees that form in the Kantian sense is important in aesthetic judgment, but this must be combined with the Hegelian notion of intellectual import and the Marxist understanding of the social function of art. Thus, what qualifies as an aesthetic object drastically changes. Adorno specifies between two different types of experience of the aesthetic: Erlebnis und Erfahrung. The former is the unreflective consumption of art (what we typically experience when we see a blockbuster film or listen to pop music.) The latter, however, is an engagement with the object in terms of why it qualifies as art, what Adorno says is the “subjective experience directed against the I [which] is an element of the objective truth of art.” By “objective truth of art” Adorno literally means a “transcendent” dimension–an intangible that pushes beyond, sometimes far beyond, where we are already. Aesthetic cognition, then, is not a subsuming of the object under generalized categories. Rather, there is a reversal of transcendental judgment when one is confronted with an object that is truly of high aesthetic value. Art in the truest sense is that which directly confronts the ideologies of the society in which it is produced. It is a shattering of the general categories that transcendental aesthetic judgment would try to impose. It destroys what you thought the beautiful was, what you thought form was, what you thought a human being was, what you thought love was, what you thought God was. And finally, we understand the aesthetic object when we recognize the non-transitive form of the experience—that we cannot restate something without eliminating the original meaning that the aesthetic object disclosed.

The temptation here, especially if you study theology or are a person of faith, might be to jump to the conclusion that Adorno’s account of aesthetic experience can simply be read analogously as an experience of the noumenal per Rudolf Otto or something like that, but I would strongly caution against that. There’s more that we need to consider first.

Gilles Deleuze carries Adorno’s project further in including and focusing his attention on the visceral, embodied experience of the aesthetic object (see: Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation.) What is important for both is to understand how an aesthetic object can break free from its own context. However, judgment for Deleuze is not antithetical to aesthetic experience; rather, it is an epiphenomenon of sense with the potential to commit violence against aesthetic objects. In his essay “To Have Done With Judgment,” Deleuze uses the distinction between combat and war to make this point. Judgment is a war on the senses in its attempt to subsume objects under a particular aesthetic ideal. Combat, on the other hand, is how Deleuze describes not just our sensual interaction with the aesthetic but the way understanding works in general. That is, we are incessantly confronted with “forces” that we must adapt ourselves to in order to proceed, and in that combat, we are changed.

If theology were to abandon its current relationship to “traditioning” and orthodoxy in favor of a new relationship to those modes, we could talk about theology using this aesthetic apparatus. When theological discourse is rigidly subsumed to the first principles and categories of “theological judgment” the latter becomes a war on our theological “senses”–even those that are practical! Paradoxically, however, it is the system which makes theological transformation possible in the first place because it is precisely the calcified system against which we must engage in combat. Therefore, systems, in a new sense, need to exist; however, they cannot be permitted to wage war against us but rather allow us to engage in combat.

Both art and theology become politically mobilizing forces in this way and it is in this way that the politically mobilized force can be both aesthetic and theological (which is, with regard to the aesthetic, to push this discussion in the direction of Jacques Rancière.) That is, if the aesthetic object must be that object which destroys previous formed categories (about sexuality, about humanity, about race, about gender, etc.) then it is also necessarily politically mobilizing. This is one way to answer the question of the legitimacy of the aesthetic.

How can theology produce this sort of effect? It can’t in the same immediate way that aesthetic objects can. But remember, we shouldn’t be drawing such tight parallels anyway. Instead, we might think about the openness of theology in a way that would allow those doing work in the field to produce politically mobilizing theologies–theologies that are allowed to shatter the boundaries of what is even thinkable in theology to begin with. As an aside, I want to stress that radical theology (meaning “death of God” theology) is but one example of this. The death of God isn’t the only unthinkable in theology.

To close, I offer one note of clarification: My point about the necessity of systems may sound like a justification of systems that have been historically oppressive, so I want to make it absolutely clear that this is not what this is. Since this post is already getting quite long, we will have to explore that idea more in a later post, but I will just note that for Adorno (and even more so Walter Benjamin) the reification of art is simply an inevitability in the the age in which we live. That is, even the most radical ideas and aesthetic objects which may incite important political mobilization will and have become reified (i.e. made consumable, Erfahrung become Erlibnis) and stripped of their political power. When this happens, those ideas and objects can become tools of oppression. (Think “saved by grace through faith” or MLK Jr’s “I Have a Dream.”)

I didn’t say much about pedagogy directly; I’ll do that next time. We’ll take a look at what literature departments are doing with theory (and what they’re not doing) and ask why theology couldn’t maybe do something similar as a way to talk about how theory and “practice” might be related without theologians having to pretend that they’re pastors when so many are not.