15.6.09

A Great Page from Everything is Miscellaneous

I'm finishing up another read of David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous--wow do I enjoy this book. I wanted to post this passage to my living memory since I think it would make a nice opening to my Historical Rhetorics seminar this Fall. For a bit of context, Weinberger is discussing how the "miscellaneous" properties of digital organization essentially call into question some of the most profound and fundamental assumptions of Aristotelian taxonomy/ontology. Here Weinberger is sharing an encounter with psychology professor Eleanor Rosch. Since I'm in a typing kind of mood, I'll create a few paragraphs:

To know what a thing is, thought Aristotle, is to see what is essential about it (that humans are rational animals), and not be fooled by just what happens to be true about it (that humans have their navels on the front). The definitinos of those essences determine which things are in a category and which are turned away. Here there is no messiness, only an order so precise and harmonious that it is beautiful.

Or so Aristotle and generations of thinkers assumed. So de we when we argue about, say, how to define race, knowledge management, or blogging. But suppose this sort of Aristotelian categorization-through-definition were shown to be an essentially artificial way of approaching the world. Suppose the neatness it strives for is impossible. Suppose messiness is not a flaw in our thinking but enables it.

In her office, lit only by the late-afternoon light slanting in through the window, Eleanor Rosch turned back my question about the over-all significance of her work: "What do you think its significance is?" she asked. In a different tone of voice, from a person seated less squarely or dressed less practically, this might have been a request for praise. Instead, it seemed to be a way to get at why I had come, as well as a dodge by a person unwilling to speak as immodestly as my question proposed.

I paused, unprepared. "I think you unhorsed Aristotle."

This isn't a matter of pulling down a dusty equestrian statue. When I asked for an example of Aristotle's continuing influence, Rosch said "For the past two and a half days, I was at a conference on the effect of the media on the Buddhist transmission into our culture. Attendees kept asking "Wouldn't it help if you first defined Buddism?" By that they meant an Aristotelian definition. If that's what we need, then the conference couldn't have happened." She continuted: "As far as I can see, there isn't a single course that could be taught at this or any other University [...] if we had to start out by defining the subject matter. No one at the conference could define Buddhism, but no one had the least doubt about what the conference was about." (183-184).

Now, what do you think it means?

6 comments:

Gretchen Pratt said...

That's sort of interesting. You're suggesting (by your excitement for this book) that unseating Aristotle is simply a matter of realizing that definitions are essentially unstable or impossible? Just following deconstructive logic through to its conclusion, right?

So there's no more abstract/ideal categories--no more "Happiness" or "Justice." No "Good," no "Evil." Just being & becoming or whatever... just is-ness.

That sounds suspiciously like claiming that there is no distinction--no separation. That all is One.

Are academics like Weinberger about to have a "spiritual" moment?

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Well, in a sense "Gretchen," that's precisely what I argue in my dissertation--that the values of Web 2.0 share several similarities with the postmodern ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas ethics (of becoming) align themselves against both major philosophies of Being (Plato and Heidegger). But, rather than all as One, Levinas's work is based off of the idea of absolute separation and alterity. Or, to use Weinberger's metaphysical language, everything is messy and intertwingled.

Casey said...

I get it. That's interesting.

But doesn't separation and alterity allow for the possibilities of categorization?

Me/Not-Me
Sacred/Profane
Just/Unjust

etc. -- I guess I don't know Levinas deeply enough on this point: is he suggesting that the "self" cannot be transcended? That you must always be "Marc" "Santos" -- always separate from me, and your wife and daughter? That's much darker than I expected from Levinas, but if that's his argument, don't we have to face the specter of solipsism?

In any case, I think you're really onto something with this topic of "categories" (and "separation"). I would focus on that.

Sincerely,

Gretchen

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Levinas argues that all Being (ontology, classification, saids, etc--and, of course, I'm playing loosely here) manifests itself through a betrayal. In essence, and to recall some past exchanges, when I point to "Marc" I betray Marc's possible infinity by turning him into a perceptible entity. What facilitated this pointing cannot be itself pointed at--this is the "saying" or the Other (wise than Being)--we can posit it, we can look at being as evidence of its trace, but we can never see it.

So what Levinas hopes to do is to insert a consideration of ethics (as the absolute difference of "me" from me, you, and the Other) before the work of ontology, hermeneutics, epistemology, Being, whatever. This means that, at the ethical level of entities we are interchangeable (he calls this in Otherwise than Being "substitution"), but at the ontological level of identity completely different and individual. Further, it is this ethical substitution--sensed before thought--that initiates the ontological construction of the "I" that thinks (of) itself. Thus, Levinas frequently refers to the emergence of subjectivity in terms of responsibility.

It is only dark if you presuppose one humanity or one community--a kind of Platonic ideal. It becomes joyous if you think in terms of plurality. It also becomes--and my choice of term here is a reference to the growing socio-political-economic-rhetorical-theoretical movment--complex. So, I've taken in the dissertation to arguing that Levinas's postmodern ethics, more than Derrida's poststructuralist play, is reflective of the new ethics, attitudes, and perspectives emerging out of dynamic digital networks (especially wikipedia--since a wiki-page, despite being a vehicle for knowledge, is also a site of co-habitation). This means I turn a somewhat harsh eye to earlier digital theorists, since Web 1.0 (the static web, hypertext, etc) really wasn't too revolutionary. Sure, it encouraged the fragmentation of subjectivity and play of signifiers, but for Levinas and for Web 2.0 the "real" interruption occurs only where there is another entity pressing itself upon you. With love or hate.

And this is what I think Lost might be tripping on. Jack wants to "write" (right) the world according to what he, individually, feels is right. And, from that perspective, Ben must be wrong. What I think Jack might learn is that he is wrong, and to right the world will require a social rite in which Jack saves the "absolutely evil" Ben with no assurance of restitution, compensation, or return.

But that, I argue, is the hope of Levinas and the promise of the digital (and perhaps we are right to write that promise as dangerous): that bottom-up architecture invites interactivity, and thus plurality, with transience and risk--changing righting to riting. Let's (w)rite the future together, responsibly.

As you can hear, I'm stuck in dissertation mode as I finish things up. I'll probably cut and paste this comment right into the introduction... minus the Lost stuff, of course.

Casey said...

Semi-related question (to address if you're bored and have some spare time):

"What do you think about authority?"

I ask because, although your words typically suggest a resistant attitude in the face of abstract authority, you seem to invest a great deal of authority in a certain select group of thinkers (Derrida & Levinas, especially). Why them? If I am not convinced by Levinas, aren't I unlikely to be convinced by your argument? Does that matter?

This has much bearing on my work, too -- Thoreau was always trying to wrestle with the "problem of pedagogy": how do you "teach" "self-reliance," without either ceasing to teach or teaching dependence?

Seems to me there are two possibilities for you, upon hearing that I'm (hypothetically) not very persuaded by Levinas: 1) you have an argument that might help to persuade me, or, 2) you simply discard me from your audience.

If you have an argument, I'd love to hear it: why should I listen to Levinas and not Camus, not Cioran, not Lao Tzu, not Schopenhauer, when it comes to "ethics?"

(Of course, we can listen to all of these at the same time -- but you really seem to privilege Levinas... and I'm wondering why. Very curious.)

Casey said...

Shall I interpret your no-comment as a response? How about a post on authority, if not responding in this forum.

See also:

http://tr-th.blogspot.com/2009/06/persistent-dodge.html