A talk by philosopher Luciano Floridi on semantic information.
There’s a traumatic process of recantation and scapegoating going on among former users of the French form of structuralism that developed in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (take Levi Bryant’s post here). The stock of structuralism has never been so low. For example, its apparent inability to conceptualize the difference between the sense and reference of a term has been blamed for the reflex idealism of structuralist and poststructuralist criticism (Devitt and Sterelny 1987, Chapter 13). Others, like Jon Elster, have drawn attention to its apparent inability to explain agency or social change.
However, Saussure’s famous formulation of linguistic difference in the Lectures on General Linguistics (In language there are only differences, and no positive terms) also gave rise to a poststructuralist concern with the metaphysics of non-identity. For if identities depend on internal relations and these are, in turn, of a temporal, unrealized nature, then the former are similarly open-textured. Thus we get Derrida’s famous formulation of differance. The identity of an element within a system is differed-differed because ‘vitiated by the mark of its relation to the future element’ (Derrida 1982, 13).
Paradoxically, the stock of structuralism has also never been so high. The metaphysical questions prompted by French structuralism are undergoing a queer kind of recrudescence in the literature on ontic structural realism (OSR).
One of the frustrating things about the post-Saussurean linguistic-cum-anthropological structuralism is that a concept of structure articulated in terms of differences is impoverished. It can’t deal with the functional relationships between constituents and wholes or programs (structure-sensitive rules for adding, replacing or deleting constituents).
The strain of structuralism exemplified in the mathematical logic and set theory favored by proponents of OSR is seemingly more powerful because it can represent constituent structure and symbolic dynamics. Once we can program we can represent agents in object-oriented terms as programs + data. We can construct notional worlds with complex dynamic properties which arise as a result of structure sensitive algorithms applied to data.
But if agents can be represented as programs + data, what does there have to be for data to exist? Must there be substances, individuated things that can undergo changes of state? Or must there only be, as Luciano Floridi has argued, ‘a lack of uniformity, that is, a binary difference, like the presence and the absence of a black dot’ (Floridi 2008, p. 236). In this model both presence and absence are co-original. There can’t be the presence of a black dot without its absence; or more strictly, without the difference between presence and absence. Substance supervenes on structure.
Devitt M and Sterelny K (1987), Language and Reality, Oxford: Blackwell.
Derrida, J, Margins of Philosophy¸ trans. Alan Bass (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982)
Floridi, Luciano (2008) ‘A defence of informational structural realism’, Synthese 161:219–253
The point of departure shared by all four of the original Speculative Realists – Quentin Meillasoux, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman and Ray Brassier – is that the real must be thought independently of its connection to mind or human action. Claims for the autonomy of reality are not new and – within the Anglo-American philosophical tradition – still widely held. However, post-Kantian Continental thought is dominated by an anti-realist orthodoxy which Meillasoux, in his book After Finitude, refers to as ‘correlationism’. Correlationists assume that reality is a way in which things are presented to knowers and experiencers. For phenomenologists, for example, an object is real if it can be presented in infinitely variable aspects. For discourse theorists and post-structuralists the real is defined as a function of interpretative practices. The ‘very idea’ of a thing existing indifferently to our modes of access to it is dismissed as naive metaphysics by the partisans of correlationism! Speculative Realists respond that reality cannot be bracketed by ascent to some higher or privileged level of description such as phenomenology. For Meillasoux, this retreat into subjectivity entails that scientific claims about events in the pre-human universe – ‘Arche-Fossils’ – must be relativized to claims about the human relation to immemorial epochs. As he points out, this has the absurd consequence that the cosmic emergence of subjectivity itself becomes inconceivable; for, since nothing exists outside it, the correlation can have no history.
While there are many soi-disant realists within the analytic camp, Speculative Realism brings a welcome social and aesthetic engagement, and a willingness to pursue contrarian notions wherever they may lead. Analytic realists, for example, buy into ontological and epistemic independence but are less willing to take seriously the implication that reality might be largely recalcitrant to our best knowledge-generating techniques.
Indeed the newest star in the analytic firmament, Ontic Structural Realism, argues in neo-Kantian style that real entities are entirely relational, with no ‘intrinsic’ properties beyond the reach of formal scientific models. However, if we grant reality autonomy from our ideas of it, how is this sovereignty to be understood? What is the place of experience in our understanding of the autonomy of the real – including the experience of art – once we displace the subject from the centre of philosophical concern?
These questions were explored and discussed to great effect at Urbanomic’s The Real Thing at the Tate Britain, on Friday 3rd September 2010. The event consisted of an exhibition of works influenced by Speculative Realism and an hour long panel discussion between Iain Grant, Mark Fisher and two of the artist contributors, filmaker and theorist Amanda Beech and sound-artist Mikko Canini. The panel was moderated by Urbanomic’s Robin Mackay, whose innovative journal Collapse has done much to inject viral SR into the cultural mainline. Mackay provided a lucid and approachable introduction which was appreciated by philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Grant’s contribution was a typically pyrotechnic fusion of arcane scholarship and conceptual brio. Speculative Realism was treated as a problematic rather than set of metaphysical commitments, which usefully allowed us to review the exhibits in a fresh, questioning light. The panel closed with Beech’s intimation that art may have a contribution to make in understanding the role of experience in relation to a recalcitrantly weird and indifferent universe. I found her suggestion compelling – since it goes to the heart of some epistemological tensions within the Speculative Realist camp.
I haven’t space to consider all the artworks exhibited as part of the event since constraints of time made it impossible to see and hear everything on offer. ‘Extralinguistic Sequencing’ – a sound installation by William Bennett’s+Mimsy DeBlois – using processed samples of spoken language to present the meaningless underside or tain of speech, was suggestive given the questions explored in the panel. Might a realist art consist of new epistemic modules, new ways of exploring the eructation of the real? Amanda Beech’s ‘Sanity Assassin’, a film which explored the relationship between alienating urban architecture and the violence of language, was also notable in suggesting a visual rhetoric for the exploration of the real, though whether this is the correlationist ‘real’ of the psychoanalytic trauma, say, or the real real of SR remains to be seen.