Thursday, May 16, 2013

the subject is a vampire

In response to this Levi Bryant post, I wrote:
Sounds like you’re placing the subject outside existence. There’s the universe and, then, outside this, there’s meaning. That doesn’t sound like flat ontology. If world is all there is, and there is meaning, then meaning is world, so doesn’t it make more sense to say that meaning is something that happens in that bit of world we call human? Meaning is a local thing.
He was kind enough to repost the above comment from an email I sent (Wordpress and I don't get along) and respond:
There are a few things that need to be distinguished here. On the one hand, it’s necessary to distinguish between substances and qualities. A substance is an entity that can exist on its own, while a quality always exists either in a substance or occurs between substances. A color like red, for example, is a quality. It requires a substance in which to exist and cannot exist apart from that substance. Pointing out that qualities like red can only exist in substances doesn’t negate their reality, only their independence. My contention is that meaning is a quality, not a substance.
Second, it’s necessary to distinguish between substances and the point of view substances have on the world around them. A substance’s point of view is how it grasps other substances and qualities. My claim is that meaning arises from a substances point of view, it’s not something that inheres in the things grasped, themselves. Meaning is the way entities such as ourselves, cats, super-complex computers, government agencies, etc., grasp other things in the world around them. This doesn’t place these entities outside of existence, but is merely the recognition that these entities grasp the world in a particular way. It’s no different than recognizing that bats grasp the world through sonar while cats grasp it through vision, smell, and sound, and that sonar is in the bat, not the thing detected (the thing detected is nothing like a sonar blip).
All of this is important because we need to recognize the variability of meaning across species, people, cultures, and entities. A few years ago I was hosting some dear friends for dinner, and I was talking about how I was thinking about renting a truck to so I could rent a tiller to turn over the soil in my garden. My friend, a Chinese woman, got very excited and declared “that would be great! then you could haul some trees for us and help us plant them!” At the time I was very offended. I thought, what nerve this woman has thinking I’m going to do all this labor for them. I attributed a particular meaning to her proposal. Later I realized that she had given me a hugecomplement (her meaning). In asking to do this favor for her, she was proposing that our families become more tightly bound to one another, that we form obligations to one another. She was saying she wanted our families to be closer. If we treat meaning as a property of the things themselves we can’t get at this sort of variability of meaning.
Bryant doesn't dispute my claim, as far as I can tell. He thinks his view is consistent with mine. Maybe it is, mostly, but he's still placing the subject outside world, which creates problems. That last sentence, for example. Meaning is not a property of the things themselves? Buddy, humans are things! You agreed. Meaning is a property of humans, which are things (though I use that term with reservations explained elsewhere on this blog).

The subject/object dualism is alive and well in Bryant's "flat ontology," which makes it a not-so-flat ontology. Bryant thinks he has solved the problem of subject/object dualism by placing both inside Being, at least rhetorically, but if you can't describe subjects in the same terms you'd describe anything else, you don't have a flat ontology. He's saying they're inside Being but continuing to use schemes that, in effect, place the subject outside Being. If the subject needs a completely different category outside everything else, it's transcendent, not immanent. The best answer, at this point is, arguably, that the subject is merely a thing that acts funny. I am worlding. You are worlding. That's all. Not that it's a very satisfying answer.

Bryant seems to be using "subject" to indicate "non-object" but also, when pressed, as object.

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