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Concepts and Objects and Metaphors, Oh My

by on February 7, 2013

At the beginning of the essay “Concepts and Objects,” Ray Brassier offers the following obfuscation: “we cannot understand what is real unless we understand what ‘what’ means, and we cannot understand what ‘what’ means without understanding what ‘means’ is, but we cannot hope to understand what ‘means’ is without understanding what ‘is’ means.”

Moreover, we cannot even propose the above concerns unless we understand who ‘we’ are. Are ‘we’ one of the intelligible indices we extract from the world? Or are ‘we’ an arbitrary grammatical placeholder? An interpellated audience? Any random assemblage of objects? Do ‘we’ have to situate ourselves in relation to the real before we can extend ourselves into defining it?

I’m not sure the above questions are useful in context of Brassier’s essay, but I think it helps me orient myself as a reader to spend some time spinning my tires. In what’s left of this post, I’d like to consider some of the points of commonality between Brassier and Harman, and possibly some departures as well.

Brassier’s essay exemplifies the clear departure from the Linguistic Turn as Harman, Srnicek, and Bryant’s introduction characterize it. From the perspective of metaphor, which Brassier spends a considerable amount of time unpacking, the Linguistic Turn seems to operate by erasure or substitution. To refer, to index, to represent, is to exhaust the referent/object’s reality. A vehicle without a tenor, or a vehicle whose tenor is also a site within the bounds of language, which could equally serve as the vehicle of a metaphor. 

Additionally, Brassier intends “to break out of the circle wherein the meaning of being remains correlated with our being as enquirers about meaning.” Brassier signs Harman’s farewell greeting card to Kant’s thought-being correlation. Brassier allows for a reality outside of perception, one that remains inaccessible in reality, but apparently not in concept. “Independence is not inaccessibility,” he says. Is this consistent with Harman? Perhaps Harman would phrase it, “autonomy is not unrelatable.” Brassier’s concept of “concept” seems to correspond to Harman’s understanding of sensual objects.

Finally, Brassier says,”the first humans who pointed to Saturn did not need to know and were doubtless mistaken about what it is: but they did not need to know in order to point to it.” This resonates with Harman’s paradox of both knowing and not knowing Obama. One need not have total access to an object’s exhausted reality in order to index it.

Yet, the sense I took from Brassier’s article was that his theory of concepts is a sort of scaffolding above Harman’s object-oriented-ontology. Brassier doesn’t seem to have flattened ontology as effectively as Harman, as evidenced by his use of the first person collective pronouns. My final question is for Brassier concerns whether he believes nonhuman objects also conceptualize. If, as I said before, to conceptualize is to relate to a sensual object, it would seem to suggest that nonhuman objects may carry out this operation. On the other hand, Harman does indicate that not all objects have human capacity for language, etc., but he argues that this is not sufficient difference to create an ontological rift.

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