Historiographical Problems

The task of philosophy may not be, after all, to answer questions or describe patterns but to rewrite history. That is, it is not to seek the relations between things but rather to arrange configurations that seem to give a startling image of history. This is not at all obvious. For example the first approach would be to ask about the form of culture, which is a premature question, and will always be a premature question, while the second approach seeks to reinterpret the intention of culture by laying it in a configuration.

I don’t think there is any way really to clarify this conceptually, so let’s move on to a few problems. I always have in my mind a few fixed problems that I would love to solve but I can never seem to be able to solve conclusively (or conclusively declare to be irrelevant):
1) the math problem: “what is math?”
2) the language problem: “how did language evolve?”
3) the Chinese problem: “what makes the Chinese so goddamned odd (to put it mildly)?”
4) the theory of relativity problem: “what is the theory of relativity?”

I’m always, like, for 10 years or so, thinking about these problems — I’m far from being an expert on any of these things — and occasionally write something random expositions. They’re mostly interesting because they are all linked to fundamental theoretical models and probably for the most part the same problem. Yet the idea of the “problem” itself suggests that there is something to crack open there, which is not how we should really go about things. This is a veiled or unwitting error — that I am still stuck on trying to explain the form of these things (“why are the Chinese so odd?”) while in fact the form is not given. The historiographical approach understands that the form of something only becomes apparent when placed in a … configuration. Well, the futility of forcing out a conceptual explanation again strikes us, let’s just move on to the language problem.

With the language problem, we have to acknowledge the fact that … what we can call “religion”, and some mnemonic substrate, are linked. Religion existed before language and is partly responsible for it’s development — it is related to negation. This is an controversial claim since we would be hard-pressed to say that religion formed the basis of math, as if it could develop differently, as if math could reach a different from. This is the interesting thing about the math problem: while we can easily imagine cultures developing differently, we have a hard time saying the same for math. But, anyways, the other part is the maintaining of the negative. We always take pains to emphasize that the negative is different from the inversion but it was an enormous oversight to to realize that this distinction was far from obvious. One always turns into the other, and vice versa. And yet this does not mean that this distinction is bunk, rather, the difference between the two can only be decided because the negative “lasts”. And “lasts” is in quotes here because we are certainly not talking about absolute measures of time. In the final analysis, the negative, as that which develops, has a life of its own, only when we understand it in a configuration with these other terms which are historical or beyond any kind of internal, descriptive judgment.

For the negative to maintain itself — and this is an important development in language, since one understands the sign as sign only when one understands that it is not of this world, that a sound is not what it usually means, that an image of a tree is not a tree, or, infamously, that a picture of a pipe is not a pipe — for the negative to maintain itself it must have some medium to sustain it, some substrate. This substrate is sound, the development of a “religion” of language, which has the function of distancing the sign from the world, sustains itself upon sound.

The final element of this configuration is culture. There are two things that are odd about language:
1) One need not have reflective self understanding in order to understand the “not-ness” of the sign
2) One need not understand language in order to transmit it, in the same way that one doesn’t need to understand the flu in order to transmit it.

That is, both of these things claims remind us how “independent” and mysterious language is, and how it is not, as we tend to think, contained entirely within our own consciousness, but rather seems to leak out into culture, and other things. The first one means that, although we behave as though we understand the sign, so that infants understand the sign pragmatically, that understanding is not based on some reflective understanding of nothingness but rather composed of many, peicemeal understandings of particular experiences. There is a sense that someone who is on the verge of language, and have very little practical understanding, would have a far better reflective understanding — ie, understanding the nature of language, as a unity.

The second claim is related to the first, it basically means that language is not a human skill or technique to be taught but transits itself, on its own, under the right conditions. Language seems to adjust culture, in general, to fit its needs without relying on some fragile, human, mode of transmission. I used to say that we are “language zombies”, we are infected by language in order to do it’s bidding. (In the same way that, in performing the involuntary act of sneezing, we have become “flu zombies”.)

The purpose of interpretation is not to give an internal description of the form of something but rather to give an interpretation of form (which would not therefore merely be “political”) by relating it to the other terms of a theoretical configuration…



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