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Words Before Things - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
Words Before Things
Many of the problems that confront the study of culture -- or, to speak more narrowly, the discipline of cultural studies -- can be solved by retrieving the mental note that falls onto the floor when the wind we generate in walking towards particular works pries it loose from the spot to which we had carelessly affixed it. Edges torn, the trace of a footprint covering the text, it reads, "In the end, we begin with words." The struggle to define what a work is or isn't is fueled by a fantasy of being in which we forget that to be is inevitably "to be."

William James presents a puzzle. There's a squirrel in a tree. Trying to get a look, a man circles below. But no matter how fast he moves in one direction, the squirrel moves faster in the other, denying him what he seeks. "The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go around the squirrel or not? He goes around the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel?" Some say, "Yes;" others, "No." The answer to this seemingly intractable dispute, James goes on to argue, "depends on what you practically mean by going around the squirrel." Words will never fall away to reveal a truth that transcends them.

We find ourselves in the midst of the same dilemma. You argue that "punk" is x. I argue that "punk" is y. We exhaust ourselves trying to come up with examples to prove our points. But the only truth of the matter is that "punk," like "truth" and "matter," was a word before we convinced ourselves it is a thing. And, yes, even "word" is a word, so there really is no way out. To study culture without studying the way we apprehend it through language, is to circle James's tree in search of that squirrel we can never hope to see without obstruction.

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hollsterhambone From: hollsterhambone Date: March 28th, 2007 06:17 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Or how language limits our ability to express our apprehensions about culture.

It irritates me that there is nothing before the word or Word or whatever. I want to indulge in the fantasy that there is something. But it's so dangerous!

I like how these paragraphs circle back to emphasize the point you made (in the middle) using the James example (about circling around).
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 29th, 2007 04:35 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'm glad you noticed. I was trying to write a semi-poetic aphorism, but then realized, in the course of trying to make a digression to support my claims, that the James passage would be perfect, but would also have to manifest itself at the level of form. Jesus. I need to smoke. Or, in keeping with the spirit of my entry, to "smoke."
hollsterhambone From: hollsterhambone Date: March 29th, 2007 02:55 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Hee hee. Hee hee hee hee.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 29th, 2007 03:04 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Like a ham in the woodshed, you know?
celebrian_3 From: celebrian_3 Date: March 28th, 2007 09:24 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
this reminds me, though only vaguely, of the heisenberg principle. again, more words to understand the things that are the things they are. and i just keep throwing more and more words at it. ha ha.

listen to me shut up now.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 29th, 2007 04:37 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Sure. I'm no physicist -- though my dad really was a rocket scientist for a time -- but I think Heisenberg was getting at something analogous, though by different means.

And, no, I don't want to hear you shut up. I like your words very much!
_luaineach From: _luaineach Date: March 29th, 2007 01:58 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Put me in the catagory of having always thought "punk" meant that you didn't even remotely worry about what "punk" meant. And that someone saying "punk is ..." wasn't punk enough for me. ;)

On a different note, William James makes me squiggly. I just love him.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 29th, 2007 04:41 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
See, that's how I've thought of punk too. But an awful lot of work has been put into classifying music and other culture as belonging to the category or not belonging to the category.

Isn't James fab? Before I'd read any "real" literature, as a callow youth of Skylar's age, I'd already absorbed my acerbic grandmother's dictum that, "William James was a much better writer than his brother." I didn't even find out who that brother was until several years later! Now, of course, I've come to appreciate Henry. But William makes me squigglier.
From: jsterne Date: March 29th, 2007 02:55 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

I'm not convinced

though I do oh so love the squirrel quote and plan to add it to my compendium of quotes about squirrels.

Sure, language can never be truly indicative, but I don't think it follows that being is inevitably "being." James' contemporary Peirce treated language as a special case of signification, which is at least as plausible as the more fashionable Saussurean version of semiotics. We can dwell and be outside of language--music, architecture, pottery, sport and fashion all have extralinguistic experiential dimensions. What we can't do is represent that experience very well in words. Which is why, I imagine, people have so much difficulty with and anguish over "punk."

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 29th, 2007 04:32 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: I'm not convinced

I wouldn't be convinced either, if that's what I were arguing. I didn't mean to suggest that all experience is mediated through language. Perhaps I went overboard in trying to simulate a Frankfurt School aphorism.

This is what I meant, less poetically but, I hope, more clearly: definition is always already a linguistic exercise. Not an innnovative point, I realize. Why it matters to me, though, is that I have long been troubled by both practical, "low theory" attempts to classify cultural phenomena and their scholarly equivalents when those attempts avoid confronting the problem of language head on.

Take my example of punk. Obviously, people do many things that get placed in the category, a good number of which testify to the possibility for experience that isn't filtered through words. But the categorization itself necessarily plays out within the domain of language because "punk" is a word, not a thing. Again, it's not like I'm breaking new ground here. But I feel it important -- crucial, even -- to assert that cultural studies should be more mindful of the role that words play in the constitution of the objects it seeks to apprehend.

I've been trying to reach this point for a while now. Rereading Wittgenstein yet again, only now in relation to Badiou and Foucault, has given me the impetus to seek, finally, to do what I'd long been imagining myself doing. Clearly, though, I need help. It's very easy to overgeneralize or, what is almost as bad, to appear to be overgeneralizing. I would be delighted, therefore, if you'd check in periodically to, as the saying goes, "Call me on my loaf."
grandissimus From: grandissimus Date: March 29th, 2007 03:18 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock

I've just been reading Manuel De Landa's latest "intervention" (Hot damn! How I like to use that word!) entitled, _A New Philosophy of Society_. His arguments turn on what he calls "the linguisticality of phenomena," which I find compelling, because one of contemporary critical theory's perennial shortcomings is, I think, its frequently mistaking epistemological problems for ontological ones. "The linguisticality of phenomena" (unwieldy, I know), while perhaps offers no definite resolutions, perhaps draws the problematics a bit finer.

I dunno. Just wanted to pass that along.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 29th, 2007 04:39 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock

Ooh, sounds good. Something I don't know that I should know. Fun. I'm stumbling drunkenly through the doorway of the argument I want to make right now, beset with the fear that I've taken out the screen door in my clumsy stupor and will now be stuck, keyless, on the porch.
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