Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Postmodern Critique: Phenomenality and Materiality

While we are all moderns, that is, we exist in this universe, in this world, on this planet, in this environment of a natural earth under siege, technological achievements that saturate the human mind, bending it toward boredom to video games and hover boards, we nonetheless adopt a posture critical of the modern turn as a matter of survival, of assuring that what is human stays that way even as the inevitable march into the future offers few alternatives. The heady humanism that drives modernity's project creates for it the illusion of order, or better, the illusion that humans can and do impose order in our world.

Modernity's great gesture is the invention of containment, which bends the knees of those who blindly follow the big project. The invention states that we can know a thing so well as to create borders around all things that justify the essence of those things. We gather data about stuff, and determine the qualities and attributes of stuff, then tend to group stuff together in boxes, categories, that pretty much says everything about that stuff in the category, so that we can move on to put other stuff in other categories.

So, we adopt a critical posture that analyzes this rather grand gesture, the power to categorize and know. Modernity's first attempt at the grand move was political, and was designed to contain trouble. The rise of the mercantile phenomenon became the category of the 'middle class.' Science and the sciences became reason, and religion became bracketed off as the stuff of private thought (none dare call it reason), of something called faith. This strategy seemed to pay off--it worked, as the privatization of religion took its arguments off the streets and into homes and churches, and the discourse of the streets became that of commerce and economy, power and politics, and above all, scientific reason. Who can argue with success? Progress erupted and accomplished more in the new domains of the public sphere than what was accomplished in 50,000 years of homo sapiens prior to The Age of Reason. The juggernaut of modernity had buttressed its stay in human life.

The problem is this: the categories that empower the modern project are inventions whose purpose is to dominate. They say little or nothing about the objects in these categories, so long as objects behave according to the shape of the category. The very materiality of objects goes on, indifferent to the categories in which modernity has located them. The illusion of knowing trumps the freedom of objects to be what they are in themselves. The category imposes the will on materiality. A thing is what it is only in accordance with its category.

Now that effect certainly simplifies the world, and imposes digestible chunks of stuff for the sciences to investigate. The emergence of the disciplines provide ample evidence of this phenomenon. This is the driving force of progress, and we would have it no other way. Except maybe to take some wind out of those sails of hegemony over objects. The great modern shift to the subject has justified its invention of categories (even the concept of category itself), but at the expense of objects and their materiality.  Postmodernism wants to show the categorical impulse for what it is: invention and a figment of the imagination, a very useful one to be sure, but one whose imperial subjectivity tends to get caught up in itself. Where would objects be were it not for the categories dreamed up for them?

An interesting development in the categorical imagination has occurred famously in physics. Observation would have it that light behaves sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle (photon). This ingenious conclusion has proven to be very descriptive of general patterns observed in the universe. Nature is discrete: it seems to do things in packets and units. The computer technology that has analyzed these phenomena is itself poised to see its own reflection: its binary system, its digital configuration. Our observations of the physical universe, that is, its phenomenality, suggest that, alas, the universe, in its discrete units of energy, mass, quanta, are digital. Physics wants to tell us that the universe in and of itself is digital.

Of course, this conclusion is either true or false, but 'digital' is just another category that seems to describe the objects within it. It remains to be seen if  the very materiality of the universe is the way it is because of its phenomenality (that which appears in the experience of the observer). Either phenomenality is reduced to materiality or materiality is reduced to its phenomenality. This would mean that what we see is what it is.

At this time, I am more comfortable saying that what we see is what we see, and that which is, is what it is. We cannot conflate materiality and phenomenality without doing violence to either. We need to think of phenomenality without power if we are to allow objects to be objects, to allow the natural world to be free, if indeed it is free. Such a new phenomenology would seek out the margins of categories and look for signs of saturation and events which cannot be contained within them. What is presented to observation is certainly presented to the intuition, but the materiality of objects already saturates the categorical imagination, and the very event of materiality, of objects, cannot be released under the illusion of the hegemony of an encyclopedic modern project. Postmodernism must demonstrate that the perforations modernity has etched in reality are not real themselves. They are simply the convenience of dividing and conquering: ok for what it is, but impotent in the face of the real.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Joseph:

      I'm glad you enjoyed this last post more than the previous one. But I think you and I are laughing in the same place. It is indeed the very uncontainability of the realities at the bedside of the sick and dying that opens upon the event. There is so much more 'there' than any category of intentionality can cope with. That is a saturated phenomenon. And laughter is as good a response to the spillage as any other!

      Modernity thinks that by building iron curtains around quanta of reality it can rule it, overpower it, own it. As useful a gesture at that is, it does not commodify without remainder. Deconstruction looks to the unsightly points of things slipping on to the floor of the factory, and calling what it is. The democracy of objects in is the justice of the mess on the floor.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. All the paradigm shifts in science that Thomas Kuhn has described result from some version of deconstruction. These would be equivalent to some types of Zizek's "events". Any change in scientific discourse, whether over centuries or decades, is a deconstruction of something 'constructed', to use the terms loosely.