“The Middle Ages are a mirror for the present. We find there the roots of our problems, of our anguish, of our crises.”
                                                              —Umberto Eco

Terry Eagleton on Why Marx was Right

Gone Girl: Accept Your Irony!

Gone Girl is less concerned with the nature of marriage than it is with hypermediated, self-reflexive reality. Even if our choices were always already performative, today’s social media and tabloid news render us exponentially egocentric and dialogically oppressive. The film suggests that we assume the ironist position in light of the politics of reality, a late capitalist reworking of ideology itself: We know why we do it, and we do it anyway (Zizek). “Amazing Amy’s” final trick and her husband Nick’s resolution is a tragic denouement true to our cynical moment.  


"Poetry is the language of nonexchangeability."

—Franco Berardi

Who Can Believe, but Can What?

John Searle’s “Animal Minds” (1994) suggests that language is not necessary for non-human animals to believe. He summarizes the point of contention:

"The basic idea in this argument seems to be that since ‘truth’ is a metalinguistic semantic predicate and since the possession of belief requires the ability to make the distinction between true and false beliefs, it seems to follow immediately that the possession of beliefs requires metalinguistic semantic predicates, and that obviously requires language." (67)

Searle goes on to say that there is no “reason at all to suppose that this necessarily requires language” (67). What is particularly problematic about Searle’s objection is that while he dismisses language as a necessary requirement for belief, he permits “belief” to stand as is. (I address the issue briefly in my previous post, “Taking Lions Talking Lion.”)

For Searle, “beliefs and desires are embedded not only in a network of other beliefs and desires but more importantly in a network of perceptions and actions, and these are the biologically primary forms of intentionality” (67).

Searle’s logic raises two questions: First, why move beyond “perceptions and actions” to “belief” when describing non-human animal behavior? Second, does Searle’s sine qua non ”intentionality” lose its force if non-human animals are non-believing agents?

Searle seems to conflate perception-action and belief-intention (again, Searle places belief within the larger, more primal, primary network of perception-action). His examples suggest a begging-the-question anthropocentrism: “Why is my dog barking up that tree? Because he wants to catch up to the cat. Why does he believe the cat is up the tree? Because he saw the cat run up the tree” (68). 

At one point, Searle acknowledges the objection to his understanding of belief: 

"But why do we need to ‘postulate’ beliefs and desires at all? Why not just grant the existence of perceptions and actions in such cases? The answer is that the behavior is unintelligible without the assumption of beliefs and desires; because the animal, for example, barks up the tree even when he can no longer see or smell the cat, thus manifesting a belief that the cat is up the tree even when he cannot see or smell that the cat is up the tree." (68)

Must “beliefs and desires” be the only answer to why the dog remains at the tree? The only reasonable conclusion one can draw from the above example is that humans witnessing this non-human animal behavior are the ones ascribing a status of belief—theirs—to make sense of the dog’s behavior. That is to say, the “unintelligible” is as much ours as it is the dog’s. Searle relies on reductionist, cause-and-effect biological determinism for verification: 

"I am suggesting that the grounds on which we found our certainty that animals are conscious is not that intelligent behavior which is the same or similar to ours is proof of consciousness, but rather that causal structures which are the same or similar causal structures to ours produce the same or similar effects. Behavior, even linguistic behavior, is only relevant given certain assumptions about structure. That is why we attribute consciousness to humans and animals, with or without language, and we do not attribute it to radios." (74)

Given that the understanding of belief is “grounded” in similar causal relations—man’s and dog’s—one can only assume that Searle has in mind a complex science informing the understanding (i.e., a biology of belief), and he does. But here in a Wittgensteinian flourish science is subsumed by a kind of pragmatism, as one’s response to dog behavior:

"I do not infer that my dog is conscious, any more than, when I come into a room, I infer that the people present are conscious. I simply respond to them as is appropriate to respond to conscious beings.  I treat them as conscious beings and that is that…. Another way to put this is to say that it does not matter really how I know whether my dog is conscious, or even whether or not I do “know” that he is conscious. The fact is, he is conscious and epistemology in this area has to start with this fact.” (75)

Such a privileging of response over epistemic fact suggests a Skinnerian language-game, but not Skinnerian science. In the same paragraph Searle blames Behaviorists (and many others) for pushing dated epistemology—for purporting epistemology in the first instance. The problem has been Philosophy asking the wrong question: “How do you know?” For Searle, one perceives non-human animal consciousness neither through Cartesian dualism nor Hegelian inferentialism. That is to say, one perceives another’s consciousness from one’s own response to it, not through inferences drawn from observed similarities or reciprocal relations.

But what exactly does Searle mean by “response”? Why does one treat a dog as if it is conscious? Is a response’s appropriateness merely another formulation of the Myth of the Given? Does Searle see “response” as already conceptual and normative in nature, nothing more and nothing less? Does the latter mask an epistemic fact implicit in “response”? If so, what is the difference between Searle’s anthropocentrism that gives non-human animals consciousness and, say, Rousseau’s which does not:

"I see in all animals only an ingenious machine to which nature has given senses in order to keep itself in motion and protect itself, up to a certain point, against everything that is likely to destroy or disturb it. I see exactly the same things in the human machine, with this difference: that while nature alone activates everything in the operations of a beast, man participates in his own actions in his capacity as a free agent." (87)

Surprisingly if not contradictorily Searle concludes by differentiating such ostensible pragmatism (the response that brings non-human animal consciousness) from scientific enterprise, an Enlightenment telos of progress:

"However, though the general or philosophically skeptical form of the ‘other animals’ minds problem seems to me confused, there are quite specific questions about specific mechanisms the answers to which are essential to scientific progress in this area. For example, how are cats’ visual experiences similar to and different from those of humans?" (75)

These “genuine epistemic” questions are for Searle not the same as the metaphysical ones described above. These questions are regularly answered in laboratories and hospitals and on drawing boards. Their answers bring a better understanding of the world, including non-human animal consciousness, which, one recalls, is ultimately one’s response to consciousness. The distinction, then, between genuine and non-genuine epistemic questions would seem to permit Searle to be both Darwinian and Wittgensteinian insofar as “genuine” is not just another game: biological naturalism provides access to similar causal structures across species; language-games give meaning to a non-human animal’s experiential realities. We are no doubt reminded here of Donald Davidson’s coherence theory of truth that grounds a belief in its relation to a belief system that gets its “adaptive appropriateness through causality, which originates from the physical world” (Boros), as well as Robert Brandom’s understanding that language has a “downtown,” where some language-games—assertions, inferences—are privileged over others. But Searle is not clear if we are to see his naturalism as a game or something else. In the end, one may wonder about Searle’s intentions, but not a dog’s beliefs.

Boros, Janos. “Representationalism and Antirepresentationalism - Kant, Davidson and Rorty.” 10 Aug. 1998. The Paideia Project. Web.

Davidson, Donald. “A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge.” Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. A Discourse on Inequality. London: Penguin, 1984.

Searle, John. “Animal Minds.” Consciousness and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

             —Matthew Cheney

Free Unfreedom!


"We are here at the very nerve-centre of liberal ideology: freedom of choice, grounded in the notion of the ‘psychological’ subject, endowed with propensities which he or she strives to realize. And this especially holds today, in the era of a ‘risk society’ in which the ruling ideology endeavours to sell us the very insecurities caused by the dismantling of the welfare state as the opportunity for new freedoms. If labour flexibilization means you have to change jobs every year, why not see it as a liberation from the constraints of a permanent career, a chance to reinvent yourself and realize the hidden potential of your personality? If there is a shortfall on your standard health insurance and retirement plan, meaning you have to opt for extra coverage, why not perceive it as an additional opportunity to choose: either a better lifestyle now or long-term security? Should this predicament cause you anxiety, the ‘second modernity’ ideologist will diagnose you as desiring to ‘escape from freedom’, of an immature sticking to old stable forms. Even better, when this is inscribed into the ideology of the subject as the ‘psychological’ individual, pregnant with natural abilities, you will automatically tend to interpret all these changes as the outcome of your personality, not as the result of being thrown around by market forces."

—Slavoj Žižek, “Against Human Rights

A Few Thoughts on Writing Instruction

1. It is misleading to argue for the efficacy of one medium-based composition over another through issues of “transferability” (i.e., the transfer of “successfully” learned rhetorical strategies used in one medium {e.g., print} to another {e.g., blog}). While discussions of “transferability” in a general sense may bring a better understanding of the nature of writing, one will not make a better case for using one medium over another by pointing to transferability. Consider the following claim:
A does for P what B does not
      where A is print composition, P is argument, and B is digital composition.
The problem arises when one considers that P is always-already intricately part of its medium, so that the rhetorical moves that comprise A (and give P), e.g., A1 (audience awareness), A2 (tone), and A3 (references), and so on cannot be separated from the medium in terms of assessing its rhetorical effect, P.
So except for a general understanding of meaning that might come from a discussion of the limits of such a comparison, it makes little sense to look for what a student has “learned” when composing with one medium by searching for similar moves employed with another medium, i.e., as far as these moves can say anything definitive about P apart from its specific medium. 
While much can be said of studies that support such claims, e.g., sample size, background or preparedness in digital theory and multimodal composition, these latter concerns are beside the point. The study’s method is irrelevant when the concepts the study rests on are erroneous
2. That said, digital composition is a helpful heuristic or pedagogical strategy for gaining rhetorical understanding. I would, in fact, suggest that digital composition is more helpful than print given the former’s Web-immediacy to a variety of texts, authors, genres, and composing methods—all of which could better bring “metacognitive” awareness to writing students. This is one reason why the digital should be incorporated into First Year Composition (FYC), limited time and all. This latter observation brings me to two more concerns.
3. FYC must be seen as an early (introductory) course in the discipline of Rhetoric and Composition and not as a service course for the university. While some rhetorical understanding gained in a one- or two-semester FYC course can transfer to other disciplines (contra Wardle et al.’s assertion that it cannot), there is no monolithic university writing, no monolithic History 300, and no monolithic Professor X who sees effective writing in the same way as other instructors—that is, as other history professors or as FYC writing instructors. That is to say, such an understanding of FYC as a service course ignores the pragmatic, contextual nature of writing, of meaning. Therefore “Approaches to University Writing” is a misleading and poor choice for a course title. One cannot “teach” students how to write, and one cannot provide comprehensive metacognitive awareness in one or two semesters. How are faculty in other disciplines going to recognize these limits if R/C faculty don’t: “Why aren’t you teaching these kids how to write a sentence!?”
4. Professionalization. We continue to hear that FYC classes and instructors have a responsibility to their students to prepare them for “real world” employment. While this concern is no doubt heartfelt and practical, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of writing, meaning, communication, and the student’s role in the ostensible job market. This objection can be clarified with two points:
A. Just as there is no monolithic university course one can teach to, there is no monolithic workplace—job—for which a FYC instructor can possibly prepare a student. Will a FYC course enable students to gain and hold employment in a hospital, film studio, zoo, chemical plant, fashion industry, high school, recording studio, pharmaceutical company, law firm, ad agency, construction site, and/or dance school?  Is it fair and reasonable to suggest FYC couldWriting is not a “skill” to be taught
B. It is precisely the futility in professionalization due to the pragmatic nature of meaning and heterogeneity of work that FYC must involve various genres of writing and media. This point “B” could easily be its own heading since we’re really talking about writing complexity (writing-rhetoric-medium-meaning) that will not come from a skills-based “Writing about Writing” approach, that is, not a course that ignores culture, biography, politics, economics, and so on since all of the above are part of composing. I would go as far as to suggest that Wardle et al. fail to recognize that their instrumentalism is a condition of our socioeconomic moment—“Writing about Writing” and writing professionalization are not only reductionist, they are part of the problem. They are precisely why students can’t write that sentence for Professor X.

On Rules

"And hence also ‘obeying a rule’ is a practice. And to think one is obeying a rule is not to obey a rule. Hence it is not possible to obey a rule ‘privately’: otherwise thinking one was obeying a rule would be the same thing as obeying it.”

—Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Collective Intentions or Inferential Reciprocity?

Searle’s social ontology suggests that one can make an epistemically objective claim from a domain that is ontologically subjective, an ontology that would seem to give, among other things, an empirical dimension to Freudian science after Wittgenstein’s demotion/promotion of that science to myth (Wittgenstein arguably does this, too, with the demotion/promotion). Yet at the same time Searle’s “collective intentionality” as repeated representations via logical form of declarations would seem to put the mirror back into the progressive sociality of meaning suggested by Brandom’s and Sellars’s rational pragmatism—the Hegelian “interpersonal inferential commitments” (42) that not only rescues rationality from liberalist epistemology, as Searle’s does with the idea of a collective epistemic, but locates the normative in a conceptual contentfulness “socially instituted through mutual recognition” (Macbeth 198), i.e., without “taking representation as its fundamental concept” (Brandom 28). Though Brandom notes that such “methodological commitment” still acknowledges an “important representational dimension to concept use” (28).

Brandom, Robert B. Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.

Macbeth, Danielle. “Inference, Meaning, and Truth in Brandom, Sellars, and Frege.” Reading Brandom: On Making It Explicit. Ed. Bernhard Weiss and Jeremy Wanderer. London: Routledge, 2010. 


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