McMurray: “If more can be had than is had” (Session 1)

[PM: Apologies for sprawl here—feel free to jump to the end for some broad questions/critique.]

The first chapters of Bernhard Siegert’s Passage des Digitalen weave so many threads together, I find myself wanting to tease them all out and follow them to their ends. Sitting at a desk in Cambridge, Mass., in the year 2014, I am surrounded by an odd collection of texts for further rummaging: Claude Shannon’s masters thesis, Oedipus Rex, Heidegger’s “Zeit und Sein,” the Domesday Book (see below) and Michael Clanchy’s From Memory to Written Record. I could likewise easily imagine a post/response to any of the paragraphs in “Vorwort”: on the disciplinary objects left lying around in the Hinterhöfe (backyards) of other disciplines; on the (ambiguous?) relation between Zeichenpraktiken and Kulturtechniken; phrases like neuzeitliche Wissenschaften and claims that “we are all Flying Dutchmen” (19), and of course, the sea—and the other version of this book as a history of the sea. Siegert cites a questionnaire from the Inquisitio comitatus Cantabrigiensis, in which the 12th and final question could well describe his overall way of thinking and virtuosic use of sources: “if more can be had than is had” (29). Or to pose the question aqueously: has the book already overflowed from the outset with its own sources?

Given this proliferation of sources (and Melle’s clear overview of “Vorwort”), I’ll avoid a general response and instead focus here on the central claims that set Siegert’s history in motion in “Die Rede der Hirten und Pächer” (and the larger section, Die Große Bürokratie). I’ve translated them at some length, not least because Siegert’s prose itself works here better than just a summary.

He begins “Die Rede…” by citing the 13th century as a critical moment of shifting legal practices (Roman Law’s accession over Germanic Law), the first forensic experiments, the first European paper production, and the earliest usage of Indo-Arabic numerals by European kingdoms and merchants. The practice of inquisitio (inquisition) accompanied the spread of Roman Law as well, transforming European ways of thinking and prefiguring later analytical methodologies. Siegert traces this line of thought back to Greek tragedy by way of Foucault:


The inquisitio was originally an extrajudicial process for resolving land disputes, which was carried out by commissioners who were appointed especially for the implementation of data collection. Foucault, forcefully but brilliantly simplifying this inquisitio—this corpus of source material—traced it to a double-origin: an administrative origin, which is connected with the emergence of the Carolingian state, and an ecclesiastical one, namely that of visitation [i.e., the practice of having supervisory “visitors” who oversee church institutions], which was alive throughout the Middle Ages. Foucault locates its primal scene in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. It is the questioning of the old shepherd by Oedipus, in which for the first time the mutual exclusion of power and knowledge, fundamental to the western view of truth, comes to the surface. On the one hand, there is the powerless shepherd, who knows and whose speech says nothing more than “I remember, I have seen,” and on the other hand, the powerful king, who threatens everyone with death, but who does not know. Because he possesses a small fragment of memory, because his discourse contains the witness of that which he has seen, because his memory fragment fits like a symbolon with the memory fragment of the messenger, the other slave of the play, the shepherd can challenge the arrogance of the king and bring about his downfall. The possibility of juxtaposing a truth without power against a power without truth gave rise to the paradigm, peculiar to the western relationship between law, power and knowledge: philosophy, rational forms of evidence and of demonstration, the idea, wanting and being able to persuade with the truth, the development of an intellectual persona [eines Erkenntnistyps], based on testifying and memory. (23)


[I’m not sure I really nailed the translation on the last sentence—I’d welcome suggestions, especially on what Siegert means by Erkenntnistyp.]

Siegert goes on to argue, “The purpose of every inquisitio between the 8th and 15th century was, first, to present at a given moment (usually a casus necessitatis) an inventory of goods and revenues of a ruler; second, to specify the kinds of rights he had and the conditions of their exercise, as well as their limits; and third, to reach a point where these data assume a legally effective form and could be produced [vorgezeigt] anywhere” (24). In other words, legal documentation becomes a form of data inscription, bound up in the materiality of everyday life. The inquisitio thus created clear, testifying subjects (speaking in first-person) as well as massive compendia like Domesday Book [website here, short pdf excerpt here] compiled 1086-1087 for William the Conqueror. Siegert quotes one of its chroniclers, Fitz Neal, who writes, “That is why we have called the book The Book of Judgement, not because it contains decisions on various difficult points, but because its decisions like those of the Last Judgement are unalterable” (quoted on 28). Siegert comments on this explanation, noting: “That means, however, that the data—which are called ‘judgments’ here, due to a lack of a distinct concept [Denkkategorie, category of thought] designating ‘data’—not only have validity until the Day of Judgment, but also that their collection [ihre Erhebung, survey, census] was an evocation of the Judgment Day” (28).

Excerpt from Domesday Book
Excerpt from Domesday Book

Having laid out his brief history of the inquisitio, Siegert reflects on it as a kind of medium: “In the medium of the inquisitio, writing transcends the metaphysics of its own origins by saving things and events, which are irreducible to logos like the Pythagorean theorem or Christian dogma” (31). Documents like Domesday Book thus became one-of-a-kind media—“a unique event which produced a unique document” (32)—that would not become a standardized, replicable medium. Nevertheless, the possibility for law, utterance, materiality, and inscription to coincide suggests a starting point.

As with many archaeological accounts, I find myself entranced but also often wondering: why here and now? What other legal-material-oral configurations might fit with (or contradict) this narrative starting point? Why would earlier Roman cadastral surveys not “count” in this narrative? Could this same narrative be told without recourse to Oedipus? Looking ahead historically, how does this form of inquisitio connect (or not) to later Catholic Inquisitions? (Siegert suggests that the Domesday Book and by extension the inquisitio are explicitly not the first in a series of similar works.) And finally—if somewhat broadly—how convincing is the argument for inquisitio-as-medium? What are the stakes of calling things mediums/media, and why does it benefit a medium to transcend “the metaphysics of its origin”?

5 thoughts on “McMurray: “If more can be had than is had” (Session 1)”

  1. This is a very general comment on Siegert’s initial positioning and his politics of quotation: There is a subliminally critique and reassessment of Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault (and Latour), which are all quoted. “Hinderance” seems to be Siegert’s counter-concept to “differance”, seemingly an alternative concept to transcend “the metaphysics of origin”, like you just wrote. Nevertheless there is a direct critique of Heidegger’s concept of history as “Seinsgeschichte” and a less obvious critique of Derrida’s concept of history, which seems to be hidden in the distinction between a “phonetische Schrift” and a “diagrammatische Schrift” (14). If this is correct, and if we agree that Heidegger’s concept of “Seinsgeschichte” is for many reasons problematic, I still wonder, what the problem in Derrida’s concept of history in “Of Grammatology” might be? And is it than the same problem as in Heidegger? Siegert’s concept of history obviously relates more to Foucault’s archeology, but from the beginning “ontological difference” remains crucial for his main argument too. On page 13 he “characterizes” his book as a “historische Grammatologie der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaften”. For me this was on the one hand surprising, if we remember the debate between Derrida and Foucault over the status of Descartes’ Meditations and the gap between their projects, but on the other hand it was also familiar to me, if you think about the archeological work of Agamben and his reassessment of both Heidegger and Foucault. There were a lot of names, but it is maybe also revealing that some are missing: such as thinkers from critical theory, apart from Sohn-Rethel (420, note 1).

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  2. Just to add another quote chapter I: “Foucault’s history of the procedures of truth (Wahrheitsprozeduren) is an operationalization of Heidegger’s history of western metaphysics.” (22)


  3. Dear Toni, these are interesting points, but you’re raising a lot of issues and I don’t really feel equipped to tackle them as they are…

    Could you for instance elaborate a little on what you think Siegert would argue is the problem in Derrida’s concept of history in “Of Grammatology” and whether it is the same problem as in Heidegger?

    Or maybe someone else can jump in on Toni’s comments?


  4. I agree, but I only wanted to raise those issues and we will probably come back to them or they will become more concrete throughout the book. Until now I underlined also: “Die practices of notation/writing (Zeichenpraktiken), faced here, are throughout dealing with the realm of “graphé”, which goes beyond language” (13). And this, according to Siegert, is marked in the distinction between “phonetic” and “diagrammatic scripture/writing” (14). I can not answer or explain this yet, but I think he alludes to a dominant presence of and occupation with language/”semiotics” (14) in Derrida (or also, if you want, with “language as such” in Benjamin/Agamben), like Samet Yalçın wrote in the previous comment. And this language/semiotics is somehow not founded in operational practices and cultural techniques (which might be true for “Of Grammatology”).


  5. Thanks for the comments here, Toni and Melle (and Samet as well–these two threads seem to be nicely entangled, in many ways). Maybe this is too meta too early, but I’m struck by how quickly we seem to have jumped down the rabbit hole of 20th century theory/philosophy. Which is not necessarily a bad place to be! But I’d invite others who have totally unrelated observations to chime in too.

    More generally, I found myself drawn to the paragraph I translated not so much for Foucault, but rather the long narrative that drags Oedipus into this. Why do we need Oedipus or inquisitio to discuss 20th century theory? This is obviously part of a longstanding tradition (including most of the philosophers/theorists in this thread), which is not insignificant. But beyond that, what does it help us understand? Similarly, why use a term like graphé? Is this to embrace other media (phonography, photography, etc.) beyond writing or to draw something from (Greek) antiquity into the present?

    Toni, the idea that “hinderance” is the new “différance” is also really striking. I’m sure we’ll have more to say on this as we go, but I’ll be interested to see how this plays out. If Siegert is suggesting a kind of updating of Derrida here, why not make it more explicit? Or were you thinking that hinderance is functioning like différance but Siegert hasn’t acknowledged it?


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