Westzaan/Kromhout: Conversation – Subjects and Symbols (Session 4)

In order to try something different, instead of each writing a separate blogpost, Nina Westzaan and I conducted a written conversation about this week’s chapter. We could have gone on much longer, as we listed many more possible interesting points, but for now, this is what we discussed:

Melle: One of the topics that we both listed as compelling in this chapter is the fact that at several instances Siegert, almost in passing, mentions a new or changing subject. I think especially the passage about Brunelleschi and the Linear Perspective on page 149 is interesting and thought-provoking in that respect.

Nina: Yes. I keep wondering where this subject comes from (both with regard to the structure of the book and Siegert’s argumentation). Although Siegert mentions it in this chapter for the first time (I believe), in my opinion he actually describes the transcendence of the subject or its disappearance or negation through science.

M: Well, I think he is arguing a new kind of subjectivity – or maybe even a modern concept of subjectivity itself –  is emerging through these cultural and scientific changes he describes. You could perhaps say that a certain idea of the subject disappears with the emergence of the “objective” perspective of science, but I think part of Siegert’s project is (partly influenced by Latour, as we have seen), to problematize these binaries and describe how cultural practices (or, in his terminology of course ‘cultural techniques’) create a discursive environment (or, with Kittler, a ‘discourse network’) that enables the emergence of a specific idea of the human subject. In short: it is a changing relation between humans and things.

N: That would fit right in Siegert’s bigger story, indeed. (And I think it is much more interesting, too). So, Brunelleschi’s linear perspective, the culture of objectivity and the cooperation of scientists in Societies point to a changing relation between humans and things?

M: If we take this passage:

“Die einzige Position, die das lesende Subjekt gegenüber einem gedruckten Text einnehmen kann, ist dieselbe, die das sehende Subjekt gegenüber dem perspektivischen Bild einnehmen muß, es ist die Position ‘des gaze [ … ], eines transzendenten Blickpunkts, der den arbeitenden Körper verabschiedet hat und nur als ein entkörperlichtes punctum existiert.'” (149)

it becomes clear it is not the transcendence of the subject, but the creation of a transcendent subject, one that can objectively, from a point (!) outside of the world, gaze at the object in order to distill “truths” about an objective world. This is also where the importance of instruments comes in. I am reminded of that curious anecdote about Galileo’s telescope ‘swearing’ an ode to establish it speaking the truth. Of course, in that anecdote, the telescope is also turned into a specific kind of ‘truth-producing’ subject.

N: Agree, but I still sense a turn away from the subject. One could say that to transcend the perspective of the subject, one has to transcend his position (in the painting) from being immersed in the event or spectacle, to being placed outside of it, which is perhaps a less ‘natural’ state of being and experiencing for a human being. As for the example of the telescope: is it not the case that instruments are becoming truth-producing and the (human) subjects being degraded to a(n objective) spectator?

M: In the end I don’t think so. Of course, this would be a logical ‘post-humanist’ line of reasoning and it is true that, like many of his fellow German media scholars, Siegert’s takes a decisively non-human centred approach.  But, contrary to for instance Kittler at various instances, I am actually surprised by Siegert’s consistent focus on human actors alongside these scientific developments, these instruments, these techniques and technologies. And I would say that it is exactly through the use of these (instruments, techniques, technologies) that specific forms of the human subject and subjectivity emerge. Yes, the instruments become truth-producers, agents of a new approach to natural occurrences, but the interpretation of facts as facts, and data as data requires a human subject and a specific kind of subjectivity.

N: Ok, Siegert indeed shows how in general, and especially from the sixteenth century on, scientists are developing language systems to control or evaluate the outcomes of the instruments they have developed themselves, and exactly this combination is what makes the exact sciences of the sixteenth century ‘revolutionary’ (according to philosophers of science).

M: Well, I have to admit I am cheating a little as well: I have read already  the book exactly from the next chapter onward (so, up to now it was “new” for me) and I know that this question of subjectivity will become more important as we progress. I quickly looked in my notes about the next chapter (on Leibniz), as I had the feeling that the ‘point-shaped-subject’ would become more important there. And, indeed, it reads

“Und dies ist wiederum dem träumenden punktförmigen Cogito analog: Das Cogito ist kein Subjekt, das Objekte vorstellt, es ist ein Subjekt, das ein Subjekt-Objekt vorstellt — ein Subjekt, das in sich noch einmal die Szene der Repräsentation verdoppelt.” (163)

And also:

“Das Subjekt […] hängt von einer symbolischen Ordnung ab, die die Art und Weise, wie die Seele wahrnimmt und ausdrückt, diktiert.” (182)

It is perhaps good to know that from the next chapter onward – and especially in the second part of the book – the objective ‘subject’ as we see it take shape in what we’ve just read slowly defuses and disappears again, as this aspiration for objective knowledge about facts eventually proves more and more impossible.

What seems important in the second quote as well, however, is the mention of the “symbolic order,” as this is also something that becomes very apparent in this chapter: the ‘rise’ of the symbolic.’

N: The meaning or connotation of the term ‘symbolic’ (especially in Siegert) is somewhat problematic for me. Does algebra belong to the realm of the symbolic, is it, like Wilkins’ table in his Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language, the solution to our highly subjective language in daily life that is stuffed with symbolic meaning, or is it yet another but more transcendent or objective symbolic representation of ‘truth’? And what about the geometric visualizations (Vieta, 150-151)?

M: well, this is of course a vast subject, and indeed, I think it is true that many different meanings of the term symbolic are used, often even alongside each other, which does not make it easier. Why I think it is important is, firstly, because it is of course what we are heading for in terms of the development of the ‘digital.’ But, at the moment, I think the difficulty is especially the interplay between signs as representations and signs as ‘things,’ which is part of Siegert’s larger claims: signs are things in the world, which means they are both symbolic and real. In general, I do think that part of the narrative of this chapter is how numbers, as symbols that used to be related to something ‘in the world’ change into something of themselves. They becomes symbolic ‘things,’ with which people can calculate without refer to something ‘outside’ the numbers. They begin to represent nothing but themselves.

The difficulty of course is that they are subsequently folded back onto the world again in the form of physics, which is also where the whole trouble with ‘instruments’ and ‘truths’ comes from. So, I think part of the larger narrative of this chapter is how numbers are emancipated to become independent ‘objects,’ enabling the creation of something like algabra, which is subsequently again applied to natural phenomena and the objective ‘explanation’ (instead of subjective ‘defense,’ as Siegert puts it at some point) of the world. This reintroduces numbers into the level of the actual. It is all a matter of different levels of representation and abstraction and a changing understanding of what can and should be represented, and how.

This is not to mention the clear Lacanian ring to Siegert’s use of ‘symbolic,’ which became apparent in this reference:

“Das Spiel mit den Kleinbuchstaben der Algebra, sagt Lacan, mit denen wir die Geometrie in Analyse umsetzen, kann in dem Moment beginnen, in dem Descartes die Wahrheit in die Hände eines Großen Anderen legt, der kein Betrüger sein darf.” (151)

N: So instead of the activity of hiding information by coding it, the adoption of the ‘symbolic’ in the natural sciences in the sixteenth century can be interpreted as the activity of both coding and decoding, as Siegert puts it at page 155: ‘Ordnen heisst verschluesseln, Auffinden heisst entziffern.’

M: Yes, and this is of course a crucial part of the argument, given that this ‘coding and decoding,’ which is the combination of messages and addresses into one system, is already foreshadowing a crucial aspect of future ‘digital’ technologies.

N: And it also illustrates or even delineates the analogy between the digital era and the pre-digital period/sixteenth-seventeenth century in terms of sharing. The sixteenth century was marked by the foundation of numerous Academies and Societies in Western Europe. In the initiation of modern experimental science, natural scientists did not take the philosophical concoctions of individuals for granted anymore, but instead aimed to collect and combine their knowledge and make it shareable. Algebra and the activity of coding/decoding are instruments to share and exchange information in order to achieve objectivity, and information is shared and exchanged within the walls of these Societies.

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