ON THE CORRECT USE OF TECHNICAL CONCEPTS: OWNING vs DETERRITORIALISING

This is my comment on the very interesting discussion of Jon Cogburn’s global objection to Nathan Brown’s philosohical methodology in his article THE NADIR OF OOO:

Bill Benzon’s example of Levi Strauss’s structuralism is a little different from Morton’s use of technical concepts from math and science, but may explain some of his motivation. I think it is important to realise that noone owns theoretical terms, not even mathematicians and physicists, so noone can lay claim to possessing the true definition of words like force, intensity, or even temperature. Many technical words originate in ordinary language as such or by etymological derivation. But the question for me is where to draw the line. Several cases seem to exist:

1) Deleuze uses notions of force and intensity outside of any physical definition or function, and I think he has the right to do so.

2) Pushing further into technicity, he also uses the notion of black hole to describe a certain type of subjectivity and its traps. While this notion is meant to resonate in some way with the physical concept, it receives in Deleuze’s text a totally different definition and Deleuze does not claim to be using or commenting on the physical concept, he claims to have “deterritorialised” it. I think this is acceptable also.

3) However his commentaries on the differential calculus as such, and not on some deterritorialised philosophical concept that he has drawn from them, had better be accurate.

An interesting example is an interview with Michel Serres and Michel Foucault that I heard on the radio a while back (I have lived in France for the last 30 years). It seems to have taken place in the late 60s or early 70s. Serres remarked that Foucault’s books relied heavily on terms such as “relation”, “function”, and “structure” that had precise definitions in mathematics, and asked Foucault if he knew these technical defintions. Scenting a possible trap Foucault replied, and I think Levi Strauss could have replied similarly, that these words did not originate in mathematics, which had merely taken up words from the common language and given them a technical acception. He claimed that he was doing the same thing, and giving these words his own technical sense. This corresponds to a combination of cases 1 and 2 in my little typology. Morton no doubt does some of this deterritorialising usage too. That’s fine by me, and can even be illuminating. The problem is when he presumes to cite and comment on technical concepts from a technical point of view, implicitly claiming technical knowledge that may be inadequate in certain cases. Nathan Brown haas given prima facie arguments to show that this is indeed the case. I for one do not think that this invalidates all his work, some of which I find insightful and illuminating. Nor do I think that this critique reduces all types of OOO to pretentious nonsense.

Nonetheless I think that another sort of global argument can be given, and that it is implicit in Nathan Brown’s article. If it can be shown, and many people think it can, that there is an obfuscation in Harman’s notion of an unknowable untouchable invisible etc. real object, and that we can nevertheless give examples of such objects, if the notion of “withdrawn yet related” is incoherent, if the talk about relations “not exhausting” their objects is mere picture talk with no precise conceptual sense, then this philosophy has set the ground for a jazzy rush of examples that don’t cohere out into a philosophy, including a jazzy use of mathematical and physical theories. So despite the need to be specific to see if this sort of jazzy usage is being trumpeted (sorry for the pun) as if it were a deterritorialised usage, once it’s significant and frequent occurrence in a text has been established, the global objection can legitimately be made.

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2 Responses to ON THE CORRECT USE OF TECHNICAL CONCEPTS: OWNING vs DETERRITORIALISING

  1. Bill Benzon says:

    I think there may be another case between your 2 and 3, and here I’m thinking of Levi Bryant and more generally of some of the uses of “topological” concepts that I’ve seen. The actual use may be your second case, deterioralized use, but that usage is linked to a botched account of the mathematical or scientific concept in its own terms (your third case) which is called on as a source of authority for the deterioralized use. This is confusing.

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  2. terenceblake says:

    Yes, I think this is a case of a failed deterritorialising reading.

    Like

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