What isn’t Phenomenology?

Today in Deleuze (perhaps that should have been the name of this entry) we worked on the postulates of linguistics. Deleuze’s criticisms are many, but what I find more interesting is the positive argument, which differentiates him from the two main tendencies in “continental philosophy”: privileging either the body, or the word.

Deleuze’s linguistic’s is his ontology – he replaces the matter/form distinction with the content/expression distinction. And then he imposes a matter/form distinction on each side of that divide. To spell that out: he thinks content, the stuff of the world, has both a matter and a form, and that expression, the stuff of language, has both a matter and a form. An example of the matter of an expression would be the sound it is conveyed in, or the billboard on which it is written. The form of the expression would be the sentence. An example of the form of content would be the shape of a body, and its matter is just the basic corporeal atoms that make it up.

Deleuze is not a materialist in the Marxist sence, because he denies that there is a causal relation between the form of content and the form of an expression. For example, the 9/11 plane crashes. They was a formal content, but it didn’t demand some particular expressive form. Bush happened to say “Either you’re with the terrorists”, but he certainly could have said other things and that would have been appropriate to the form of the content.

Neither is Deleuze an idealist, because he denies that the formal content is determined entirely by expression.

Deleuze is supposedly “more interesting” because his theory of “the event” (“evenement”) is a mutual occaision where the content and expressive touch each other, and are both transformed. He calls this “incorporeal transformation”. Events happen when the formal content is ripe to be affected by a expressive declaration: for example, in an atmosphere of extremism, where a certain book has been written and published and distributed universally, a radical fundamentalist can hold up an object (the book) and declare a fatwa on Salmon Rushdie. This declaration causes all sorts of transformations in content and in expression, it changes in some senses the rules by which bodies interact and express to each other.

The point is this transformation requires both the conditions which are a matter of content, and the conditions which are a matter of the expression (the fundamentalist couldn’t have declared a fatwa on anyone, just on the set of those who the material conditions make appropriate targets for fatwas).

However, the extent to which this is not an idealism are only slight. While the material conditions (form of content) limit the  kinds of  expressions which could be uttered  to successfully set of a transformation, an event, it seems obvious that if the material conditions limit the set somewhat, the speech act does so absolutely. If before the declaration of the fatwa, there were 15 different possible targets for a fatwa, the speech act narrows that down to one. The speech act is an active determination out of itself, not a sensitivity to the material conditions. Or rather, it is sensitive to the material conditions only so it can make an (arbitrary?) declaration between then=”this one!”

Compare this with Heidegger, who recognizes something analogous to the content/expression distinction but calls it the pre-theoretical/theoretical distinction.


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