Made-up memories

My previous essay focused on how people tend to be in the habit of thinking that what they see is simply what they see, to be taken on an as is basis, or so to speak, yet, in actuality what they see is a mere projection, a mere fantasy of theirs. In other words, people see what will or desire to see. This essay will continue on that, sort of, by looking into what affects that process. I won’t delve deeper into what was already discussed but instead I’ll be looking at how it doesn’t even matter if what people are affected by is considered factual or fiction.

So, this time I’ll be taking a closer look at Dydia DeLyser’s 2003 article ‘Ramona Memories: Fiction, Tourist Practices, and Placing the Past in Southern California’ pushed in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers. The gist of the article is that works of fiction may have an actual impact on people’s behavior. Now, this should not come as news to anyone, but that’s not the point she is making here. What’s interesting about this article, what makes it worth reading, is that is that people may come to approach landscape according to what they’ve read in a work of fiction.

DeLyser (886) points that works of fiction, such as Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel ‘Ramona’, come to alter the actual landscape, as well as people’s understanding of it, with or without the physical alterations made to the landscape. She (886) points out that one might call such the implementation of a false past, but, strictly speaking, that’s inaccurate as a work of fiction does not need to adhere to any true/false or fact/fiction binary. In other words, a work of art operates on its own, orphaned at birth from its creator and always potentially open to people in terms of its meaning, even if the interpretation is always somewhat constrained socially, as I’ve discussed in my previous essays. Anyway, the point here is that a work of art has a life of its own, yet, it may come to bleed into reality, affecting it as if was part of actual history. So, neatly connecting this to the previous essay, landscape invokes a fantasy past that affects how people see the world, in her (886) case quite literally so.

Before she moves on to discuss the effect of the character of ‘Ramona’ to a southern California landscape, DeLyser (886) addresses how collective or social memory works in terms of time. In summary, she (886) points out that when one assesses the past, one always does it in the present, just as I’ve discussed in a (haha) past essay (only funny because I’m writing this in the present). Anyway, jokes aside, this requirement of assessing the past in the present, the past only having existence in the present, not in itself, makes it so that just as the present is always changing, so is the assessment of the past because it takes place in the present. What happened does not, of course, change. What changes is how that past is presented because it always depends on the present. That’s memory for you. In her (886) words:

“Not reliant strictly on factual events of the past, social memory relies instead most strongly on the social contexts of the present.”

Which, in turn, lead her (886) to point out that:

“From the perspective of social memory, then, the point is not to argue whether a particular past event is fact or fiction, because the social meaning of memory is little affected by this distinction.”

To paraphrase this, because we have to assess the past in the present, relying on our memory, the past being inaccessible as it has no existence of its own, it matters not whether something in the past actually happened or not. Now, this is not to say that what actually happened doesn’t matter. No, no. It’s rather that it makes no difference whether something did or didn’t happen inasmuch our memory says this and/or that happened, or didn’t happen.

For example, when I was studying abroad as an undergraduate student, we, me and some others, were in this bar, drinking beer and listening to a live band. I told a friend of mine that a man in the crowd, not far from us, looked like actor Edward Norton. To my knowledge, he was not Edward Norton, yet, for the fun of it, I opted to state to my friend that the man is Edward Norton. Now, this is where it gets dicey. I remember telling my friend that the man across the room is Edward Norton, just because to me the man looked like Edward Norton, not because I knew that the man was Edward Norton. This was all in jest. I mean, what are the odds? Edward Norton, in a small bar, alone, drinking beer, jamming to some live music, in Limerick, Ireland? Now, that was my point exactly. I just wanted to cause some sort of disbelief in the others. Later on, as I was no longer there, able to stare at the man, to look at his face, I started wondering, to myself, what if it actually was Edward Norton? Oh, shit!

So, as DeLyser (886) points out, what matters in the present is not what actually happened but how our sense of the past affects the present, how it animates it, given that we are, certainly, in the present.

Anyway, following the brief discussion of memory and how it can be, sort of, falsified (albeit it’s not, strictly speaking, false), DeLyser (886-887) moves on to address how this is related to landscape. She (887) notes how, on one hand, one can assess what people do, for example, by addressing how tourists come and go, do this and that, and, on the other hand, one assess how it is that people do just, how they come to behave in this and/or that way. She (887) finds the latter case more compelling, not in the sense that one is going to approach people as a critical minded individual and tell them that they are sleepwalking, but in the sense that one seeks to understand their slumber, what it is to be in their dreamworld.

This reminds me of Mitch Rose’s 2006 article, ‘Gathering ‘dreams of presence’: a project for the cultural landscape’, as published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. The gist of this article is the notion of ‘dreams of presence’ borrowed from Jacques Derrida, what Rose (544) characterizes as:

“This dream of full presence is the philosophical dream to account for how things (human or otherwise) exist, without recourse to their history or a knowledge of their potential. It is the dream of a world that is explainable and accountable, a dream where we know who we are and what kind of world we belong to.”

And, more concretely as (545):

“Dreams of presence are dreams of a stable, knowable life? a life that is blind to immanence, impervious to movement, and invested in with certitude. As I have suggested elsewhere …, they are a means of attempting to hold onto a world that always eludes our grasp.”

Rose (545) also notes that researchers should be familiar with this already, regardless of how one approaches the world:

“[D]reams of presence are something we see all the time. In every effort to determine, delimit, name, or categorise life, whether it be through science, myth, or our own idiosyncratic imagination, we can find a dream of presence? that is an effort to dream the world as whole.”

So, yeah, I reckon this is what DeLyser (887) is referring to with regard to dreams, albeit not in specific reference to Derrida (nor Rose, which’d be anachronistic). Anyway, I agree with her (887) take here, actually made in reference to a 1999 article written by Jon Goss, ‘Once upon a time in the commodity world: An unofficial guide to Mall of America’, as published in Annals of the Association of American Geographers. I agree that the researcher should not intervene with the people who inhabit the landscape, regardless of whether they are only passers-by or permanent residents. Now, this does not mean that I think that it is pointless to teach people what landscape is, its history, and, more importantly, how it functions. I think this is highly important, considering that it was something that I had never read or heard about anywhere, ever, before turning my attention to it, or, rather having my attention turned to it. For me, the problem is rather that once one makes one’s informants aware of landscape, wakes them up, or so to speak, one is no longer able to assess what they see, their dreams, but one’s own critical view of the world. In other words, as I keep pointing out, one keeps seeing oneself in one’s informants, contaminating one’s own data, to put it bluntly.

DeLyser (887) comments on how this task, assessing the dreams of others, is particularly hard. The problem with such assessments is that, following Goss (48), it results in obvious findings, like consumers and tourists are hardly critical with regard to their surroundings. The point here is that the researcher is already aware of that and writing about it is pointless, if not counter-productive, if the task is to be critical of such views. One easily ends up glorifying such passivity to one’s environment in the guise of empowering people. As Michel Foucault once explained this to Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow (187), as indicated in their 1982 book ‘Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics’:

“‘People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does[.]’”

So, at first, it may seem like a good idea to include people’s take on their surroundings, for example by asking mall shoppers or tourists what they think of this and/or that, but that may risk legitimizing uncritical views. Also, if one does the opposite, if one awakens them from the slumber, or so to speak, one is no longer asking what their take is as one has already pushed them to think otherwise. This is the problem with involving people. To my knowledge, it’s impossible to get their take, without making it your take, because you are the one reporting it to others. Now, that doesn’t render their takes as worthless. Instead, it’s rather that one needs to provide as full and accurate account of their views as possible, on an as is basis (which is often difficult because difference is always induced when one goes from speech to writing, from informal conversation to formal writing etc.), followed by a critical assessment of their views as otherwise one is taking their words for granted, thus potentially romanticizing them.

One ought to be interested in the various practices, or, as I would put it, various discourses, that pertain to how people act or behave, the way they do, as DeLyser (887) points out, albeit in a slightly different way. I’d say that I’m actually not that interested in what people do. What I’m interested in is what makes people do the things they do. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari explain this well in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (1987 translation by Brian Massumi) when they (194) liken the task to the essence of a novella, to asking “[w]hatever could have happened for things to have come to this?

Deleuze and Guattari (193) provide examples where this uncertainty is present, like when you are unsure of where you put your keys or whether you actually mailed a letter. It’s that feeling you get when you seem to have forgot something, like when you wake up and you have no recollection of how you ended up where you happen to be and start tracing whatever could have happened for you to end up there, piecing it together for it to make sense, yet, certainly remains elusive. This happens with keys as well. There is this moment of wonder, followed by tracing, going through how things might have happened. The thing here is that even though you were present, you are forced to investigate because it is, as if, you weren’t. On top of this, when you figure things out, or so you think anyway, you are not answering your own question, what happened? When you realize that there was nothing special about how you ended up sleeping in your own bed, besides, perhaps, a couple of pints too many, or when you find your keys, you don’t know what exactly happened. That’s just your take on it and you are happy to have those keys in your hand again. So, it’s not only that figuring out the past is tricky in itself because you are always assessing the past from the present and because our memories tend to deteriorate, but also because it involves “a fundamental forgetting”, as they (193) point out. They (193) emphasize this forgetting, this “relation with something unknowable and imperceptible”, over time and memory work, not because they don’t matter, but because there is this uncertainty involved, this contingency. As they (193) point out, it might be that nothing special happened, not even a couple of pints too many, or that you misplaced your keys or were distracted by something at that moment when you put them down. I guess it’s like when you’ve been driving, for a while, and you snap out of it, or so to speak, not able to recollect how it is that you got wherever it is that you happen to be. Most likely nothing happened, yet, you can’t be sure.

To be more practical about this, and not just riff on everyday experiences of forgetting one’s keys, or the like, Deleuze (vii) explains this task in the English edition preface of ‘Dialogues’ (1987 translation by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam):

“[T]he aim is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced.”

Or, as painter Paul Klee (28) once put this in in his part of ‘Schöpferische Konfession’, published in 1920 (edited by Kasimir Edschmid):

“Kunst gibt nicht das Sichtbare wieder, sondern macht sichtbar.”

So, the purpose is not to render the visible, but to render visible. In other words, the goal is not to re-present (what’s already there, as seen, the visible), but to present (what’s yet to appear, yet to be seen, the invisible). As noted by Jean Baudrillard (37) in his polemical book titled ‘Forget Foucault’ (the 2007 edition listed as translated by Phil Beitchman, Lee Hildreth and Mark Polizzotti), this is the original sense of the word produce, as in pro-ducere, not to manufacture goods but to render visible, to make something from another order to appear to us, to materialize. My dictionary (OED, s.v. “produce”, v.) is in agreement with him, prōdūcere having its roots in classical Latin where it is used for “to extend, stretch out, to prolong, lengthen, to bring forth, lead out, to bring forward, to bring before a court, to bring on to the stage, to present, to advance, promote, to bring into existence, to give birth to”. Among the current (non-obsolete) definitions (OED, s.v. “produce”, v.) it is indicated as pertaining to:

“To bring forward or out, to present to view or notice; to show or provide (something) for consideration, inspection, or use; to exhibit; spec. to bring (a witness or evidence) before a court of law.”


“To bring (a performance) before the public; to administer the staging of (a play, opera, etc.) or the financial and managerial aspects of (a film, broadcast, etc.); to supervise the making of (a musical recording), esp. by determining the overall sound.”

As well as:

“To bring into being or existence”

In the sense that:

“To bring (a thing) into existence from its raw materials or elements, or as the result of a process; to give rise to, bring about, effect, cause, make (an action, condition, etc.).”


“Of a person, animal, plant, etc.: to give birth to or bear (offspring); to yield (seed, fruit, etc.); to generate by a natural process.”


“Of a country, region, process, etc.: to give forth, yield, furnish, supply; (of a person or community) to grow, raise”


“To compose or create (a work of art, literature, etc.); to bring (a creative endeavour) to fruition.”

And, finally, in the sense that it is has to do with manufacturing goods:

“To make (an object) by physical labour; (now spec.) to make or manufacture (a product or commodity) from components or raw materials.”

So, yeah, in summary, Baudrillard is correct here, probably because he seems like the kind of guy, like me, who looks up words in a dictionary, to see if there’s more to it, rather than taking things for granted.

I’ve tried to explain this in my articles, to a mixed response. The last one that got rejected, for some reasons unknown, contained this nugget of gold, explained in ways that are fairly easy to grasp, including elaborating it via Immanuel Kant’s well known phenomenon/noumenon split, where the noumenon, the thing-in-itself, will forever remain inaccessible, whereas the phenomenon, how the thing appears to us, is what we get, inasmuch as we get, hence the point about focusing on what we can do, to find the conditions of their apparition or production, if we use the verb produce in a broader sense indicated by Baudrillard (37) for rendering visible, which is exactly what Klee (28) is after. Now, I side with Deleuze (vii) on this, not Kant, the difference being that Kant retains that there is “an abstract that is realized in the concrete”, even if the abstract cannot ever be reached, whereas, for Deleuze, “the abstract does not explain, but itself be explained”. Simply put, you always start bottom-up, not top-down. When you start from top-down, you’ve actual skipped the bottom-up bit where you, or someone else’s thought you subscribe to, for example Kant, came up with that top-down logic that then gets applied. So, as further elaborated by Deleuze (vii):

“Empiricism starts with … analysing the states of things, in such a way that non-pre-existent concepts can be extracted from them. States of things are neither unities nor totalities, but multiplicities.”

Moreover, as he (vii) goes on to add:

“It is not just that there are several states of things (each one of which would be yet another); nor that each state of things is itself multiple (which would simply be to indicate its resistance to unification.).”

So, in other words, not a unity or a totality, nor multiple, but, as he (vii) points out, multiplicities“, which designates a set of lines or dimensions which are irreducible to one another”, so that they do not simply collapse to one or many. I think it’s worth emphasizing that this makes much more sense if you remember that Deleuze (vii) argues that you extract the concepts from the multiplicities. So, yeah, as the concepts are extracted from them, you can’t piece the concepts together or stack them up, if you will, to make sense of things truly are, as a totality, you know, like a jigsaw puzzle. Now, this is not to say that we don’t end up with such, that we don’t have to deal with such, as he (vii-viii) goes on to add:

“Of course a multiplicity includes focuses of unification, centres of totalization, points of subjectivation, but as factors which can prevent its growth and stop its lines.”

How does it work then? He (viii) explains:

“In a multiplicity what counts are not the terms or the elements, but what there is ‘between’, the between, a set of relations, which are not separable from each other.”

In other words, the focus is not on things, as such, as if they were a real version of an idea, but how these things come together, how they are assembled, inasmuch as they are, in relation to one another. So, he (viii) adds that:

“Every multiplicity grows from the middle, like the blade of grass or the rhizome.”

This is where you get the famous rhizome much discussed in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. To make more sense of this, in reference to how I just referred to thought, how someone thinks, he (viii) states that:

“We constantly oppose the rhizome to the tree, like two conceptions and even two very different ways of thinking.”

And, with regards to lines, because he mentioned them already, he (viii) explains:

“A line does not go from one point to another, but passes between the points, ceaselessly bifurcating and diverging, like of [Jackson] Pollock’s lines.”

If you fail to grasp what he means by that, look up Jackson Pollock and lines. You’ll see. I understood it immediately, just intuitively. When it comes to the extracted concepts then, what we get in this rhizomatic way of thinking are “true becomings” which have no history, individuation or subject, like “a river, a climate, an event, a day, an hour of the day”, as he (viii) goes on to elaborate. This is not to say that we don’t deal with arborescent concepts. We do, all the time, because arborescence is the dominant way of thinking. For example, when we resort to explaining the existing states of affairs with concepts like self, individual, society, culture, nature and ideology, to name a few, we are dealing with concepts central to the arborescent way of thinking. He (viii-ix) uses the example of how Sigmund Freud dealt with multiplicities when dealing with a psychopath, like how that person “experiences and thinks multiplicities”, as in how “the skin is a collection of pores, the slipper, a field of stitches, the bone is extracted from ossuary” etc., yet Freud ends up falling back on some “neurotic unconscious which plays with eternal abstractions”, a lost or splintered totality that one seeking to return to or fix back together. This is the same thing as with the jigsaw puzzle example, if you didn’t notice.

Anyway, the point Deleuze is making is that rhizomes are everywhere, like it or not, growing, expanding, even though people are keen to point otherwise, because their way of thinking is that of arborescence. If you take this on a personal level, what matters is not you, yes, you, or me, for that matter, or anyone else, specifically, but rather what comes out of that when people, like you, me, Baudrillard, DeLyser, Deleuze, Derrida, Dreyfus, Goss, Guattari, Foucault, Kant, Klee, Pollock, Rabinow, Rose, anyone involved really, come together, as Deleuze (ix) points out:

“What mattered was not the points – Felix, Claire Parnet, me, many others, who functioned simply as temporary, transitory and evanescent points of subjectivation – but the collection of bifurcating, divergent and muddled lines which constituted this book as a multiplicity and which passed between the points, carrying them along without ever going from the one to the other.”

Out of interest to people who like a good conversation, like for sure do, he (ix-x) adds that:

“Hence, the first plan for a conversation between to people, in which one asked questions and the other replied, no longer had any value. The divisions had to rest on the growing dimensions of the multiplicity, according to becomings which were unattributable to individuals, since they could not be immersed in it without changing qualitatively.”

In other words, it works a bit like just … jamming or riffing, if that makes any sense, shooting some shit and seeing where that takes you, if you will, not really bothered by having to stay on script, like in a fixed question/answer format. Anyway, he (x) continues:

“As we became less sure what came from one, what came from the other, or even from someone else, we would become clearer about ‘What is it to write?’”

This may seem highly counter-intuitive, at first, but, in terms of the rhizomatic way of thinking, this makes plenty of sense. To be candid, I’ve started to experiment with this, asking someone to engage with me in a long conversation where there is no requirement to stick to a plan, to predefined set of questions that I wish the other person to answer to, and I think it has worked marvelously. I’ve tried to make it so that the person I’m dealing does not even have to adhere to preset topics. Sure, we start of somewhere, agree on some topics that we might discuss, but, strictly speaking, there are no rules to it. Feel like talking, okay, let’s talk. Feeling like going on a tangent, go for it! You can even ask questions from me! Anyway, this will then be edited and published,, turned into writing, in agreement with the other person in question, so that the other person is fine with it. I reckon it’s more about the person I’m dealing with, yet, then again, it’s a co-production because I cannot not be involved. It’s provides a way superior experience than the question/answer format, to all parties involved, including the reader. I’ve only experimented this on one person at a time, but I reckon that it could work with more interlocutors. Why wouldn’t it? Oh, and yes, these are published, out there, you just have to find them, and, hint hint, be able to read Finnish. I guess I could translate them into English, but so far, I haven’t. It’s actually been sort of a challenge for myself, to do more writing in Finnish, because I’m so accustomed to writing in English, to the point that I’m sure that I’m a better writing in English than I am in Finnish.

Right, so, if I’m all for this rhizomatic thinking, this alternative way of thinking, and what comes with it, why do I keep using concepts central to arborescence, the dominant way of thinking? Well, most people subscribe to arborescence, to the point that they are not aware that it is possible to think otherwise. I can’t just force them from. That’s counterproductive. It would just result in more arborescence. To make people understand what I’m after, or, well, what Deleuze and Guattari are after, requires people to not only see that it is possible to think otherwise and that it is a vastly superior way of thinking, but also that the dominant way of thinking comes with plenty of problems that result from it. I think it’s my job to explain all this, especially the problems that come with it, like being a slave to your own reasoning, and to exemplify it as best as I can, otherwise I risk coming across as just hippy-dippy or something. So, in summary, I also need to criticize the dominant way of thinking in order to make a case for an alternative way of thinking.

Okay, to repeat myself, I’m actually not that interested in what people do. Instead, I’m interested in what makes people do the things they do. It’s not in search of what actually happened, not only because that’s usually a tough thing to figure out but also because being in the middle of things, as we are, it’s more like figuring out what could have happened for things to be the way they are, as if you simply can’t remember. Who has perfect recollection anyway? So, in short, this is about practice, not what someone thinks about this and/or that, but rather how it is that they may have come to think this and/or that. Now, of course, you do end up having to cover the first part, but the point is to focus on the latter. I mean it’s kinda hard to not even mention the states of affairs, the way things happen to be, if you wish to explore how we might have ended up that way. I don’t think it’s even possible and even if it is, it seems like a rather futile task to attempt such, just for the sake of it.

Where was I with DeLyser? So, yeah, DeLyser (887) states that the point is to look at both meaning and practice. I reckon her focus is a bit different from mine but I can respect that. To each their own.

Right, to get somewhere with this, DeLyser (887-888) moves on to elaborate on the novel written by Helen Hunt Jackson. The gist of this is that the fictional story sought to address issues of her time, namely the poor treatment of what in the story are referred to the California Mission Indians. My knowledge of these people or, rather, peoples is next to non-existent, but, apparently, the moniker comes from locals who were forcible relocated to work on the properties of so called Franciscan missions by the Spanish. However, the story ended up being read as evoking “a romanticized past for the region”, a rancho dream, by the English speaking settlers, as she (888) points out. She (888) notes how supposedly accurately the novel depicted various actual places, which led people to treat a piece of fiction as a fact. According to DeLyser (887-888) this eventually became big business, including all kinds of things that came to further legitimize the story, such as postcards depicting where the protagonist of the story, Ramona, “the half-Indian half-Scottish adopted daughter of a wealthy Hispanic rancho family,” had supposedly been in the area. It would be difficult to list them all, so just imagine all the stuff you find in a gift shop. What you get is a whole host of tourist attractions based on someone’s imagination, as she (888) points out. Contemporarily this is known as marketing, selling you a better version of whatever it is that is at stake. Anything goes really, as long as it sells. She (889) provides numerous examples, too many to list here, but the point is that pretty much anyone who could make a buck from this went for it.

Now, this is, of course, only one side of the story, how marketing works. What about the people themselves, those who come to visit these sites of fantasized heritage? Well, DeLyser (890) suggests that we ask the people themselves. Before doing that, however, she (891) ventures to further elaborate how a piece of fiction intended to shine light on the plight of a minority ended up as mere quaint reading for those who sought to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and industrialization, providing dreams of presence in a changing world, a nostalgia for the present that was about to change, as Fredric Jameson might put it. In her (891) words, it “transformed [the] potentially emancipatory cry to aid the Mission Indians into a nostalgic glance back at the Californio and Indian cultural that had once been”, rendering all the “potentially disruptive political differences into quaint cultural differences” with its “picturesque descriptions and curious dialects”. What happened was that the tension only shifted. The old Spanish, Californio, way of life, was threatened by the arrival of Anglophone settlers, so it became valorized, despite itself being a settler culture, or so to speak. In other words, the present, what will soon be the past, became exoticized and romanticized in glorious made-up detail, ready to be easily consumed by the intended audience, the white English speakers, as she (893) points out. Now, it’s worth noting that, as acknowledged by her (893), the author didn’t intend any of this, it just, sort of happened and the text started to live a life of its own, as texts tend to do, as I’ve discussed in my past essays.

DeLyser (894-897) exemplifies this appetite for the Californio by noting how a local ranch or, rather, rancho, became the focal point in this mythical past that never even was. The owners of the ranch had mixed feelings about this, considering that, on one hand, it was a business opportunity, handy for branding, yet, on the other hand, it led to an ever growing number of visitors, what we might call tourists, making pilgrimages to the place, to the point that it was unsustainable for keeping the place running as intended, as a ranch. The fact that the place was kept the way it just was, as a ranch, and thus devoid of commercialism, lacking a gift shop, guided tours and what not, only reinforced the notion of this place as genuine, as the home of Ramona, which is only ironic, considering that the person never even existed, except on paper. It got so bad that the family eventually decided to sell the property. Apparently some visitor were so captivated by the story that they just had to have a part of the ranch, that is to say steal something from the premises, like pillaging relics.

She (897) lists other places like a small town nearby which became thought of as the place where the main character of the story got married. In these cases, unlike with the ranch, the places became tourist traps, selling just about anything to the visitors who were attracted to the place by the story, including “teaspoons … toothpick holders, letter-openers, ash trays, coin banks, plates, salt-and-pepper shakers, napkin rings, pocket notebooks, tape measures, miniature vases, pennants, silver matchbox covers … ornately painted ostrich eggs … rosary case[s] … holy water font[s] [and] crucifix[es]”, as she points out (898-899). It’s worth adding that people not only left with souvenirs, but also left their marks in the place, leaving cards and inscribing their names pretty much wherever they could, as she (889) points out, you know like when encounter a graffiti or an inscription that’s there just to point out that ‘I was here’.

There is a particularly interesting bit where DeLyser (898) mentions that a real-estate entrepreneur wanted to restore a building linked to the story. Now, I find this a particularly interesting example because, strictly speaking, how does one restore a place to a state that never even was? This reminds me of how David Lowenthal (108) points out in ‘‘Age and Artifact: Dilemmas of Appreciation’, as published in 1979 in ‘The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays’ (edited by Donald Meinig), that it’s impossible for random people to assess whether something is old, decayed, or whether it has been crafted to look like it is the case. Anyway, I find this interesting because this exemplifies the central issue of her article so well. What’s genuine, authentic or original anyway? As she (898) points out, it gets even more bizarre when people start to protest to the commercialism linked to the phenomenon, as if the making money out of it was ruining a genuine experience of … a piece of fiction?

Oh, and if you think that what’s been covered so far is a bit strange, it’s going to get even stranger. DeLyser (900) notes that there’s been various developments in the area, one place closing down, a new another taking its place and, particularly interestingly, people debating and competing over the right to call this or that building, for example, the ‘Home of Ramona’. The point is that it got rather confusing for just about everyone involved, which is, I guess, only apt, consider how confusing the whole thing was from the start.

DeLyser (901) reminds the reader not to think of this, all this, as a mere ploy to make money. As she (901) points out, the novel sought to do one thing, to make “a positive difference in the lives of Native Americans, yet it resulted in romanticizing the old Spanish ways of living, the Californio rancho being its centerpiece. Regardless of its popularity among the anglophones, it was not written for the purpose of creating an industry around it, like creating a franchise with merchandise and royalty payments. Of course, that doesn’t mean that things didn’t end up going that way, eventually, against the intentions of the author. That’s the thing with texts or, well, any pieces of art, regardless of the mode of expression, as I pointed out earlier on already. They end up having a life of their own, torn from the author who is, in fact, at best, a mere phantom to others, a figment of our imagination. Anyway, the point here is that, as she (901) points out, it was the people themselves who came to give life to the story, making it real, by visiting these sites. They made this all happen, not the author. That said, others did swoop in, to quite literally set up shop, to capitalize on their enthusiasm.

DeLyser (902) also reminds the reader that what she’s covering in her article is not unique, as such. This phenomenon where tourists come to see settings of fiction, as if something which didn’t happen had happened, is by no means a new thing, nor uncommon. She provides a lot of examples, which I’m sure you can check out yourself. More contemporarily, the old town of Dubrovnik in Croatia is a good example of this, having functioned as one of the central settings for the TV adaptation of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ by George R. R. Martin, otherwise known as ‘Game of Thrones’. It’s pretty bizarre, to want to be in the place where something didn’t take place, yet people find it meaningful, as he (902) points out.

Now, to be clear, for me, this, all these observations about how fiction bleeds into reality, becoming real, or hyperreal, to use Baudrillard’s term for it, is not, in itself, a bad thing. So, as explained by DeLyser (902), the purpose here is not to point out the obvious, that is to say that people are embracing a false past (even though that’s what they are doing), in hopes of dispelling such fantasies in order to access reality, the true and unadulterated reality. I reckon that’s impossible as the way we see the world is always a construction of it, as discussed in my previous essay. Now, as she (902) also points out, this does not mean that just because we can’t access the real, reality in itself, that we should go with the flow either, to just take things for granted. It’s exactly what we shouldn’t be doing, as I keep saying in my own work, and as stated by her (902-903) in this article. The key is to understand how this works, how things come to seem to be the way they seem to us, at any given moment, hence my long tangent on the issue in this essay.

It would also be all too easy, frankly too lazy, to make fun of people for believing in a story, clearly made up. I mean sure, what DeLyser is discussing in this article is certainly a piece of fiction, a novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, that came to influence people’s understanding of the world, quite literally setting the parameters for how they see that area. Then again, when you think of it, and I think you should think of it, it’s not at all clear that we aren’t constantly being shaped by such fantasies that we just happen to take for granted, to be real, to be factual, not fictional. What is it that makes a landscape Finnish? Is it simply what we see or is it the way we see it? I reckon it is the latter and that’s where things get interesting. Why is it that that’s the case? Now, I don’t suggest you attempt to figure out what happened for that to be the case, but rather, as suggested by Deleuze and Guattari (193), “[w]hatever could have happened for things to have come to this?” Think of it as as being in the middle of things, suddenly realizing that you’ve forgot how that came to be. It’s like how while I was skating I noticed that there was blood on one of my fingers. I had a closer look. There was a very small cut. I didn’t know where it came from. It was, as if, I had forgotten about it. Surely I had managed to cut myself, somehow, but I couldn’t remember it. All I could think of was that it might have been the case that I grazed the top of my finger, just above the nail, when I was tightening the laces of my skates. Did that happen? I can never know because I just can’t remember. That said, I could figure out conditions for its apparition, whatever could have happened for my finger to be bloody like that.

Triangles and Blind Spots

This bit is from a work in progress (although, isn’t everything work in progress?), from a manuscript that’s in review. For that article I wanted to be very illustrative about landscape and how it works because, for some reason, people don’t often get what the deal with landscape is, despite all the work that’s out there that covers the central concept. So, I opted to explain certain central issues by using triangles. To be fair, using triangles is not my idea. I took that idea from Jacques Lacan who discusses how the human eye and gaze works.

So, in short, in this essay I’ll be looking at ‘Of the Gaze Objet Petit a’, as contained in one of Lacan’s complications, ‘Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis’ (1977 translation by Alan Sheridan). The edition I’m looking at is the 1981 edition, so the pagination should match that. To be clear, it’s also worth noting that part of this is based on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, namely his final (unfinished) work, ‘The Visible and the Invisible’ (1968 translation by Alphonso Lingis), that was published posthumously (hence technically unfinished), as he Lacan (71) clearly points out.

Right, as one might guess, this text has to do with reality or, rather, our conception of it. Lacan (71-72) indicates that Merleau-Ponty was on to something with his last book, going beyond the confines of phenomenology. Importantly, Lacan (72) noes that, for Merleau-Ponty, there is something very peculiar about the faculty of vision:

“[T]he ways through which he will lead you are not only of the order of visual phenomenology, since they set out to rediscover – this is the essential point – the dependence of the visible on that which places us under the eye of the seer.”

He (72) adds that:

“[The] eye is only the metaphor of something that I would prefer to call the seer’s ‘shoot’ (pousse) – something prior to his eye.”

In other words, this leads us from the eye to the gaze, as suggested by the subsection title ‘The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze’. So, what’s so special about gaze? Well, according to Lacan (72), the way gaze works entails that to see also means that the one who sees must thus also be seen. This undermines the autonomy of the individual, which is exactly why I opted to explain landscape this way in the manuscript. Anyway, he (74) notes that people are in the habit of conflating the two, the eye and the gaze, which makes them oblivious to how gaze works. He (74) adds that this is not to be confused with “seeing oneself seeing oneself”, which some might think to be the case when one sees oneself in the mirror. You fool yourself if you think that this is it. As he (74) points out, such “represents mere sleigh of hand.” The mirror is tempting in this regard because it seems like you get it, but you don’t. What you get is not you being looked at but just you looking, yet you are tempted to think otherwise. In his (75) words, gaze “makes us beings who are looked at, but without showing this[.]” Following Merleau-Ponty, he (74-75) calls this phantasy the specular image, the spectacle of the world, the speculum mundi. So, in a way, the way we see, in general, is like looking at a mirror, looking at ourselves, but taking what we see to be reality itself.

The mirror is impressive in this regard because it relies on mimicry. He (73-74) explains this split between seeing and being seen by what are known as ocelli, mimetic manifestations commonly know as false eyes that can be found, for example, on butterfly wings. Their function is to make the predated, in this case the butterfly, appear as if it was a predator, to its predators. But, as he (73-74) goes on to problematize, is it a matter of looking at (eyes) or is it a matter of looking at looking (gaze)? Does your mirror image look at you (gaze) or is it just you looking at you through a reflective surface (eye)? We like to think that we look at looking (in the mirror), but that’s just us seeing things, or so to speak. This is exactly the problem. It’s not that we aren’t seen by others (gaze), when in fact we are, from all possible angles, at all times, being visible, if not actually, then at least potentially, but that we are in the habit of ignoring this (gaze), thus giving primacy to the observer (eye).

In short, what Lacan (80) wants to point out with this questioning of whether one see oneself seeing oneself or not is what the Cartesian Cogito does with regard to thought. Is it possible to think of oneself thinking oneself or is one just thinking? As indicated by him (80), this is how the subject appears to apprehend his- or herself in thought. He (80) ponders this:

“How is it, then, that the I see myself seeing myself remains its envelope and base, and, perhaps more than one thinks, grounds its certainty?”

Only to add that (80):

“For, I warm myself by warming myself is a reference to the body as body – I feel that sensationof warmth which, from some point inside me, is diffused and locates me as body.”

And to compare the two faculties, the vision and touch (80):

“Whereas in the I see myself seeing myself, there is no such sensation of being absorbed by vision.”

There is this disjoint, this discomfort with this when one points this out, as he (80-81) goes on to add; what one sees is the outside, as if everything happens external to oneself, yet one apprehends the world as if one is capable of seeing oneself, like in the mirror example. Now, as I pointed out, strictly speaking, it’s a ruse. What one sees is a reflection of oneself, not oneself seeing oneself. Simply put, one never sees oneself. That said, it is a cunning ruse alright. Thought can be treated with suspicion, with doubt, as ideal, and thus not real, but vision, surely we can trust the eye. He (81) summarizes how this works:

“The privilege of the subject seems to be established here[.]”

It is at this stage that (81):

“[It emerges] from that bipolar reflexive relation by which, as soon as I perceive, my representations belong to me.”

He (81) emphasizes that one should make note of how these representations come to belong to the subjects, as soon as one perceives. I would also emphasize the bit about it being reflexive. What appears to a person is thus mere suspicious representations, as he (81) refers to them, but because they point back at the person, the person realizes that they are his or her property, that is to say in his or her ownership. The subject appears central, as if the world out there was tied to the subject and, certainly, not the other way around. He (81) argues that Descartes takes this to max, as does Martin Heidegger, thus annihilating everything, including the subject, which, oddly enough, makes the subject central to everything, making one appear, as if, self-evident to oneself.

Now, if you are familiar with phenomenology, you’ll know that Merleau-Ponty built on Heidegger (as well as Edmund Husserl), so one might expect him to end up like Heidegger, giving primacy to the subject. However, Lacan (81) reckons that’s not the case, at least not in his final (unfinished) work. In his (81) words, Merleau-Ponty is after something else:

“[I]t is at this point that he chooses to withdraw, in order to propose a return to the sources of intuition concerning the visible and the invisible, to come back to that which is prior to all reflection, thetic or non-thetic, in order to locate the emergence of vision.”

He (81-82) adds that, for Merleau-Ponty, this is a matter of reconstruction or restoration of “the original point of vision was able to emerge” from “the flesh of the world” rather than the body of the subject. So, instead of turning to the inside, one must focus on the outside. One mustn’t start from the subject, to state that all that’s out there is ours, our representations, because that leads to an error, giving primacy to the subject (because the subject is, itself, presupposed by the subject). Instead, one must ask what gives rise to the subject. In Lacan’s (82) formulation, what is the “unnamed substance from which I, the seer, extract myself”, what is the “iridescence of which I am at first a part” and “emerge as eye, assuming, in a way, emergence from what I would like to call the function of seeingness (voyure)”?

Because the Merleau-Ponty’s work in question was indeed an unfinished manuscript, certain things are left open, remaining rather enigmatic to the reader, which Lacan (82) points out at this stage (in particular, as he does mention it elsewhere as well). He (82) likens the illusion seeing oneself seeing oneself to the way Merleau-Ponty (263) exemplifies “double ‘representation’” with a finger of a glove that is turned inside out because this chiasm or reversibility “finds it basis in the inside-out structure of the gaze.”

Lacan (82-83) turns his attention to defining gaze. In short, a person ends up giving primacy to him- or herself as a subject because of how we typically deal with subjects and objects. In summary, Lacan (83) argues that the subject emerges from this relation with what’s supposedly out there through gaze. He (83) calls this a scopic relation in which the gaze is the underside of consciousness. He (84) notes that he doesn’t agree with Jean-Paul Sartre’s take on the gaze because, for him, gaze is not a subject-subject relation (one seeing another) but rather a subject-object relation (one seeing another or imagining another, like with the mirror or the butterfly wings). Anyway, be as it may, I like how he (84) explains the effect of the gaze in relation to Sartre:

“As the locus of the relation between me, the annihilating subject, and that which surrounds me, the gaze seems to possess such a privilege that it goes so far as to have me scotomized, I who look, the eye of him who sees me as object.”

The word scotomized is crucial here. In simple terms, scotoma is a fancy word for a blind spot, so here scotomization is about being rendered blind, to a certain degree, not merely to the world, what’s out there but, more importantly, also to oneself. Following this point about gaze being a way of seeing, involving a central blind spot, he (84-85) argues that because gaze operates as a function of desire, in the sense that is sustains the primacy of the subject. In other words, the way I understand him (84-84) explaining this, gaze is desirable, that is to say that one gazes because one desires to gaze. It’s something one wants to engage in. In short, as he (85) points out, desire and the domain of vision are intertwined.

Lacan (85) refers back to the Cartesian meditation that results in giving primacy to the subject, noting that Descartes was not only known for this, but also for optics and geometry (like, to my knowledge, many others were at the time). He (85-86) exemplifies the importance of perspective and projection with Hans Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’, a painting that contains a skull (a memento mori, hinting towards mortality) in the foreground. The thing with the painting is that if you look at as generally does, placed in front of the painting, you see the painting with a squished blip at the bottom (I actually initially wondered if it was something that someone added in reproduction when I looked up the painting online). However, if you move to the side and take another look at the painting, the squished blip is rendered correctly. It now appears to be a skull, while the rest of the painting squished into obscurity. This is what is known as anamorphosis, as he (85) points out.

Having established that one’s point of view matters, Lacan (86) argues that “[v]ision is ordered according to a mode that may generally be called the function of images”, “virtual or real”, which, in turn, is defined as “a point-by-point correspondence of two unities in space.” He (86) adds that an image is defined as anything “in which the straight line plays its role of being the path of light.” So, in summary, to understand an image, we need to understand geometric points and how they are used to depict something on a surface, as he (86) rephrases this.

Now, if you’ve read my previous essays or something like Denis Cosgrove’s 1985 article ‘Prospect, perspective and the evolution of the landscape idea’ that appeared in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, much of what I will add here is bound to be familiar to you. Anyway, as aptly expressed by Lacan (86), “[a]rt is mingled with science here.” He (86) reminds us that people like Leonardo da Vinci, Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola and Leon Battista Alberti were not only artists but also scientists. They were polymaths, people who knew all kinds of things. They were not limited to this or that discipline. In other words, they were happily all over the place with what they were doing. Linking this to Descartes, he (86) notes that the Cartesian subject “is itself a sort of geometral point, a point of perspective[.]” Of course, it’s worth noting that Descartes was not their contemporary but rather built on what they had already established. With Descartes it’s rather that the subject becomes central.

Anyway, so, the point he (86-87) is making is that between the subject, for example the artist, and the object, whatever the artists wishes to depict, there is this mediator, “a canvas, a treliss that will be traversed by straight lines … which will link each point that I have to see in the world to a point at which the canvas will, by this line, be traversed.” He (87) adds that if this move is reversed, if the lines are traced back to the world, whatever it the artist wished to depict in the first place, through the mediator, it will result in a distortion.

Turning his attention to the mediation, Lacan (91) illustrates how this works by presenting two triangles situated on different sides of the page, both pointing at the center. The center points are the geometral point (subject) and the point of light, whereas the opposing end is the object or the picture. In the middle, you have the image, the screen. I’ll deviate a bit from his illustrations here, but, simply put, the idea is that this can be illustrated with a simple triangle.

Of course, as emphasized by him (93), the doubling of the triangles has to do with the double function, the inside-out structure of the gaze. What’s in the middle then (picture, screen) is exactly what he (89) calls “a trap for the gaze. As emphasized by him (89):

“In any picture, it is precisely in seeking the gaze in each of its points that you will see it disappear.”

So, as already mentioned a couple of times, once one backtracks the gaze through the mediator, the gaze disappears, thus annihilating the subject, replacing it with something like a universal subject, as argued by him (88) in reference to how the Cartesian Cogito works. He (93-94) makes note of how paradoxical this is, indicating how, on one hand, there is this tradition of suspicion of perception, as opposed to thinking, yet, on the other hand, this primacy of thought ends up giving legitimacy to perception. In his (94) words:

“The whole trick, the hey presto!, of the classic dialectic around perception, derives from the fact that it deals with geometral vision, that is to say, with vision in so far as it is situated in a space that is not in its essence the visual.”

So, in other words, because space is thought to be a mere matter of geometry, that one is in space, located in it, in relation to everything else that’s in it, vision simply gives us that, what we (supposedly) already know. He (94) further specifies how this pertains not only to geometral lines but also to how light works, not in a straight line but as irradiating, flooding, filling, diffusing, refracting, hence his earlier remarks about the point of light. This leads to his (94-95) second schema of triangles, that I have depicted here in a slightly simplified way:

What’s important here, according to him (95), is that once the two triangles are superimposed, place one upon the other, you get interlacing or intersecting, a chiasma, the double function that was mentioned a bit earlier. You’ll find him (106) presenting the triangles later on, following his anecdotal story about his youthful adventure at sea with fishermen, culminating with pondering about a can sardines that, highly ironically, was spotted floating in the water, glistening in the sun. The gist of his (95) story is that one of the crew members pointed at the can, noting that Lacan can see the can but the can cannot see him, of which Lacan thought otherwise. This harks back to his earlier point about gaze being not a matter of being seen (by someone else), but being visible, there being the potential of being looked at, like in the butterfly example. It’s also worth reiterating that he isn’t talking about seeing (vision) but about gaze. He (95) acknowledges that the fisherman was indeed right that the can did not see him, but points out that, nonetheless, the can was looking at him. In his (95) words:

“It was looking at me at the level of the point of light, the point at which everything that looks at me is situated.”

He (96) moves on to further elaborate this in relation to how one senses light:

“That which is light looks at me, and by means of that light in the depths of my eye, something is painted – something that is not simply a constructed relation, the object on which the philosopher lingers – but something that is an impression, the shimmering of a surface that is not, in advance, situated for me in its distance.”

The key word here is, I believe, impression, that thing that we like to think as being painted on a surface. So, instead of us seeing what’s just out there, waiting for us to see, is, in fact, an impression. That’s our own making. Then again, what makes us? That’s what’s at stake here. The world makes us see it. In his (96) words:

“It is rather it that grasps me, solicits me at every moment, and makes of the [world] something other than [the world], something other than what I have called the picture.”

Here I replaced the word landscape with world, because, for me, landscape has a rather specific conceptual function. This goes back to his (91) earlier point about how the end of the triangle is what he calls the object or the point of light, situated in the distance from the geometral point or the point of light. What he (96) is talking about is at what’s in the middle once you superimpose the two triangles, the image or the screen, which he’ll (106) go on to dub as the image-screen.

I’m skipping Lacan’s elaborate (albeit interesting) discussion of mimicry and jumping ahead a bit, to a point in which he (100) ponders “[w]hat is painting?” Using the terms subject and picture, as discussed earlier on in relation to the opposite sides of the triangle, he (100-101) notes that some consider painting as operating like a subject, like a gaze, in which “the artist intends to impose him[- or herself] on us” whereas others tend to consider it a mere object. Again, this goes back to the point made a couple of times already, how, on one hand, when one looks at a painting, it’s one looking at a painting, yet, on the other hand, it’s like the painting is looking at you, even though, how on earth does a painting look at anyone? How does it impose anything on anyone? Certainly the subject, the one looking at the painting must be the one who is in control of what’s going on! I mean, it’s just a canvas! You’d have to be insane to argue otherwise! Then again, oddly enough, there’s nothing insane about that! The feeling of the gaze is nonetheless there, even in the absence of people (other subjects). In his (101) words:

“Looking at pictures, even those most lacking in what is usually called the gaze, and which is constituted by a pair of eyes, pictures in which any representation of the human figure is absent, like a landscape by a Dutch or a Flemish painter, you will see in the end, as in filigree, something so specific to each of the painters that you will feel the presence of the gaze.”

In short, even when there’s nothing that is looking at you, or, rather, that would appear to be looking at you, considering that you are, in fact, looking a canvas, a flat surface, you may get the feeling of being looked at. This is, of course, a mere illusion, as he (101) points out. The canvas stares at no one. He (101) argues that while important, as such, what we tend to get with a painting (not all paintings, mind you) in is, instead, an invitation to see, to look, rather than to engage in pondering about who is looking at who (observing or being observed), which eradicates the gaze in favor of the eye. So, in other words, a painting invites you to look at it, situating you in front of it, at a fixed point, giving you the sense that you are in control, observing the real deal. He (101) calls this the pacifying effect of paintings, in the sense that one lays down one’s gaze like “one lays down one’s weapons.” He (101) calls this the “Apollonian effect of painting”, which, of course necessitates that you know what Apollonian means. In short, to my understanding, here it is meant as something harmonious, orderly or rational, in opposition to what is called Dionysian, impulsive, disorderly and irrational, what Friedrich Nietzsche might call enjoying life. The point here is that paintings tend to promote the Apollonian side, thus promoting the primacy of the subject as an orderly autonomous rational thinker. Anyway, as he (102-104) goes on to point out, this is a ruse, a trompe-l’œil, which functions to present the subject as other than he or she is. Later on, he (109) also calls this the taming of the gaze, dompte-regard.

Jumping ahead, to the next segment, Lacan (105-106) depicts the superimposed triangles that I’ve already covered. Here he (105-106) reiterates his earlier remarks, summarizing the superimposed triangles as functioning in a scopic regime. As already pointed out, once the triangles are superimposed, you get the image-screen in the middle, as indicated by him (106). Again, he (107) states that what’s important about this image-screen is how it “re-establishes things, in their status as real.” As a consequence of this, “in its relation to desire, reality appears only as marginal, as he (108) goes on to add. He (108) illustrates this with two concentric circles, the smaller being the image-screen, reality being what’s outside of it, hence being marginal. Simply put, what we think is reality is, in fact, not reality. What we see is a mere picture or a screen, a substitute reality, if you will. So, in a way, what we see is actually our blind spot. The same thing can be illustrated with the superimposed triangles:

Here I marked the marginal in grey, which makes the smaller triangles that meet in the middle stand out. The point here is that the original triangles are replaced by the smaller triangles that emerge once the image-screen is in place. So, what you see is, in fact, what makes you blind to reality while you think that you are seeing reality.

To get out of this trap set up by the mediator, Lacan (110) makes note of how Merleau-Ponty points to the work of Paul Cézanne (whom I’ve covered in the past as well), with “those little blues, those little browns, those little whites, those touches that fall like rain from the painter’s brush”, that sets out to rework our understanding what a painter does. The point he (110) is making is that we like to think that painters are (re)presenting reality to us, when, in fact, it is not the case, yet, the way we are invited to look at paintings set us up to do exactly that, to treat what they give us as the real deal, which upholds the primacy of the subject. This leads back to the earlier point about thinking of seeing as a mere triangle, the eye being there just to observe what’s just given, out there.

Lacan (110-112) moves on to ponder this, what does a painter do when he or she paints, in terms of creation or creativity. Is a painting to be valued on the basis of its verisimilitude or for what it invokes in the viewer? He (103, 111-112) exemplifies this with the story of Zeuxis and Parrhasios, two ancient Greek painters who competed to determined who is the greater artist. So, Zeuxis painted grapes that made birds approach the painting and peck at the grapes. Parrhasios countered this by painting a veil, which made Zeuxis ask Parrhasios to unveil the painting so that he can see what his fellow artist has painted. Lacan (103, 111) notes that the grapes painted by Zeuxis were not, apparently, great pictorial reproductions of grapes, so if we were to be able to assess the painting, we might mockingly point out that he didn’t do a great job at making what he painted look like grapes. Then again, he (112) adds that our assessment of grapes is not the same as that of birds. We like to assess what’s presented to us visually in terms of verisimilitude, whereas birds aren’t drawn to grapes by such assessments. Parrhasios painted something so deceptive, so illusory that it fools a human, because humans assess it in terms of realism, whether it appears to be the real deal or not, even though it should be obvious to us that what we are looking at is a mere painting.

Lacan (112) clarifies this issue by adding that what’s at stake is not really whether a “painting gives an illusory equivalence to the object,” but that it “pretends to be something other than what it is.” So, again, in simple terms, it should be obvious to us that a painting is just that, a painting, some paint on some surface, typically on a canvas, yet we come to think otherwise. This is what is what is meant by trompe-l’œil, mistaking the painting for something real, like a man climbing through a window. He (112) comments on this in Plato’s terms, noting that this is not about mere appearance (phenomenon), making what is painted to look like something, but rather what’s behind the appearance (noumenon). In Kantian terms, it’s not that a painting seems to present us an appearance of a thing, but the thing-in-itself. So, according to Lacan (112), it is this that “captures our attention and delights us.”

To wrap this up, what I like about this, Lacan’s ‘Of the Gaze Objet Petit a’, is that provides a lengthy discussion of gaze and how it is commonly misunderstood as merely a stare that emanates from the eye, something that people do, with emphasis on people here. I like how it explains how we like to think of ourselves as being in control, looking at the world, everything centered around the eye that registers what’s out there, like in the form of a cone, a pyramid or a triangle, yet this is a mere fantasy. Once we realize that this is a mere ruse, as one might come to realize when confronted with Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’, we get this unnerving sense of being watched, stared at, even if there is, technically, nothing that is actually watching us, staring at us, which is the case in the Holbein painting as it is just mere paint on a surface. This is what Lacan calls gaze, as opposed to the eye. I like the way he illustrates how misconceived this is with the superimposed triangles. There’s something that I just like about simple illustrations. I also like how he explains that the thing with paintings, and, I would argue, even more so with photos, is that we come to think of them as not only representing what the thing (phenomenon) that is (supposedly) depicted in visual appearance but as the thing-in-itself (noumenon), to use the Kantian terms.

Now, I didn’t cover the entire book, nor his other works, so this criticism may be misguided, but I would have like a bit more discussion as to why it is that the eye tends to reign supreme over the gaze, why it is that one comes to uphold oneself as the starting point for everything, i.e. upholding the primacy of the subject, even when one comes to encounter the gaze, to realize that there is something that’s before the subject, something that constitutes the subjects, and that what the eye provides to oneself is a mere projection, a subsidiary screen. There’s some discussion included, in relation to the Cartesian Cogito but this could have been fleshed out just a bit more. Also, following the text can be a bit tough at times, not because it’s not interesting reading, as it certainly is, but because one has to keep in mind what he means by the eye, the gaze, seeing, looking and the like, and assess whether he is using the words the way he uses them or in more general parlance, how people might use them conversationally. At least I was somewhat confused at times. So, yeah, it can be a bit tough to follow at times.

Is this something that I find useful in my own work? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it explains a very common misconception, almost effortlessly, but also no, in the sense that it doesn’t delve deep into the social aspects, what are the parameters of our projections as fed to us by others, something which Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari address in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (1987 translation by Brian Massumi) when they discuss faciality and landscapity. I also prefer how Deleuze and Guattari explain that gaze is a mere component in certain regimes of signs. It is, of course, a very important component, but a mere component nonetheless. It is of secondary value for them (171), a subsidiary product (which, of course, does play a role, once already produced):

“In the literature of the face, Sartre’s text on the look and Lacan’s on the mirror make the error of appealing to a form of subjectivity or humanity reflected in a phenomenological field or split in a structural field. The gaze is but secondary in relation to the gazeless eyes, to the black hole of faciality. The mirror is but secondary in relation to the white wall of faciality.”

I do have to object a bit here, to note that I think the way Lacan explains gaze in his book is actually fairly close to how Deleuze and Guattari address it. Then again, the emphasis is different and I find myself agreeing with the two more than I do with Lacan on this issue. As they (171) point out, there is still this appeal to some sort of subjectivity or universality that bothers me. I think somehow Lacan still ends up looping back to the subject, in some sort of universality that is implied by his definition that is, in part, rooted in the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (I think need to read his work more to comment on this better). As I pointed out, for Deleuze and Guattari, gaze is a product of certain regimes of signs and thus only historical, not universal. That said, it’s not that what’s covered here in this essay conflicts with their views, inasmuch the gaze is not held as primary but secondary. So, in summary, ‘Of the Gaze Objet Petit a’ is well worth the read if you are interested in landscape.

Heads Up!

Again, it’s a strange thing, how I landed on this, reading what Salvador Dalí has to say on something that bears relevance to what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have to say about the abstract machine of faciliaty-landscapity in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (1987 translation by Brian Massumi). I was listening to a podcast that I tend to listen every week, that is inasmuch as I remember to listen to it, and, somewhat randomly, there was this tangent about how Dalí came up with what he called paranoiac-critical method. It was explained as having to do with how one finds meaning in the depictions of this and/or that, yet the meaning isn’t given, nor stable. In other words, the point was that, for Dalí, meaning is never stable and one could be looking at the same thing, whatever it is, let’s say a painting, to keep this visual, and see something which another person might not see.

Anyway, intrigued by this obscure tangent on surrealism, I did some digging and ended up reading Dalí’s ‘Conquest of the Irrational’ (1935 translation by David Gascoyne). Apparently this issue is also covered in his other works, even before this, but this is what I was able to find, so I’ll focus on that. If you are interested, I recommended looking this up because this is not a long text. It’s only about seventeen pages of text, the rest of the pages containing reproductions of his paintings (that you may want to browse through after reading the text).

The text is interesting reading, albeit it’s, at times, a bit heavy to read because the style is … uhm … let’s say out of the ordinary. For example, he refers to himself in the third person, explicitly as Salvador Dalí, which comes across a bit weird in 2019. That said, I’m not particularly familiar with how people expressed themselves in the 1930s, so I can’t say if his style is erratic or just a sign of the times. It could also be the English translation that makes it a bit weird. At first I wondered if I was reading a preface, but it seems that that’s not the case. Be as it may, the style is certainly out of the ordinary, surreal, if you may. I mean if you think that reading Deleuze and Guattari is tough (which it is), you’ll be most certainly thinking what the hell am I reading when you go through this. The levels of panache are just through the roof in this one.

I expect some familiarity with landscape, so if you are not familiar with the concept, like at all, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the issue before attempting to make sense of this. Right, summarizing the first couple of pages (7-9), Dalí seems (I can’t be sure, not having read more on this, how he views things at around when this was written) to lament over the fact that art has turned into something “cold and unsubstantial”, that is to say made bland and generic, lacking in creativity and expressiveness, while the sciences have been particularized, made so specialized that they are burning hot in their specific takes into this and/or that, which, consequently has resulted in them lacking in any kind of general synthesis, except when they start to cannibalize one another. He (9-10) goes on to suggest that, perhaps, the surrealists, himself included, should be the ones cannibalized, being not exactly what one would typically call artists, nor scientists for that matter either, but rather something else, something in between, something very, very extravagant and intelligent, like the “caviar” of his time, and thus very fitting to be irrationally consumed for the taste of it. To be specific, he (10-11) states that:

“For, if caviar is the vital experience of the sturgeon, it is also that of the surrealists, for, like it, we are carniverous fish who, as I have already insinuated, are swimming between two kinds of water, the cold water of art and the warm water of science, and it is precisely in this temperature and swimming against the current that the experience of our life and of our fecundation attains that agitated profundity, that irrational and moral hyper-lucidity which is only produced in this climate of neronian osmosis brought about by the living and continual fusion of sole’s thickness and crowned heat, of the satisfaction of the sole’s circumcision and sheet-iron, of territorial ambivalence and agricultural patience, of acute collectionism and propped-up cap-peaks, of white’s letters on the billiard-table cushions and white letters on the old pirate bands, of all sorts of tepid and dermatological elements which preside over the notion of the ‘imponderable’, simulacrum-notion unanimously recognized as existing simply to serve as epithet to the unrestrainable taste for caviar, and also simulacrum-notion which already conceals the timid and gustatory germs of the concrete irrationality which, being only the apotheosis and paroxysm of this imponderable objective, brought about by the exactitude and the divisionist precision of the caviar of the imagination, will constitute in an exclusivist and moreover philosophic fashion the terribly demoralising and terribly complicated result of my experiences and discoveries in the pictorial domain.”

Aaaaaaaaahm, I mean, I’ve been told that I tend to be quite convoluted when I express something, but I reckon I’m nothing compared to this. I get it, but sheesh, you need a dictionary to get through this! It is pretty complex, unnecessarily so, which is, of course, only so, so fitting, considering how he (11) wraps this up in the next sentence:

“For one thing is certain: I hate simplicity in all its forms.”

To be productive and not just frothy 2.0 (or more like 8.0, to be honest), he turns his attention to what he (11) calls his pictorial struggle. He (11) elaborates on this struggle, noting that people don’t really understand how images work. That said, he (11-12) adds that it’s not particularly surprising that they don’t get it because he doesn’t get them either and he is a painter of images! The point is that he should know, yet he doesn’t, at least not any better than anyone else, really. Then again, he isn’t saying that there’s no meaning to images. In his (12) words:

“The fact that I myself, at the moment of painting, do not understand my own pictures, does not mean that these pictures have no meaning; on the contrary, their meaning is so profound, complex, coherent and involuntary that it escapes the most simple analysis of logical intuition.”

In other words, what he paints carries meaning, yet he nor no one else can put it into words. That always fails, no matter how one tries. In his (12) words:

“To describe my pictures in everyday language, to explain them, it is necessary to submit them to special analyses and preferably with the most ambitiously objective scientific rigour possible. Then all explanation arises a posteriori, once the picture already exists as phenomenon.”

Simply put, we find ourselves out of words when we attempt that, never quite doing justice to the art, yet that’s exactly what is after, as he (12) goes on to add:

“My whole ambition in the pictorial domain is to materialise the images of concrete irrationality with the most imperialist fury of precision.”

Remember how he likens his project to caviar, being in between arts and science, pushing out something that looks like art, but for the sake of science, if you will. I know! I know! Crazy! But you just have to like it or, alternatively, read something else which is more suited for your intelligence. I mean, caviar is not for everyone, as he might explain it. So, in a nutshell, as he (12) adds, what’s important is that:

“The important thing is what one wishes to communicate: the concrete irrational subject.”

Now, that may seem a bit odd but that’s exactly what he is after, being very precise about our irrationality. He (12) continues:

“The means of pictorial expression are place at the service of this subject. – The illusionism of the most abjectly arriviste and irresistible imitative art, the usual paralysing tricks of trompe-l’œil, the most analytically narrative and discredited academicism, can all become sublime hierarchies of thought and the means of approach to new exactitudes of concrete irrationality.”

Now, if you’ve done your background reading on landscape, as suggested, there’s actually little that should rattle you. I mean, landscape art, be it in the form of a painting (typically oil painting) or, more comtemporarily, in the form of rectilinear wide angle photos of the great outdoors, the pretension to mimesis is very apparent. The point is that it’s very alluring, yet illusory. We take something 2D to be 3D. Now, for Dalí, this just doesn’t cut it. That’s because it has this need to conform to what appears to be the reality. It’s all very superficial. What he (13) wants to do is to point out this superficiality by taking the irrational, what’s supposedly not real, and render it in ‘realistically’ like done by realist painters and photographers.

Importantly, Dalí (13-14) insists on not treating these “unknown images” that the surrealist seeks to create as something merely to be put into words, like dreams that need to be deciphered, because that renders them into something that they are not. In his words, he (14) wants to retain their “virtual and chimeric character”. That said, he (13-14) acknowledges that this is pretty much impossible because once expressed, they end up interpreted (explained in words), and actualized (made tangible, in some shape or form). Therefore this results in what he (14) calls “concrete irrationality”, something that is both virtual and actual, beyond representation, yet, I reckon, playing on the central notion of what is (re)presentation. So, as he (14-15) goes on to point out, there’s actually no need to lament over this, inasmuch one gets something out of it. Sure, there is the tendency to treats images as mere representations, matching what’s out there, which, supposedly tells us something about the world and ourselves. However, if this move is put to the service of expressing what he (15) refers to as the “unknown world of our irrational experiences”, we are no longer dealing with representing what’s out there, as if waiting to represented pictorially, but with something that can be made real out of the virtual. So, in summary, thus far, as we are dealing with visual art, it’s worth emphasizing that he is not attempting to explain the works of visual art (to put them into words, as afterthoughts) but letting them speak for themselves through the visual medium.

Dalí (15) turns his attention to what is known as “[p]aranoia: delirium of interpretive association bearing a systematic structure.” Turning this into activity, what he calls paranoiac-critical activity, he (15) states that people engage in a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge” which is “based upon the interpretive association of delirious phenomena.” Now that’s a load of fancy terms that needs to be explained. What he (15) means is that the way we come to see the world (or sense it, to avoid ocularcentrism) is not voluntarily directed, that is to say intentional. Instead, it all happens under the hood, or so to speak. In his (15-16) words:

“[F]or, as we know, in paranoia the active and systematic structure is consubstantial with the delirious phenomenon itself; – all delirious phenomena of paranoiac character, even when sudden and instantaneous, bears already ‘in entirety’ the systematic structure and only becomes objective a posteriori by critical intervention.”

In other words, the way we see the world is not the same as the way we think we see the world as the latter process takes place after we’ve already seen the world. Yes, it’s active and structured, but only in the sense that it occurs prior to our conscious engagement with it. From the moment we think it, it is thus passive. He (16) further elaborates this:

“Critical activity intervene solely as liquid revealer of images, associations and systematic coherences and finesses already existing at the moment when delirious instantaneousness is produced and that alone, for the moment to this degree of tangible reality, are given an objective light by paranoiac-critical activity.”

So, as already explained, what we think of our engagement of the world is not our engagement with the world as that has already taken place once we start pondering about our own engagement with the world. Now, this does not mean that this afterthought is simply useless, as he (16) clearly points out. This activity can help us to understand how it is that we make sense of the world. In other words, we can understand how we make sense of reality by examining surrealism. In his (17) words:

“Paranoiac-critical activity organizes and objectivizes in an exclusivist manner the limitless and unknown possibilities of the systematic association of subjective and objective phenomena, which appear to us as irrational solliciations, exclusively in favour of the obsessing idea. By this method paranoiac-critical activity discovers new and objective ‘significances’ in the irrational; it makes the world of delirium pass tangibly onto the plane of reality.”

In short, this paranoiac-critical activity that he explains here is a method, an exercise or a tool that allows us to realize how we make sense of the world. Now, I reckon we don’t need his method, as such. We already make sense of reality. That’s quite obvious. However, what’s important here is that he pinpoints how this happens, which, in turn seeks to push us to take a critical look at our own engagement with the world. To be clear, reality is not just something given, out there, waiting for us to uncover its secrets, or, if it is, we are not talking about it, in itself, but rather how we come assemble it, to construct it, to organize it, to make sense of it. The way he (17-18) explains it, it is we who give it form:

“Paranoiac phenomena: common images having a double figuration; – the figuration can theoretically and practically multiplied; – everything depends upon the paranoiac capacity of the author. The basis of associate mechanisms and the renewing of obsessing ideas allows … simultaneous images to be represented without any of them undergoing the least figurative deformation[.] … Different spectators see … different images; needless to say that it is carried out with scrupulous realism.”

In simple terms, whatever we are dealing with, whatever the phenomena we are facing, there’s always more to it than meets the eye. That extra bit is always our own making. It’s what allows us to see the same thing as different without any alterations being needed for that to be the case. As emphasized by him, what’s remarkable about this is that it can be achieved by an artists, such as a painter, with meticulous attention to detail, to the point it reaches photorealism. One could actually add here that photography is par excellence in this regard, hence my point about it being photorealistic, not merely realistic. Anyway, this also works the other way around, so that completely different works, such as paintings, can be taken to mean the same thing, as he (18) goes on to add.

Following the brief beef he (19-23) has with certain proponents of abstract art, namely the “[s]ticky and retarded Kantians of sections d’or”, for what I take to be overdoing the abstract, asserting that “forms and colours have an aesthetic value in themselves, apart from their representative value and their anecdotal significance”, that is to say what seems to be gripping to a duality which gives primacy to the mental, ideal or structural over the material or bodily, despite the Kantian improvements to this dualism (consider how he refers to “this theory of the strict appearance and of the structure” that “does not possess physical means permitting analysis nor even the registration of human behaviour vis-à-vis with structures and appearances presenting themselves objectively”), he (24-25) ends his text with something titled as ‘The Tears of Heraclitus’.

Before I jump to that and conclude this essay, what I take from his strong opposition to certain forms of art is that it’s foolish to think that one can escape representation by ignoring the underlying issue, like, for example, by going fully abstract. I think this is a deeper issue that has to do with how we consider something, like a painting, to represent something, something out there, or so to speak. So, for example, to link this to landscape, it’s we who are in the habit of stating that a landscape painting represents a certain landscape. We can compare the painting to what it represents to see if it is the case, followed by nodding approvingly or shaking our heads disapprovingly for misrepresenting reality (simulation vs. simulacrum, in the terms used by Jean Baudrillard). In the latter case we object to the misrepresentation of reality, which is either to be considered intentional, when, for example, some eye sore out there has not been included in the painting or it has been depicted in a rather flattering way, or unintentional, when what’s out there has changed after the painting was finished. There isn’t much we can do about the reality no longer matching the painting, but, oddly enough, this is a central concern in landscape studies, how the depictions of reality come to function as the models for how reality looks and how people buy into that. For me, it’s silly that we do this, that we project ourselves to the world and let it work its magic on us, without ever being like, hold on, this our making, why are we fussing over this? Simply put, the way I see it, the problem is not whether something represents something else, nor whether that representation is faithful to the original or not, but that we assert something as the original, when, in fact, to me, as inspired by Deleuze and Guattari, we should be asking a very serious question: what is original anyway?

As I’ve answered that question a number of times in my essays already and I think you know the answer anyway (assuming you’ve read my essays and/or Deleuze and Guattari), I’ll wrap this up by returning to the final pages by Dalí, who actually answers that question for you, assuming that you can make sense of his writing (which, I acknowledge, is a lot to ask) and happen to know to who Heraclitus was (which is not a given these days) and might be able to explain why he was in tears, weeping intelligently, as Dalí (24) puts it. In his (final) words (25):

“Believe nothing of it, behind these two superfine simulacrums of imponderability is hiding, in better and better condition, the very well-known, sanguinary and irrational grilled cutlet which shall eat us all.”

Now, to leave you hanging, I’ll let you figure out that yourself (albeit I reckon I sort of explained it all already). So, instead of doing that, I’m going to wrap things in up by summarizing why I found this text interesting. It sure is dated, like a fine wine, caviar or camembert (as he might refer to it), granted, but I reckon it’s not just fine vintage, a good batch of something rare, but it’s also way, way ahead of its time. Okay, it’s tough to follow, from start to finish, not only at times. That said, getting past that, letting yourself not to get all worked up by his style of writing, he is certainly onto something, something big. What I find super fascinating is how he identifies the central problem that haunts western art and, by extension, the dominant image of thought, how people tend to associate with what they see in order to anchor themselves in reality. You’ll find the works included following his text particularly helpful in explaining this. You’ll be faced with all kinds of … monstrosities, that’ll push you to see things, regardless of whether you like it or not.

Take something like plate 30, ‘The Paranoiac Face’, which didn’t open up to me at first, when I looked at it just by looking it up online, but gave me a holy shit moment when I looked at in in the book where it’s flipped 90 degrees. I can no longer not see it. Apparently this painting is based on an actual photograph that Dalí received in the form of a post card. He happened to look at it vertically before looking at it horizontally, which led to him to see things, or so to speak. Now, I couldn’t see that because my first look was horizontal but when I saw it in the book, flipped on its side, I could no longer not see the face. It’s now there even when I look at it horizontally. In addition, according to Haim Finkelstein (189), Dalí experienced this face as Picasso, whereas fellow surrealist André Breton experienced it as Marquis de Sade, as explained in Finkelstein’s 1998 book ‘Salvador Dalí’s Art and Writing, 1927-1942’, the point here being that one’s background affects how we come to see something, something that actually isn’t even there, just out there waiting for us to uncover it (this being based on a random photograph that, when turned on its side, happens to look like a human face). Now, how Dalí and Breton saw this or that in the photo strikes at the heart of this issue, which is something that the text examined in this essay doesn’t go on to address. That said, while he may have addressed this in his other works, this is a matter that I’ve already addressed in reference to Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Edward Sapir, Gabriel Tarde and Valentin Vološinov, as well as to Deleuze and Guattari, so I won’t get into it. In short, the point is that what we see is not just out there, waiting for us to see it (objective), as already pointed out, nor is it up to the individual (subjective). Instead, as (nearly) all human experience is shared (collective), what you see is always conditioned by who you’ve become and who you’ve become depends heavily on the circumstances you find yourself.

Back to Basics

To be productive, and to mix things up, like a mixologist, this I’ll take a look at a guide to how to do landscape research. Of course, it’s not the only guide there is, nor should it be taken as the guide to landscape research, but I like it because I find myself more or less in agreement with its contents. Anyway, so, this time I’ll be looking at ‘Cultural Landscapes’ by Richard Schein, as contained as a book chapter in ‘Research Methods in Geography: A Critical Introduction’ published in 2010, edited by Basil Gomez and John Paul Jones III.

Schein (222-223) opens up by explicitly defining (cultural) landscape, noting that, on one hand, it is very much material, dealing with all these things, and, on the other hand, it’s also “simultaneously a way of visually and spatially ordering and organizing the world around us”, “a way of seeing and knowing”, “an epistemology that has long been central to human geographical traditions of observation, interpretation, and analysis[.]” This is very much in line with how, for example, Henri Lefebvre conceptualizes space as a triad in ‘The Production of Space’ (1991 translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith), connecting the material aspects and the thought/conceived aspects in everyday life, and how Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari conceptualize landscape as an abstract machine or a diagram that connects the forms of expression (non-discursive formation) and content (discursive formation) in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (1987 translation by Brian Massumi).

Schein (223) points out that (cultural) landscape is a polyphonic concept. While you could say that there is some degree of agreement regarding its meaning, different people in different disciplines, such as geography, anthropology, art history and architecture, do tend to have their own definitions that differ in some degree from the definitions of people in other disciplines. He (223) points out that this is largely the result of different disciplines having their own trajectories, their own developments which are not necessarily shared by other disciplines. He (223) likens the issue to nations that share a common language, yet are separated by it. This is a source of great deal of confusion, as he (223) goes on to point out:

“Landscape enthusiasts of many stripes may use the same words, all with slightly different meanings, and this often can be confusing, if not downright exasperating.”

I agree. I think this is very much the case among (socio)linguists who, as discussed in the previous essay, fail to grasp what’s the deal with landscape in other disciplines. I understand that it can be quite confusing and exasperating, as Schein (223) points out. I consider myself lucky to have engaged with both sociolinguistics, including discourse analysis and pragmatics, and geography already as an undergraduate. I was actually initially ridiculed by some for such unorthodox combination in my undergraduate studies, but already then, albeit more now than then, I found it a combination that can be turned into a useful mixture. I’ve been a happy mixologist for quite a long time in my life, crossing various boundaries, so I don’t really mind the confusion, as tedious as it may be, at least initially. It has certainly been detrimental to progressing in my doctoral studies (which also affects my life in general), but it has only made me more and more dauntless. The more the dogmatists discipline me, the more determined I become in opposing them. I know how discipline works, so I’m quite amused when people try to discipline me. I turn it into something productive, something that works for me. Anyway, back to the topic. Schein (223) further comments this confusion and likely exasperation:

“The trick when coming up against this potential communicative obstacle is not to withdraw into the parochialism of your own discipline, or your own pedantic definitions of landscapes or interpretive and analytical preferences[.]”

This comment is highly relevant to my previous essay where I pointed out that I agree with the comments made by Joshua Nash in his 2016 review article ‘Is linguistic landscape necessary?’ regarding linguistic landscape studies as being old (socio)linguistic wine in new bottles, albeit only inasmuch there is this disciplinary parochialism, as the comments made by David Malinowski (63) in response to Nash seem to indicate, as discussed in his 2018 book chapter titled ‘Learning to Translate the Linguistic Landscape’, as included in ‘Expanding the Linguistic Landscape: Linguistic Diversity, Multimodality and the Use of Space as a Semiotic Resource’ edited by Martin Pütz and Neele Mundt. I reckon this is not the way to handle the issue and the consequent criticism. I think Schein’s (223) proposal is much better and much more productive:

“The trick … [is] … to search for ‘common ground,’ in realizing that we all are interested in some aspect of the tangible, visible scene. Once past the immediate problems of terminology, there is much to be said for the cross- and inter-disciplinary practice of cultural landscape study.”

Now, I’ve drawn parallels between the landscape research conducted in the early 1900s, as exemplified by the work of Carl Sauer, as well as J.G. Granö, Siegfried Passage and Paul Vidal de la Blache, and linguistic landscape research, so it’s only apt that Schein (224) comments on the Sauerian cultural landscape tradition which “posited the physical landscape as the medium, ‘culture’ as the agent, and the cultural landscape as a result” and thus approached landscape as merely a matter of ‘uncovering’ the ‘truth’ about this and/or that region or delimited area of land through empirical observation. As Schein (224) points out, this tradition became a conceptual foil for rethinking and reimagining the importance of landscape in geography once the influence of other disciplines, namely sociology, continental philosophy (phenomenology, Marxism, post-structuralism) and cultural studies, started to be felt in geography. What comes after the empiricist tradition originating in the early 1900s is thus known as the post-empiricist tradition. The label is, of course, just a label as, at this stage, at around late 1970s and early 1980s, there are bunch of different movements or strands of landscape research that emerge in competition with one another in what Schein (224) calls the ‘Civil War’. Without going into detail with regard to that time (as you can read about it yourself, just look up articles from that time and you’ll notice the heated debates), Schein (224) summarizes the subsequent developments, what came out of it:

“The (re)theorizing that took place through those debates has enlivened cultural landscape study to the present day. It has mandated attention to the imbrications of class, race, and gender in and through the landscape, to the place of landscape in power relations and questions of identity at a variety of scales[.]”

I agree with Schein’s summary. These are central concerns in most landscape studies. You won’t find many ‘naïve’ geographic landscape studies these days, that’s for sure, unless what Schein (224) goes on to mention next are included:

“It has [also] mandated attention … to other broadly socio-spatial concerns of human geographers including, most recently, a renewed phenomenological interest in our everyday experience with landscapes.”

Now, as I mentioned in my previous essay, I’m fine with phenomenology, inasmuch as it is an engagement with the world and thus focuses on everyday experience, as indicated by Schein (224) here, but, for me, and, I would argue, for many geographers, as well as sociologists, phenomenology is not well suited to addressing social issues because it tends to lapse into giving primacy to the subject, despite its goals to bridge the gap between the Cartesian subject-object split. In simple terms, if the intentional and autonomous thinking subject is retained, à la Descartes, then we end up doing more of that naïve research that may well actually contribute to the aforementioned social issues.

Schein (224) lists what we got out of the ‘Civil War’:

“As a result, our interest in the landscape as the tangible, visible impress of human action has been extended to asking questions about the place of cultural landscapes in constituting the world – through their symbolic qualities and material presence, through their normative qualities, through their capacity to mask social process, through their role as a site of action and intervention into the everyday world.”

Note here how he indicates that we are talking about the landscape as a matter of constituting a world, not just simply something that is out there, for us to ‘uncover’. In other words, the point here is that landscape is a construction of the world, the way it appears to us, at any given moment. Unlike in the old empiricist tradition, it’s not separate from us, something that we can simply catalog alongside other landscapes and then be done with once that project is complete.

Again, I reckon this is very much in line with how Lefebvre defines social space and how Deleuze and Guattari define landscape. I believe this is exactly what Crispin Thurlow wants researchers to take into account when he states in his 2019 article ‘Semiotic creativities in and with space: binaries and boundaries, beware!’, as published in the International Journal of Multilingualism, that linguistic landscape researchers tend to treat space as a given, as a mere container or a backdrop, when it should be treated as a central (albeit not the only) concern in any landscape study because it functions “as a[] distinctive resource for creative semiotic action in its own right.” It’s also worth noting how landscape functions to mask the various social issues that geographers and sociologists, as well as sociolinguists, seek to address. I keep mentioning this in my manuscripts, yet I get bewildered comments about it, along the lines of how is this relevant to what I do? I mean, you’d at least think that addressing the masking of social issues would be pretty much central to investigations that focus on social issues.

So, right, Schein (222) reminds the reader that landscape can be understood as the “tangible, visible impress of human activity on the surface of the earth – the everyday ‘stuff’ of the material world”. That said, he (222) warns the reader not to think of it as a mere accumulation of material objects because parts of it are from different times. Simply put, some bits and pieces persist for a long time, while others perish quickly. He (222) also adds that landscape does not merely pertain to the grand landscaped features such as designed gardens but also to all kinds of everyday features, such as “common houses and fences and public buildings and parks and backyards and fast food restaurants and light poles and streets and public squares and so on.” As you can seen, the list is supposed to be endless: and … and … and … ad infinitum. That’s because it is. There’s always more to it as the world doesn’t stay the same (and neither do you).

In summary, Schein (222) points out that landscape can be treated as “a material record of our activity, and as such we can gather information on its creation and meaning, through many sources, but especially through historical records collected in archives.” Here already, linking this to the first point about the various bits and pieces, the palimpsest, we can see how Schein (222) operates on two levels or planes, one on the ground, doing the observations, and the other in the archives, looking at records related to what can (and cannot) be observed in the field. This will be further elaborated. In his (224) words:

“We can, at once, study cultural landscapes as material artifacts, with traceable and documentable empirical histories and geographies, and simultaneously use cultural landscapes to understand and question ideas about and ideals of everyday life.”

So, yeah, neither the palimpsest nor the archive rule out one another. It’s rather the opposite. To understand what’s right in front of us, be it common or rare, ordinary or extraordinary, unremarkable or remarkable, boring or fascinating, one needs to be aware about the various ideas and ideals. Again, this is very much in line with the views of Lefebvre, as well as those of Deleuze and Guattari.

Related to the earlier point on masking social issues, Schein (224) explains why landscape matters:

“[L]andscape study is important to critical human geographies if we see the landscape as discourse materialized, the tangible and visible scene serving to normalize or naturalize social and cultural practice, to reproduce it, to provide a means to challenge it.”

Note how, for Schein (244), this is a twofold issue. Firstly, to reiterate the point made earlier, landscape matters because it functions to mask social issues. To be specific, technically it doesn’t hide anything, in the sense that it covers a ‘true’ reality but rather constructs or orders reality in a certain way, hence his (223) earlier point about landscape as “a way of visually and spatially ordering and organizing the world around us.” In short, it provides us a certain sense of reality that is neither true or false. It’s only true, or false, in the sense that we take it to be true, or false, hence his (223) earlier comment it being “an epistemology that has long been central to human geographical traditions of observation, interpretation, and analysis[.]” Secondly, landscape matters because understanding how it works provides us the possibility to challenge it. As landscape is a visual concept, it can be investigated in a number ways that pertain to vision, including but not limited to “content analysis, semiology, psychoanalysis, and various forms of discourse analysis which take seriously ideas of textuality, intertextuality, and context”, as he (225) goes on to elaborate. I reckon the choice of methods really depends on the problems that you are facing and on the questions that you are asking. That’s my Bergsonist take on methodology.

Schein (225) acknowledges that there is no right or wrong way of doing landscape research. In practice, you need to find your way, what works for you. However, to be productive, and because this is a chapter in a research methods textbook, he (225) goes on to elaborate how he approaches landscape:

“[M]ost, if not all, good cultural landscape study begins with the material thing or set of things that we identify as the landscape, and draws a fine, if heuristic, line between finding out empirical information about a landscape and asking questions about what the landscape means or how it works.”

That’s, of course, impractically broad, so he (225) further specifies his take on landscape:

“First we must be able to describe the landscape and its particular history, documenting when and where the landscape was created, by whom, why, how has it been altered, and so on.”

In other words, as I’ve discussed in my past essays and keep emphasizing in my own articles, agency, the question of who, is particularly important in the study of landscapes. As a side note, or, rather, a further specification, for me this question of who is not be answered in the form of a specific name. It doesn’t interest me who specifically made this and/or that item or who it was that wrote this and/or that text. I couldn’t care less about that. This is actually a very Nietzschean point.

In ‘Will to Power’ (1967/1968 translation by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale) Friedrich Nietzsche (301-302) notes that the question of who, as in, for example, who did this and/or that, who said this and/or that, who interpreted this and/or that, is malformed if it is assumed to be answered by an existing being (a subject / an individual because the being is always a becoming and thus itself a mere effect). This is the point about how one is always many, as I pointed out in my previous essay. In Nietzsche’s (302) parlance, “[t]he properties of a thing are effects on other ‘things’: if one removes other ‘things,’ then a thing has no properties, i.e., there is no thing without other things, i.e., there is no ‘thing-in-itself.’ As Nietzsche (301) also puts it, “[t]here are no ‘facts-in-themselves,’ for a sense must always be projected into them before there can be facts.’ In short, when we ask the question of who, when we focus on agency, we are not interested in any actual individuals or subjects because starting from the subject, the individual, ignores the real question, the question behind the superficial question, how did the subject/individual become the way he or she is or appears to be, at any given moment. I like how Michel Foucault (221) explains this in ‘What Is an Author’ (translation by Josue Harari), originally a lecture held in early 1969, but included in a 1998 compilation of works title ‘Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology’ edited by James Faubion:

“How, under what conditions, and in what forms can something like a subject appear in the order of discourse? What place can it occupy in each type of discourse, what functions can it assume, and by obeying what rules? In short, it is a matter of depriving the subject (or its substitute) of its role as originator, and of analyzing the subject as a variable and complex function of discourse.”

Now, these ‘one is many’ type of formulations do not negate the subject, nor its creativity. The subject is rather displaced (not given primacy) because the subject is always already an effect when the person acts, that is to say affected by other subjects or objects that are, like he or she is, one but also many. So, when we investigate something, we are always interested in the conditions of this and/or that, whatever it is that is at stake, and how it has come to be, not the subject or the object, in itself, even though we do acknowledge its existence and often start by examining it and other subjects and objects in relation to it. Simply put, we are dealing with discourse, which Foucault (49) defines in ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’ (1972 translation by Alan Sheridan) as:

“[P]ractices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.”

So, again, as pointed out by Nietzsche (302), we are not dealing with things-in-themselves, no matter how we like to think that whatever the thing (object) is, even a human (subject), this distinct given entity. In his (302) words:

“The ‘thing-in-itself’ nonsensical. If I remove all the relationships, all the ‘properties,’ all the ‘activities’ of a thing, the thing does not remain over; because thingness has only been invented by us owing to the requirements of logic, thus with the aim of defining, communication (to bind together the multiplicity of relationships, properties, activities).”

This is the way I approach things. Therefore this is also how I define the units of analysis in my studies. To me, the objects are discursive. Sure, they do have materiality but that’s beside the point. As argued by Nietzsche (302), we can’t start our project by assuming that the things are just there, in themselves, waiting to be analyzed by us. In other words, we must dispense with this nonsensical idea. As expressed by Nietzsche (203), “‘[t]things have a constitution in themselves’ – a dogmatic idea with which one must break absolutely.”

As a side note, in case you happen to wonder, this one and/or many, multiple or multiplicity business is age-old, going back to the pre-Socratics. It’s probably an even older discussion than that. It just happens to be that we happen to have evidence from the pre-Socratics (not much, but enough for us to make this point). For a difficult (it is really a chore to read it), yet thought provoking discussion of this, look up Plato’s ‘Parmenides’ where Plato presents a dialogue that (supposedly) took place between Parmenides, Zeno of Elea and Socrates. The gist of this is that the first two are, as the second name suggests, Eleans, that is to say members of the Eleatic school of philosophy (named after the then town of Elea in what is nowadays called Southern Italy), who subscribe to a line of thinking in which everything is truly one (oneness, unity, the one). Therefore they stand in opposition of dualism (duality, such as mind/body, ideal/material) and pluralism (multiple, for example the elements air, earth, fire and water), that is to say anyone who subscribes to more than one (dualism being, in a sense, minimalist pluralism, the best known case being René Descartes). Dualism then also stands in opposition of not only monism but also pluralism because it is not only divided once (hence dual, not one) but not divided more than once (hence dual, not more than dual). We can, of course, say the same thing about pluralism, how it isn’t one or two because it’s always more than two, which is, in itself, more than one. They also subscribe to a static understanding of the world (unchanging). This is in opposition to those, namely Heraclitus, who a subscribe to a dynamic understanding of the world (flux).

With regard to the issue of monism, dualism and pluralism, Deleuze explains how dualism stands in opposition to both monism and pluralism in ‘Anti-Œdipe et Mille Plateaux’, part of ‘Cours Vincennes: dualism, monism and multiplicities’ dated March 26, 1973 (translation by Daniel W. Smith). To make this contemporary (I know, how contemporary indeed, but think it as not ancient Greek or Roman), he explains how this works for Descartes. Provokingly, he states that:

“Dualism always wants to deny the essence of thought, namely, that thought is a process.”

Which is caused by how the subject is rethought, in process, so that it ends up denying the thought process. He elaborates on this:

“[T]he subject is split into a subject of the statement and the subject of enunciation.”

Here we get the split, that is to say the dualism. On one hand, we get the person who enunciates, the (supposed) originator of a statement. On the other hand, we get the person who is referred to in enunciation, who can’t be verified as the (supposed) originator of the statement. Therefore, as explained by Deleuze, for Descartes, there is a difference between, let’s say asserting “I see a unicorn” and “I think I am seeing a unicorn.” As you can see, there is this split between doing and thinking (about doing). As Deleuze points out, in this case it is false that one sees a unicorn, hence the silly example, but it true that one thinks that one sees a unicorn. Get it? In other words, as he goes on to state:

“At this level, a kind of disengagement of a subject of enunciation occurs, and thereby all the subjects of possible statements. Whence he will say to you: I cannot say ‘I walk, therefore I am,’ for from a subject of the statement I cannot conclude a being of enunciation, or the being of a subject of enunciation; but I can say ‘I think, therefore I am,’ because from a subject of enunciation I can conclude the being of this subject.”

Now, evidently, this clearly gives primacy to thought, but not as a process, as Deleuze points out. With regard to thinking otherwise, that is to say like a monist or a pluralist, he argues that:

“Monism and pluralism: it’s the same thing, because, in a certain manner, it seems to me that every opposition, even all possibilities of oppositions between the one and the multiple[.]”

Okay, so, dualism is opposed to monism and pluralism but, as he’ll go on to add, because of how it incorporates them into the dualism, rethinking them, hence rethinking the subject, as he points out. In his words:

“This is because the source of dualism is precisely the opposition between something that can be affirmed as one, and something that can be affirmed as multiple, and more precisely, what signals it as one is precisely the subject of enunciation, and what signals it as multiple is always the subject of the statement[.]”

In other words, the subject of enunciation, the originator, what is ‘true’, is always the one, and the subject of statement, what cannot be verified as ‘true’, is always many. Clever! This is how we get transcendence, mind over body, idealism over empiricism, while neatly retaining the notion of both (the one and the many), albeit in an underhanded, relegated form which gives primacy to the one over the many. This (seemingly) allows you, the thinking subject, to start from yourself, to treat you (the ‘I’) as a starting point. It’s presupposing oneself, really, which, to get back on track here, is exactly what Nietzsche is opposed to, albeit in a slightly altered (Kantian) context (as Kant is just more of the same, really, just slightly altered to account for certain issues, yet, nonetheless, retaining the dualism). Anyway, Deleuze does not buy into this, as you might know if you’ve read … well … any of his works. In this text, it’s particularly evident when he states that “things become botched” at a certain time in the “history of desire” and that calls it a rotten conception.

Right, back to Schein (226) who provides a concise summary of what landscape studies tend to deal with: landscape history, the meaning of landscape, what landscape facilitates/mediates and the materialization of discourse. The first angle deals with documenting whatever is there, really, and who is responsible for its (continuing) presence and, conversely, what’s not there and who is responsible for that. The second angle deals with how people identify with landscape, how they see it as this and/or that, reflecting their values. For example, we might be interested in why people consider a certain landscape as valuable, authentic, particularly important and, conversely, why some other landscape is not considered important. The third angle is related to the two previous ones as the focus is now on how landscape operates to facilitate or mediate various “political, social, economic, and cultural intentions, and debates.” So, for example, as I’ve discussed in my previous essays, people are in the habit of appealing to landscape, how it should be valued (by everyone), in order for them to benefit from it somehow, like boosting land value of their property by not letting others alter the view. The fourth angle deals with how landscape acts like a node, a nexus or a hub discourses that flow through it and become materialized. The focus is on how the material form, what you can find out there (or not), pertains to normalizing or naturalizing “social and cultural practice, to reproduce it, to provide a means to challenge it.”

At this stage, I reckon it’s worth clarifying that, yes, you could argue that it is unnecessary to speak of materialized discourses because, in a way, you could state that all discourses are material, in the sense that they require people who have actual material bodies (just to even think). That said, people do differentiate between, the act of doing something, let’s say farming or grazing, and the products of those acts, let’s say farm produce based on plants (grains, fruits etc.) and animals (livestock). In an earlier essay I discussed this matter in reference to Ron Scollon’s 2008 book chapter titled ‘Discourse itineraries: Nine processes of resemiotization’, as included in ‘Advances in Discourse Studies’ edited by Vijay Bhatia, John Flowerdew and Rodney Jones. I won’t go into detail, but, in summary, discourses, i.e. systematic practices that create the objects of which they speak, as Foucault would define it, may undergo changes because, well, they are tied to those practices. Scollon (234) notes that one possible point where such changes may occur is in materialization, when, for example, a certain agricultural practice, such as organic production, is presented in the form of a bag of rice. It does not contain just any rice, mind you, but organic rice. The gist of this is that we end up thinking about a discourse, in this case organic agricultural practice, as a non-discourse, as a material object, as manifested in the seeds of rice. Now, of course, rice, the way we understand it is certainly discursive, but the point here is that their materiality (non-discursiveness) plays a part in all this. Anyway, this, is turn, can facilitate shifting the discourse, in this case organic, from one systematic practice, in this case from certain form of agricultural production, to another systematic practice, in this case to consumption of certain agricultural products. So, in short, materialization of discourses does matter, albeit for different reasons than what one might initially think.

Now, of course, what Schein (226) lists is not all there is to landscape studies, as already mentioned. For example, one might opt for a phenomenological approach in order to focus on different questions, ones not listed above. That’s fine. Schein’s listing is not all encompassing and you really need to delve into prior studies to get a grasp of the various approaches and how they are suited for answering different research questions and solving different problems. There is no one way to do landscape research. Moreover, as noted by Schein (226), many studies tend to have multiple angles, so it’s really up to you what you want to do, what you seek to achieve.

Schein (226-227) moves on to discuss his own take. He emphasizes the importance of knowledge, not general knowledge but particular knowledge as what you are dealing with is always local. In other words, you need to know what you are dealing with, what you are encountering. This is the point I made in the previous essay about parachuting people into some far off land to study the local landscapes. In practice, one will encounter various landscape features, that is to say materialized discourses. Of course, they don’t have to be grand features, like large buildings or gardens, as already mentioned. They can be anything really, houses, city parks or even something as small as historical plaques (something which certainly ought to be of great interest to sociolinguists). Anyway, it is hard to say much about such landscape features if you have little background information. Schein (227) provides some examples in the US context:

“[T]here are scholarly literatures on house types; on the origins, forms, and functions of American public parks and Frederick Law Olmsted’ s role in their evolution; or on slavery and public memory and historical commemoration that will push you to see your particular landscape as linked to other spaces, other places, other landscapes, other ideas.”

In other words, in order to examine materialized discourses, you need to do the hard work of doing archival research on the relevant discourses, which, in turn, may necessitate that you familiarize yourself not only with them but also other discourses, inasmuch as they are related to those discourses.

In my case, when I examine certain particulars in the Finnish context, or, let’s narrow it down to the context of Western Finland, or, even better, the city of Turku, I need to be aware of the discourses that are relevant to everyday life here. In some cases they can be very specific local discourses. That said, they can also be discourses that are set on the state level, so I can’t ignore them either. For example, when I encounter road signs that contain language, in most cases they contain Finnish and Swedish, in that order, top to bottom, giving primacy to Finnish over Swedish due to the majority of Turku population being Finnish speakers. Swedish is included because a large enough a minority of Turku inhabitants are speakers of Swedish. This requirement is set on the state level, so you’ll find the relevant discourses in the legislation where all this is explained in minute detail. When you familiarize yourself with the relevant pieces of legislation, you’ll notice that there are certain jurisdictional exceptions that effectively create pockets where this expectation of two languages won’t be met. For example, certain institutions, such as schools, are provided in parallel to these two population groups. So, if you are not aware of such exceptions, you might be fooled to think that, perhaps, a school is intentionally ignoring the requirement to provide signage in both languages. That’s not the case as the various particulars, i.e. materialized discourses, do actually reflect the way things are expected to be done. Then again, you may still encounter plenty of Finnish and Swedish, in tandem, in such places. For example, you may notice that fire extinguishers carry instructions in both languages. That’s because they fall under different discourses pertaining to health and safety. Again, you can find plenty of information on this by doing the hard work, reading through relevant pieces of legislation pertaining to health and safety.

The point is that you need to be familiar with what you are dealing with and if you are not familiar with what you are dealing with, you should familiarize yourself with what you are dealing with. So, as getting to know about things tends to take time and effort, I wouldn’t recommend the parachute approach, as I already pointed out. Of course, I provided just some examples and not everything has to do with legislation. Schein (227) further elaborates on this in the US context:

“Highway engineering bulletins, the in-house journals of fast – food franchises, meeting minutes of the local planning commission, and architectural and landscape architectural journals are full of information about the making of American landscapes. These kinds of periodicals are especially useful for gaining the view of those who actually make or produce specific landscapes.”

He (227) adds that:

“While getting at landscape consumption is a bit more difficult, there are available popular fashion and taste magazines … that contain clues about the manner in which we have adopted certain preferences for particular landscapes, especially the more personalized landscapes of home and garden that are the most easily manipulable by the average person.”

Again, in summary, get to know what you are dealing with. Schein (227) notes that at times you’ll struggle with finding the relevant information … as if it was missing. For example, as he (227) points out, contentious issues such as slavery might be not included in official records, nor found materialized in the landscape. Why? Well, because they were erased from the records and/or the landscape, or they were never included in the records and/or the landscape in first place. Why? Well, why would people keep records of something like that? It can backfire on you later on, that’s why. For example, if we focus on something like those grand palaces or designed gardens, you’ll come to notice how they have this grandeur to them, but there’s no indication of who built them or who maintains them. Those who built them probably lived somewhere close, but, of course, their hovels were swiftly removed from sight once things were built. Contemporarily, the people necessary for maintaining them probably aren’t the same people who own the property. They only work there during certain hours and are not to be seen as part of the landscape. This is why Schein (227) notes that, at times, we have to look at proxy sources, including something probably as blasphemous in ‘scientific’ circles as, literature, such as slave narratives which provide indications that the official records likely contain quite sanitized accounts of what went on back in the day.

Schein provides examples of erasure in ‘Teaching “Race” and the Cultural Landscape’, as published in Journal of Geography in 1999. He (189-190) notes that in Lexington, Kentucky, where he (to my understanding) resides and works, the history of slavery is not as nearly as visible in terms of memorialization as something like thoroughbred racing or notable members of the Confederate. Why? Well, we need to think who are and were in position for that to be the case. He (189-190) points out how promoting something like the area’s history of horse racing is not, in itself, problematic. It’s rather the way it’s done, as he (190) goes on to elaborate:

“The imagery employed in the [Thoroughbred Park] speaks only to the elite of the horse industry, and no mention is made of black jockeys or the personnel who staff the local tracks, one of which previously sat only 1,000 yards behind the park.”

In other words, certain features or aspects are not included in the landscape. They are effectively erased, which is, probably, highly convenient to the interests of some people. He (189-190) points out that certain aspects of past do not necessarily have to be removed or demolished, like in the case of urban renewal (which typically results in gentrification due to the increase in land value). Instead, it is possible alter the view in such way that certain landscape features are no longer seen by the many. This is (or least was) apparently the case with Thoroughbred Park where a hillside was constructed, thus effectively masking certain features that are on the opposite side of the hillside from where most people drive. In summary, as you can see, landscape has a lot to do with politics, which, in turn has a lot to do with who gets to decide and on what. Of course, money is also involved.

Schein (228) turns his attention to data gathering. As already pointed out a couple of times, he (228) states that we can look at the records (the archives), including but not limited to “fire insurance maps, city directories, or deed records”, as well as to engage in participant observation, interviewing or surveying to drawn information from people as not all records are necessarily written. People might be able to provide information on issues that are or were not kept record on. As already discussed, sometimes records were intentionally not kept. Of course, that’s not always the case. In many cases the information that we might be looking for simply wasn’t kept because it wasn’t considered important enough to warrant keeping a record about it. There are, of course, also budget limitations as keeping records does cost money. In addition, at times records may be lost, intentionally or unintentionally. Schein (228) adds that some of the information that we might be looking for is not necessarily kept in official public records, but in private possession. These private entities can be, among others, historical societies, museums, clubs, corporations, as well as private individuals. For example, something as mundane as personal photographs taken for personal reasons can provide us with valuable information about landscape features that are no longer there.

Following a short discussion of the obstacles or hurdles that one may face with regard to gaining access to various archives, both public and private, and being allowed to make use of the archived materials, Schein (229) warns not to be uncritical of the archived materials. As pointed out a number of times already, all records are selective, at times highly selective and intentionally so. In his (229) words:

“You should try to be aware, as well, of information that is missing from the archives. It is a truism that the winners of history write the stories, and that goes especially for historical geographical records. You are more likely to find records of the rich and powerful than you are of the poor and marginalized, or of men than of women, in most cases, or of white people rather than people of color.”

There’s also the related issue of keeping records in the first place, as he (229) points out:

“After all, records are kept for a specific reason (they are not value neutral), and that reason is seldom the same as the one that brought you to the records in the first place.”

Now, neither of these things are not necessarily bad things, because the records might be of use to you for that exact reason. They may well be valuable to your project because they focus on only certain things, including this but excluding that, which is, in itself, telling of something. In addition, it can be beneficial that those who kept the records couldn’t even think of anyone using them the way you seek to use them and thus they couldn’t sanitize them accordingly. This is, of course, the same thing with local informants. They may well provide you the information they want to provide and not the information you are looking for. They may also provide you what they think you want to hear and not what they have to say about something.

Schein (229) also adds that you have to be highly sensitive to your data, familiarize yourself with it, not only because may it be misleading, and even contain fabrications, but because it can also be challenging to assess, especially if you are dealing with historically or geographically distant matters. Simply put, you should approach them in their own terms, not in the terms in use currently, as otherwise you risk imposing yourself on your data. Of course, that does not mean that you should be uncritical of your work.

He (229) also makes the same point as I did earlier on, how it is important to also consider not only the local discourses, the local practices, but also on a broader, national or federal level as not all relevant materials are kept in local records or known about by the locals. As I pointed out, sometimes you have to look at matters that pertain to a larger area than what is considered local. This, of course, depends on what you are looking and where you conduct your investigation. For example, Finland is largely based on a unitary system where the state has a lot of say in things and the municipalities only have limited leeway to do as they see fit. This might not be the case elsewhere, such as in the US. Again, this emphasizes the importance of knowing what you are dealing with and familiarizing yourself with the relevant aspects pertaining to your research.

For those who are interested, Schein (230-237) elaborates on various archives, what might be of use to you, at least in the US context, but I’m going to skip these parts and move on to the conclusion. I’m sure you can take a closer look at that part of his book chapter on your own. He (237) concludes the book chapter by stating that:

“Collecting data on cultural landscapes is not hard. It simply requires a basic sense of what you are after, where you might get started, and a little diligence and perseverance.”

I agree. I know some of my peers might not agree with this, but I do. Sure, you need to know a lot and be willing to spend countless hours on what you are dealing with, to get to know what’s necessary, but that’s about it. Yes, it’s tedious as hell to go through it all, to track down what might be of use to you in your project even before you get to collect the relevant data. That said, I don’t think anyone should expect the research to be, quite literally, just a walk in the park. What’s actually hard is to figure out what you want to do with the data, what you want to find out, as Schein (237) points out:

“The harder part is figuring out what to do with the information you collect once you have it, for the most important lesson to remember when collecting ‘data’ about a landscape is that the data and the landscape do not speak for themselves.”

So, indeed, it’s not just a walk in the park (in the sense that you’d be assessing a park). In this discursive approach you need to be aware of various discourses, that is to say various systematic practices, in order to assess the various landscape features, the various materialized discourses.

For example, you need to know about the official language policy in Finland in order to understand why you’ll keep encountering Finnish and/or Swedish in most parts of Finland and not something else. I remember a non-Finn, that is to say someone who cannot understand either of these languages, pointing out to me that it’s highly impractical for outsiders that all the relevant signage tends to be in either in Finnish and/or Swedish, and not, for example, in English. Of course it is, but it is the way it is because of politics. In itself, when we limit the discussion to just Finnish and Swedish, it’s already a political issue and way more contentious than an outsider would ever think without knowledge of the relevant discourses. Simply put, because the particulars that we encounter in our surroundings are actually discursive, it’s simply not enough to go for a stroll, make some notes and/or take some photos and then write something about it for others to read. Schein (237) explains this issue:

“Even simple landscape histories and descriptions require a point of view, and the best landscape descriptions and interpretations and analyses require a basic understanding of the empirical particulars of a cultural landscape in order to ask questions about what that landscape does, about why it is important, about how people live in and through that particular landscape and to what consequence.”

Firstly, note how he points out that there is no such thing as simply observing something and making a record of it as the observer is never a universal observer that sees the world exactly the same way as everyone else. It’s naïve to think otherwise. Secondly, to understand the palimpsest, the empirical particulars, the discourses that are materialized in the landscape, requires us to understand what it is that we are dealing with. There are, of course, countless of discourses and there’s no way that we can pay attention to all of them.

For example, I reckon my knowledge of forestry is rather limited, so when facing a forest, it’s just a forest to me, with some trees, shrubs etc., but a forester or a biologist can probably easily detect all kinds of discourses manifested in the landscape. They may be able to detect certain patterns of land use which explains why things look the way they do. I’d be completely oblivious to such (unless I train myself to match their understanding, which is unlikely).

To provide another example, recently a family member of mine pointed out to me that if you look at the railways in Finland, you’ll notice that they are built 1524mm gauge, also known as the 5 feet gauge, which was used in the Southern United States, having been implemented in Finland because the engineer, George Washington Whistler, was brought over to then Imperial Russia to help with designing the railways. Finland was then part of Imperial Russia, which led to its implementation. The Russians have subsequently altered their tracks to 1520mm gauge, which, apparently makes Finland the only country to have that gauge that was brought over from the Southern United States. Oh, and yes, I know, this is the type stuff that no one has ever said, or to speak, yet to a railway enthusiast this is obvious because they know their track gauges. This is one example where it’s evident that discourse matters, even though, I acknowledge that for many this is a most trivial example.

When it comes to statues, one of the examples discussed by Schein (a hot topic in the US these days, by the way), I once took part in a geography field trip to Dublin, Ireland, where we passed by a number of statues. We crossed the O’Connell Bridge and made our way up O’Connell Street, all the way to Parnell Street where we stopped to have a talk by adjacent Parnell Monument. The member of the staff leading us asked us students about what we had seen on O’Connell Street. We had passed a number of monuments on the way. The question we were asked was intentionally unspecific, so that we had to figure out what the deal was. No one had anything to say, so I volunteered to point out the obvious, that none of the monuments were dedicated to women. Now, the point here is not to say that wrong people have been commemorated but to point out that maybe, just maybe there is a certain undue emphasis on men in this central location.

I also like the inclusiveness promoted by Schein in this book chapter. He (237) notes that we can ask all kinds of questions, many of which are hard and may require considerable expertise to answer them. This necessitates either cooperation between researchers in different disciplines or, alternatively, spending one’s time learning from others in other disciplines. This is a reiteration of the earlier point about parochialism. In his (237) words:

“[I]n answering those questions you are likely to employ any number of social science or humanities methodologies[.]”

Again, there’s no predefined set of tools or a right approach to landscape study. It all really depends on what you are looking for, what problems you seek solutions to and what questions you wish to answer. Following the conclusion, he (238-239) goes on to list various resources in different disciplines that may be of use to you. I recommend taking a closer look at his own work. I particularly like his 1997 article ‘The Place of Landscape: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting an American Scene’, as published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, and his 2009 article ‘A Methodological Framework for Interpreting Ordinary Landscapes: Lexington, Kentucky’s Courthouse Square’, as published in The Geographical Review. They both involve examining the relevant discourses, going through the archives, and the materialized discourses, going through the particulars in the landscape.

My own approach differs from this, but only because what I’m looking at differs considerably from he is looking at. I reckon I focus more on the palimpsest, the various particulars that can be found in the landscape, whereas he focuses more on the archive material. That said, I’m not sure if that holds though. I mean, I spend considerable number of hours browsing through all kinds of archive material just to make sense of the palimpsest. I’m the guy who, for example, not only looks up pieces of legislation but also checks on the amendments, as well as the preparatory draft documents for those pieces of legislation and their amendments. It just rarely shows in my articles because much of that background research is just so that I understand what I’m dealing with. Also, I’d be more than happy to explain more of that but, in my experience, there isn’t much appreciation for such detailed discussion of relevant discourses. For me that’s at the heart of discourse analysis, but I’m often forced to do something else because others seem to find any detailed examination to be tedious reading. Anyway, my approach or conceptual framework is arguably very similar to Schein’s framework. If I were to focus on something similar to what he focuses on in his articles, I probably would be doing it the way he does it, more or less (more evident emphasis on the archive material than on the particulars in the landscape).

I may be a bit more cynical about the inner workings of landscape (how it functions and how it can thus be utilized for certain purposes) than Schein, but I like how he (397) reminds in his 2009 article not to consider landscape a mere disciplinary mechanism that limits our thinking and capacity to act by providing us certain sense of reality. The point here is that it can indeed function as a disciplinary mechanism, and, arguably, often does function as such, but that’s not the whole story. In other words, the way landscape functions is actually productive. That said, it can produce any kinds of senses of reality, ones in which one is disciplined to reproduce the existing states of affairs. Importantly, this opens up the possibility to intervene, to change things. Of course, not everyone wishes that things change and not everything has to be changed, but the point is that they can be changed if people just come to desire the change. So, in summary, understanding landscape is important because it helps people to understand how it operates to create a certain visual order of things, which, in turn makes it possible to advocate for change. In Schein’s (398) words:

“The point is not to close down the landscape through historical description or interpretation of its meanings, but to see the landscape for its role in facilitating and mediating social and cultural practice, whether intentional or not, to see the landscape as part of broader social and political and economic and cultural discourses that are at once disciplinary through the landscape’s place as a tangible visible scene/seen, even as those discourses are open to challenge in and through the landscape itself.”

Well put, well put. While I have my own quirks and therefore the way I understand landscape might be slightly different, I nonetheless agree with this.

Shaken and Stirred

I’m not exactly sure how I ended up reading this, ‘Learning to Translate the Linguistic Landscape’ by David Malinowski, as included in the 2018 book ‘Expanding the Linguistic Landscape: Linguistic Diversity, Multimodality and the Use of Space as a Semiotic Resource’ edited by Martin Pütz and Neele Mundt, or, rather browsing through it, initially searching for the word ‘landscape’ while at it, but indeed I did, that’s what matters.

As the title suggests, his book chapter has to do with translation. That’s not really what caught my attention though and so I won’t be focusing on that here. This is not to say that translation is not important. It is. I like to summarize it the way Brian Massumi (16) expresses it in his 1992 book ‘A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ when he reminds the reader that “[t]ranslation is repetition with a difference.” I’d actually go as far as to say that translation is just another word paraphrasing, which is, in itself, exactly Massumi points out, repetition with a difference. To be exact, technically, there is nothing that is the same. So, when I write something and repeat it, it is not exactly the same because the conditions for its repetition are difference in each instance. Nothing ever stays the same.

Anyway, to get somewhere with this and not just repeat what I’ve written in the past (not that I can technically ever repeat anything, as there’s always difference), Malinowski (61) suggests that one needs to reflexive in one’s work. I agree. He (61) points to Bernard Spolsky’s 2008 book chapter ‘Prolegomena to a Sociolinguistic Theory of Public Signage’, as contained in ‘Linguistic Landscape: Expanding the Scenery’ edited by Elana Shohamy and Durk Gorter. In that book chapter Spolsky (25) notes that as a field or study linguistic landscape is both “awkwardly but attractively labeled”. I agree. It is awkward, but it is also attractive. It doesn’t really tell anyone anything prior to someone specifying what is meant by it. Then again, I reckon it does have buzz to it.

Spolsky (25) links linguistic landscape studies (LLS) to sociolinguistics and language policy studies and considers it as pertaining to language in urban space, which is why he reckons ‘cityscape’ would be a more apt and preferable to ‘landscape’. He (25) also notes that regardless of the moniker and the nomenclature that comes with it, it is very unclear what is meant by it. To be more specific, he (25) wonders whether it is something that calls “for a theory, or simply a collection of somewhat disparate methodologies for studying the nature of public written signs?” He (25) answers his own questions, albeit only, sort of, tentatively, by stating that if it doesn’t need a theory of its own, then it still needs some theory, which can be found in some other field or discipline, such as semiotics. He (25) adds that if it is just about the methods, one still needs to figure out a lot of things, such as what’s a sign anyway, how does one count the signs then, what is the geographic unit one is examining, how does one define it and its borders.

The questions posed Spolsky (25) are tough questions. No doubt about it. Now, it may be just me, acknowledged, but defining such concepts forces one to introduce theory, a lot of it. We may like to think that we can just engage with the world and gather evidence. Sure, you can do that, but that reminds me a lot of early geographic landscape studies, such as the work of Carl Sauer and J.G. Granö, which, in summary, started from observation of some ‘facts’ and resulted in ‘uncovering’ geographic areas or regions.

In short, what’s problematic with such approaches, as pioneered in geography about a century ago already, mind you, is that the people involved fail to realize that they start from the supposed ‘facts’, certain units of analysis, without much consideration that it is they who define what counts as a unit of analysis, and they who gather them in bulk in order to ‘uncover’ what some area or region is like. It’s they who have created that classification. It’s their creation. I reckon that wouldn’t be a problem if what is asserted was that the data indicates that people in a certain area or region seem to be engaged in certain systematic practices, i.e. discourses, that can be seen (yes, visually seen) as manifested in the environment (as landscape is a visual concept). However, if this is left out, as it typically was back in the day among geographic landscape scholars, what you get instead is asserting that a certain area or a region (defined by the researchers as such, mind you) is what is stated in the study.

To use Marxist lingo to explain this (not because I subscribe to Marxism, but because it’s fair easy to understand the issue through it), not bothering with theory results in textbook example of reification, creating objects that people come to take for granted, as having inherent attributes. It results in the object, the thing, whatever we are dealing with as appearing as if it had a life of its own. Now, of course, I don’t believe it does. That said, what matters is that people come to believe that it does. They come to take it as such.

For example, when it comes to landscape, J.G. Granö’s work clearly still lingers in Finland as his classification of Finland into regions, that is to say clearly delimited areas, as defined by him, according to his method, is still used as the basis for administering these regions, conserving their visual appeal, as discussed by Hannu Linkola in his 2016 article titled ‘Administration, Landscape and Authorized Heritage Discourse – Contextualising the Nationally Valuable Landscape Areas of Finland’, as published in Landscape Research. Simply put, what can be said about these areas and what can be done in these areas, is based on the research of one guy, who did that research in the early 1900s. Something tells me that I don’t even need to explain what’s problematic about that, but I’ll do that anyway.

So, to explain the core issue with that, again in Marxist terms (again, out of convenience), people are thus alienated from their surroundings, seen as acting out what they are supposed to act out in accordance to their surroundings. Now, again, for me this is, of course, just nonsense. The area, the region, the landscape, doesn’t make anyone do anything as such, nor does society, culture, nature, ideology or any superorganic or transcendent (otherworldly) entity. However, that is not to say that people don’t buy into that narrative, so I reckon that’s they do. If you ask me, being slave one’s own reasoning is pretty crazy, but that’s what most people do, all day everyday. To cite Katy Perry , because why not, it’s “’cause you’re hot then cold, you’re yes then you’re no, you’re in then you’re out, you’re up then you’re down, you’re wrong when it’s right”; “and you over-think”; “got a case of love bipolar, stuck on a roller coaster, and I can’t get off this ride”. And yes, I just explained what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari think of the contemporary image of thought in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (1987 translation by Massumi), because it is both fun and fitting.

James Duncan (271) summarizes this issue particularly well in his 1978 book chapter ‘The Social Construction of Unreality: An Interactionist Approach to the Tourist’s Cognition of Environment’, as contained in ‘Humanistic Geography: Prospects and Problems’, edited by David Ley and Marwyn Samuels:

“Marx developed the notion of reification most fully in the first volume of Capital in his discussion of the fetishism of commodities; and Lukacs generalized the concept further in his History and Class Consciousness. Reification refers to the process by which man produces a world both of abstractions – that is, ideas, values, norms conduct – and of real concrete objects, which, although they are his own product, he nevertheless permits to dominate him as objective unchanging facticities. Alienation refers to the fact that man forgets that this world is his own product, thus allowing it to act back on him. By reifying the world as he has produced it, by forgetting that it was he who gave it a ‘life of its own,’ and by allowing it to have a power over him, man becomes alienated.”

Now, Duncan goes on to further explain this, contrasting it with other views, but I’m sure you can read that all by yourself, so I won’t go on with that. Linkola’s article deals with these very issues in the Finnish context, albeit from a discursive perspective rather than a Marxist one. In short, the classifications based on Granö have resulted in them living lives of their own, so that people come to expect the countryside that they drive throught to look like something out of the early 1900s when Finland was largely rural and agrarian, with neatly cultivated fields, haystacks, horses and cattle, crudely constructed barns for storage, all-wooden cattle fences and wooden farm buildings. If it doesn’t match the ‘description’, when, in fact, there are no barns, no all wooden cattle fences, no wooden farm buildings, but, instead, pales of hay wrapped in plastic (waiting to be picked up), big tractors and combine harvesters, grain drying facilities made out of sheet metal and houses that differ little from the houses they encounter in cities, they are up in arms about it. Why does no one care about the environment? This is a travesty! These farmers mustn’t be allowed to ruin the landscape! Then some bureaucrats in some office in the capital are alerted about such travesties taking place and they end up giving out press statements about how the country folks should know better and that maybe they should be fined for such infractions.

To further explain this in Marxist terms, the way that all works is fairly (petty) bourgeoisie. I mean, there is this established notion of how things should be and it is taken for granted. People who live elsewhere, and probably just drive through the countryside while on holiday, come to dictate how the world should look like even in places where they don’t live themselves. It’s, as if, there were no people living in the countryside or, as if, if they are taken into consideration, they are to curate the countryside, to retain its look, you know, like an open-air museum, for their pleasure and their comfort. Something tells me that the people working there in the countryside don’t share this view, because it’s where they live and work. For them it probably makes more sense to live here and now, to build this and/or that based on what they need to run things, not on whether it looks like it fits some early 1900s ideal that is based on some city dwellers view of the world that their own grandparents or great-grandparents happened to create back in the day, out of necessity, to make things work for them at that time, in that place.

Now, where was I? So, right, the questions posed by Spolsky (25) are by no means easy questions and attempting to answer them does involve quite a bit of theoreticizing. In my experience it involves going on a quite a wild tangent, kind of like what I just did there but on a much grander scale of course. I agree with Spolsky (26) in that the advantage of studying our surroundings, i.e. the landscape if you will, is highly useful in its simplicity and thus attractive. I sometimes explain what I do and why I do it the way I do by pointing out that it’s a bit like going through people’s garbage to understand their behavior instead of asking people about their habits. For example, we could ask people whether they sort their refuse or not, but who is going to answer that they don’t? It makes way more sense to look at the refuse. That’ll tell us whether people actually separate different types of refuse, say plastic, metal and carton. One could also compare it with the way sewage is analyzed for traces of pharmaceuticals, that is to say drugs, in order to understand how common some use of drugs is in a certain area (matching the extent of the sewage system, of course) because the findings are bound to be more reliable than what we can get by asking people if they use drugs.

I also agree with Spolsky (26) on that despite the methodological advantage, there is typically very little theory involved. To my knowledge, the discussion of the issue, that is to say what is landscape or what is meant by it when it is used to distinguish a (sub)field or a (sub)discipline, is very hard to find in the existing publications outside geographic landscape studies (where it is, in stark contrast, typically explicitly defined). Unless I’m mistaken, I believe the sole exception (in addition to my own work) in this regard is the introduction of the 2010 book ‘Semiotic Landscapes: Language, Image, Space’ in which Adam Jaworski and Crispin Thurlow dedicate about eight pages to address that question. Could it still be a more extensive and a more thorough treatment? Yes. Of course it could be and, perhaps, it should be. Then again, I’m quite delighted by those eight pages. Their book also expands the issue, shifting the focus from linguistic to semiotic, going from one mode to multiple modes, and thus broadens the objects inquiry considerably. I think this is the right way to go about it, even though that does put the label ‘linguistic landscape’ into question.

Is it even necessary to call what linguistic landscape researchers do linguistic landscape studies? Wouldn’t it be better to call it semiotic landscape studies, as done by Jaworski and Thurlow? I find it only apt that Gorter (130) points out in his 2012 review of the book published in Language in Society that considering that Jaworski and Thurlow dub all landscape as semiotic, it is, perhaps, unnecessary to even speak of semiotic landscapes, rather than just landscapes due to the redundancy involved in that statement. I agree. I wholeheartedly agree with this observation. To me, landscape is semiotic, in itself, because it functions as a surface effect, an overlay, always there, wherever you may roam, unless you happened to live prior to its development by Renaissance artists (or you are in a room without lights or just visually impaired to the extent that you are unable to see), as I’ve discussed that numerous times. That’s why it is so crucial to address it, to make sense of it, to explain it to the reader. There are, of course, some pathways out of that, but let’s not get carried away here, as I’ve also discussed that in the past.

Anyway, I reckon that the lack of theory is still the case, over ten years later from the publication of this book chapter written by Spolsky, as pointed out by Thurlow (99-100) in his 2019 commentary titled ‘Semiotic creativities in and with space: binaries and boundaries, beware!’ published in International Journal of Multilingualism. Getting back on track here, Malinowski (62) makes note of this criticism, in reference to a 2016 review written by Joshua Nash ‘Is linguistic landscape necessary?’, as published in Landscape Research. He (62) summarizes Nash’s position:

“[F]irst … LL does not substantially advance the study of landscape per se, and second, that what passes for most LL research amounts basically to old sociolinguistic wine in new bottles. As he writes, ‘The methodological and theoretical thrust of LL can be posed as a logical extension of any detailed consideration of elements of analysis necessitated under what can be considered traditional sociolinguistics’[.]”

For the sake of transparency, let’s clarify this in Nash’s (381) own words:

“Moreover, if LL is old (linguistic) wine freshly housed in new (sociolinguistic and landscape) bottles,what do the expressions linguistic landscape(s) and linguistic landscape studies add to these fields? Although LL might be new to landscape studies and may be a recently developed appellative in linguistics, I believe the details of LL have been, at least philosophically, addressed in earlier linguistic work.”

So, yeah, Nash is indeed stating that linguistic landscape studies tend to be old wine in brand new bottles. And I agree. But, like Nash’ (381) goes on to add, it’s not that linguistics or sociolinguistics don’t bring something to the table. In my own discussion with geographers, those who do landscape research, there seems to be a general hesitance to address language because it seems like a rather daunting task, something better left to the linguists. This is exactly where one might see fruitful cross-over and/or collaboration. If you look at prior geographic landscape research, there’s very little discussion of language, how it is manifested in the landscape and what is its function or functions. There are couple of studies where this is discussed but it took me some proper digging to even find the articles. There are, of course, countless studies where this is handled implicitly, as it is painfully obvious judging by the photos used to illustrate landscape studies. This probably has to do with the hesitation of addressing the issue of language as a non-linguist.

Malinowski (63) makes note of how Nash finds the works he reviews lacking in terms of how they relate landscape studies rather than sociolinguistic studies, while still using the label landscape. I agree with Nash on this one and I’ve received plenty of flak for pointing this out, to the point that I’ve must been shot down a couple of times for such belligerence, that is to say not knowing my place. Malinowski (63) provides his take on the issue:

“From within the disciplinary foci of LL studies as it has come to be known in sociolinguistics and language policy and planning circles (to name a few), such critiques may appear trifling or even irrelevant: as popular glosses of the very term ‘linguistic landscape’ make abundantly clear, language (multilingualism, code-mixing, pragmatics and so on) is the focal object of analysis and is contextualised by the landscape – and not the other way around.”

Okay, so, in other words, those who do linguistic landscape research, or semiotic landscape research if we want to be more inclusive of other modes, can happily ignore the issue of what is landscape because the focus is on language, not on landscape? I think it makes sense to focus on the linguistic aspects, language in the landscape, or so to speak, especially because geographic landscape scholars haven’t really done that (possibly out of fear of trying something which might anger the linguists, stepping on their toes, or something). This is just fine.

The issue that I take, as does Nash, is exactly the attitude that it’s fine to gloss over the landscape part because the focus is on language and that critiques such as the one by Nash may thus come across as “trifling or even irrelevant”, to use Malinowski’s (63) own wording. There’s all this talk the talk about how language matters and what’s new about this new thing is this emphasis on spatiality, taking into account the spatial turn, if you will, but when it comes to explaining what the deal with spatility is, be it in terms of space, place or landscape (environment, surroundings etc.), it tends to be just empty rhetoric, speaking of space, place or landscape (or other similar concepts) but thinking of them just as a mere backdrop or a mere container for human action, as Thurlow (99-100) points out in his 2019 commentary.

This attitude is somewhat surprising, considering Malinowski’s (64-65) discussion of Henri Lefebvre’s spatial triad. I mean Lefebvre is known for being extremely critical of use of concepts such as space for whatever reasons that happen to fits one’s needs in one’s field or discipline. Just look it up in his (2-4) book ‘The Production of Space’ (1991 translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith). For further commentary, look up the added preface to the second edition of the French original, which can be found translated (by Imogen Forster) in the 2003 compilation work ‘Henri Lefebvre: Key writings’ edited by Stuart Elden, Elizabeth Lebas and Eleonore Kofman. Similar criticism can be found in Doreen Massey’s 1992 article ‘Politics and Space/Time’, as published in New Left Review. She (66) points out that while it might seem like a delight for a geographer like her to notice that space and spatiality are finally recognized as important in other fields or disciplines, it is actually often highly disappointing:

“Suddenly the concerns, the concepts (or, at least, the terms) which have long been at the heart of our discussion are at the centre also of wider social and political debate. And yet, in the midst of this gratification I have found myself uneasy about the way in which, by some, these terms are used.”

Similarly to Lefebvre, who she does refer to in this context, her ire is directed at the trendy use of geographic concepts, of which space is the one she (66) pays most attention:

“Many authors rely heavily on the terms ‘space’/‘spatial’, and each assumes that their meaning is clear and uncontested. Yet in fact the meaning that different authors assume (and therefore – in the case of metaphorical usage – the import of the metaphor) varies greatly.”

I particularly like how she highlights a certain paradox:

“[A]uthors who in so many ways excel in logical rigour will fail to define a term which functions crucially in their argument[.]”

Indeed. I’ve encountered this as well. I’ve had to endure excruciating criticism and I’ve been obliged to define every nut and bolt, in minute detail, whatever it is that someone is unhappy with, typically dealing with some methodological issue pertaining to language or multimodality, often in vain, mind you, yet my rigorous examination of central spatial concepts is treated with everything ranging from bewilderment to contempt. Also, when I point out that how someone else’s work lacks theoretical or conceptual rigor, I’m seen as rocking the boat, not knowing my place, or the like. It’s only apt that she (66) calls this “a debate that never surfaces … because everyone assumes we already know what these terms mean.” What was it again that Deleuze and Guattari state about discussions in ‘What Is Philosophy?’ (1994 translation by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell)? Oh yeah, they (28) state that discussions never happen because no one seems to have time for discussion, because people find something better to do when someone suggests actual dialogue. As they (28-29) point out, typically no one wants actual dialogue because they are too busy being right, promoting their own interests, and when someone actually challenges them, not in bad faith but to be productive, like I think Nash does, they deflect the criticism by resorting to ressentiment.

Right, back to Massey. You really have to ask yourself, does she have a point? What does landscape mean? What does landscape mean when it’s included in linguistic landscape? Does anyone know? Or do we just assume that everyone knows and it’s better not to ask stupid questions? I’m with her on this one and reckon that “[a]t least there ought to be a debate about the meaning of [these] much-user term[s].” Then again, something tells me that people are too busy to do that. Oh how convenient!

Related to this, I’m not exactly convinced by Malinowski’s (64-65) presentation of Lefebvre’s spatial triad. Some of this may be because it also appears to be partially based on a reading of Nira Trumper-Hecht’s take on Lefebvre, as presented in a book chapter titled ‘Linguistic Landscape in Mixed Cities in Israel from the Perspective of ‘Walkers’: The case of Arabic’, as included in the 2010 book ‘Linguistic Landscape in the City’ edited by Elana Shohamy and Eliezer Ben-Rafael and Monica Barni. I reckon they are both a bit off when they state that it is the perceived space, what we may also call the physical space, which deals with “actual distribution of language on signs that can be observed and documented by camera” (Trumper-Hecht, 237) and “the plainly visible and audible ‘perceived spaces’ to the eye and the ear of the LL researcher” (Malinowski, 65). To my understanding, the perceived space is the physical space and what happens in physical space (spatial practice), at any given moment (if we freeze time). For me, it’s just about the bodies and their interminglings, where and when. It’s just what happens on the physical level. I don’t think you can assess anything at this level, in itself, because it does not pertain to language or semiosis (beyond involving the manipulation of bodies, such as parts of one’s body producing sounds which are vibrations of another body, the air).

They both are, however, more or less correct about how conceived space is about how the physical space conceptualized (representations of space), typically by people who have the privilege of doing so, including but not limited to “scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers”, as well as “artist[s] with a scientific bent”, as listed by Lefebvre (38).

Malinowski (65) emphasizes the importance of the third part of Lefebvre’s triad, the lived space, stating that linguistic landscape researchers have typically focused on the perceived space and/or the conceived space, thus largely overlooking the lived space, how, for example, local inhabitants come to understand “the significance of the appearance of Arabic, Hebrew or English on this sign or that, for instance, in ways that might well diverge from the top-down (conceived) or researcher’s (perceived) interpretations.” Trumper-Hecht (237) is actually a bit more hesitant about this when she points out that lived space in considered to be the experimental part of Lefebvre’s triad, that is to say how inhabitants come to experience their surroundings. Regardless of the differences between the two, I think both misunderstand (and/or misrepresent) lived space. Lefebvre (39) explains representational spaces:

“[S]pace as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’[.]”

The way I understand this is that lived space is about how people come to engage with the world. It’s not what they think of the world (their conceptions about it), nor what they do (their spatial practices). Lefebvre (39) further clarifies this:

“This is the dominated – and hence passively experience – space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate.”

Here, it’s worth emphasizing that he defines it as a passively experienced space. It is therefore not how one conceptualizes one’s surroundings, for example, when asked about it. That would result in representations of space, not unlike the conceptualized spaces of the aforementioned experts. It is also not the physical space because the imagination seeks to appropriate it. Anyway, Lefebvre (39) clarifies this even further:

“It overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects.”

Indeed, it is an overlay, a surface effect, that one imagines. It doesn’t change the perceived space, the physical space, because the states of affairs, the relation of bodies does not change. Nothing happens to the bodies as such as only bodies can change bodies, the states of affairs. What it does instead is to organize physical space, to dominate it through imagination, to give order. In Lefebvre’s (39) words:

“Thus representational spaces may be said, thought again with certain exceptions, to tend towards more or less coherent systems of non-verbal symbols and signs.”

So, in summary, firstly, I don’t agree with Malinowski, nor Trumper-Hecht, that lived space has to do with the local inhabitants in the sense that it’s somehow some specific group of people, rather than just how anyone passively experiences space. To be clear, I consider anyone, including the researchers as living in space, passively experiencing it. Conversely, contrary to what is expressed by Malinowski (65), the researcher’s observations are not perceptions. Researchers also live, just as anyone does. What they do is to produce representations of space, as based on their conceptions of space. All researchers produce representations, based on certain conceptions. I mean everyone does that, inasmuch as they produce some representations, in one form or another, as based on their conceptualizations. In Lefebvre’s triad, that just comes with it. Of course, not everyone’s representations or conceptualizations are considered as equally important, hence Lefebvre’s emphasis on people who are privileged positions.

Now, of course, I’m just me and what I’ve stated is just my understanding of Lefebvre’s triad. That said, I reckon I’m more or less correct about my corrections. For example, Stuart Elden seems to agree with me. He offers a very useful summary of his triad in ‘There is a Politics of Space because Space is Political: Henri Lefebvre and the Production of Space’, as published in Radical Philosophy Review in 2007. In summary, he (110) notes how, for Lefebvre:

“There is an opposition established between our conception of space – abstract, mental and geometric – and our perception of space – concrete, material and physical.”

He (110) adds that the former is incorporeal (lacks bodies) and the latter is corporeal (has to do with bodies). Lefebvre (40) uses the example of the body:

“In seeking to understand the three moments of social space, it may help to consider the body. All the more so inasmuch as the relationship to space of a ‘subject’ who is a member of a group or society implies his relationship to his own body and vice versa. Considered overall, social practice presupposes the use of the body: the use of the hands, members and sensory organs, and the gestures of work as of activity unrelated to work. This is the real of the perceived (the practical basis of the perception of the outside world, to put it in psychology’s terms).”

To be clear, crystal clear, in terms used by Jacques Lacan (107) in ‘What is a Picture?’, as contained in ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis’, as edited by Jacques-Alain Miller (1977 translation by Alan Sheridan), perception is something that takes place on a subconscious level. To be precise, building on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Phenomenology of Perception’, he (107) calls it a perceptual level, which is, more or less, the level which takes place prior to our conscious linguistic/semiotic understanding of the world. Okay, I guess you could say that it does happen on a conscious level, but, then again, be as it may, regardless of how we define consciousness, it happens on a level that is more primary or primal than the moment when we conceptualize the world linguistically/semiotically. Lefebvre (27) also mentions the link between perception and material or physical world as a matter of “practico-sensory activity” and considers the material or physical world as consisting of aggregates of sensory data. Anyway, back to bodies. Lefebvre (40) continues, adding how he explains body in terms of people come to conceive it:

“As for representations of the body, they derive from accumulated scientific knowledge, disseminated with an admixture of ideology: from knowledge of anatomy, of physiology, of sickness and its cure, and of the body’s relations with nature and with its surroundings or ‘milieu’.”

And, with regard to living, he (40) adds:

“Bodily lived experience, for its part, maybe both highly complex and quite peculiar, because ‘culture’ intervenes here, with its illusory immediacy, via symbolisms and via the long Judaeo-Christian tradition, certain aspects of which are uncovered by psychoanalysis.”

So, for example, as he (40) goes on to exemplify, an organ such as the heart or one’s reproductive parts are lived differently from how they are conceived or perceived. After providing these examples, Lefebvre (40) warns the reader not to not treat his triad as something abstract, a mere model, a mere conception if you will, because, for him, it’s, at the same time, all very concrete, very physical and very lived, which is the point he wants to make. If you just didn’t understand that, he (40) is kind enough to rephrase this when he stresses that these three parts are interconnected. He (40-41) also warns the reader not to think of them as equals of a larger coherent whole as what is important and thus emphasized depends on the time and place; sometimes representations of space subordinate the others, whereas under different circumstances this may not be the case.

Elden (110) aptly summarizes this, noting that one must take into account the physical (material), the mental (ideal) and the social (material and ideal). Simply put, the world is physical, but we also have our conceptions of it and by living, literally just by existing, we combine the two, at all times. There’s no escaping that. Now, of course, that does not negate or eradicate the other two, just because we all live (until we don’t). We do live in a material world. So, yes, when you get something like a virus that’s the physical world acting upon you. It does matter. That said, we do also come up with all kinds of ideas or abstractions. We can talk the talk about the virus, but that doesn’t make it go away, as just about anyone can confirm based on their lived experience. Then again, we can spend our lives trying to understand the virus, to conceptualize it, to come up with a cure for its various strands, which would certainly have an effect on our bodies, thus improving our lived experience considerably. Now, as lived experience tells us, those who work in labs, for that precious knowledge, may also get the virus, which, in turn, hinders any possible progress on that cure because their bodies occupied with dealing with something clearly actual and physical. So, that’s why Elden (110) stresses that it is of utmost importance not to focus solely on one of these as “if only one is grasped and turned into an absolute, a partial truth becomes an error[.]”

So, to explain myself again, why I disagree with Malinowski’s and Trumper-Hecht’s interpretations of Lefebvre’s triad, I’ll let Elden (110-111) provide an apt summary of the triad:

“The first of these takes space as physical form, real space, space that is generated and used. The second is the space of savoir (knowledge) and logic, of maps, mathematics, of space as the instrumental space of social engineers and urban planners, that is, space as a mental construct, imagined space. The third sees space as produced and modified over time and through its use, spaces invested with symbolism and meaning, the space of connaissance (less formal or more local forms of knowledge), space as real-and-imagined.”

Still not convinced? Maybe Elden is just a shell for my understanding of Lefebvre? Okay, okay. Let’s have a look at what Rob Shields has in store for us in his 1999 book titled ‘Lefebvre, Love and Struggle: Spatial Dialectics’. Shields (162) states that spatial practice (perceived space) deals with the material aspects of space, the arrangements of various bits and pieces. For example, the Church (as an organization) needs its churches, actual concrete buildings. To be more elaborate about this, he (162) states that:

“Lefebvre attempts to sketch quickly the way in which spatialisation is just the gap between objects and therefore neutral, unimportant and not an object of struggle. This ‘commonsense’ understanding characterises both taken-for-granted everyday life (daily routines) and the logically rationalised urban (the milieu of routes and networks that we pass through on our way from home to work or play). We do not see that they are all linked together as part of an overarching arrangement, or spatialisation, complains Lefebvre. This commonsensical vision of space is limited to ‘perceived space’ and in fact ignores practice just at it ignores the qualitative meanings, the images and myths of places and regions. All this needs to become fully integrated into a ‘total space’, what Lefebvre refers many times as lived space.”

He (162-163) then specifies that these practices and arrangements deal with, for example, “planned suburbs, or cities connected by routes and flight paths”, including various “divisions and inconsistencies” such as “preserving nature in one place” while “paving over arable land in another” place.

As you can see, similarly to Elden, and Lefebvre himself, Shields indicates that spatial practice deals with the material world or the material aspects of the world, such as paving land or not paving land. They are also not simply separate bits and pieces, paved land here, unpaved land there, church over there and a kiosk over there. To get to the kiosk or church, or wherever one might want to go, one has to traverse on some paved land or, alternatively, non-paved land. Of course, we need to consider what else is there, where the paving leads, is there traffic (moving material objects) etc.

Shields (163) provides a specific example, the Eaton Centre in Toronto, Ontario, which I can also comment myself, having been there myself. The way the shopping center is built, the way the walls are arranged at certain distance from one another, form a central pathway and a number of pathways that divert from it, partly on multiple levels. Anyway, Shields (163) notes that it is a spatial ensemble or an arrangement “that both encourages and requires (for commercial viability) a specific type of ‘crowd practice’”, people wandering in a crowd, as aggregates, while funneled through the ensemble.

The discussion of representations of space reflects what has been discussed so far. Shields (163) does, however, emphasize how we can’t or shouldn’t simply think of conceptualizing and subsequently representing space as derived from the material aspects of space (spatial practice). In other words, as he (163) points out, it’s important to remember that these abstractions are drawn from lived experience, not merely from the material world. This is the point I made earlier about how everyone, including the researchers, are always in the lived space. Yes, their bodies do take part in spatial practice, but that is inevitable as everyone who is considered as living has a body. What is important about the representations of space is how they “are central to forms of knowledge and claims of truth made in the social sciences, which (today) in turn ground the rational/professional power structure of the capitalist state”, as noted by Shields (164).

This remark made by Shields (164) is particularly relevant to my earlier remark about Granö’s work in Finland as such representations of space provided by an influential academic (of his time) form the basis of knowledge and what is considered ‘true’ about certain areas, which, in turn, have been used by certain state authorities to ground and legitimize how these areas should look, how they should be managed and consequently how people should go about with their lives in these areas.

With regard to representational spaces or, as Shields (164-165) prefers to translate this, spaces of representation, his take on Lefebvre is in line with that of Elden and mine. He (164-165) likens this lived space as the constantly re- and de-coded overlay of the physical space and the spatial practice. In other words, it builds on the material aspect of space, out of necessity really, but it also draws from the conceptions or representations of space, here and now, on a moment to moment basis. He (165) states that in many cases this overlay tends to draw from dominant social representations or conceptions of space, as advocated by state authorities and/or corporations. However, he (165) adds that people are mere automatons and there are cases where the representations that people rely on are localized views of how things ought to be. For example, he (164) lists squatters, illegal aliens and slum dwellers as people who come to “fashion a spatial presence and practice outside the norms of the prevailing (enforced) social spatialisation.”

I reckon that is is worth adding that here that while it is possible to resist the dominant or hegemonic order, one could argue that by setting up their our zones, they’ve sort of done the same thing by establishing their order of things in a certain area. So if a slum is run by a gang or a drug cartel, it certainly isn’t conforming to the dominant representations of space of the state, but the gangs and cartels like operate like a state, in parallel and in contestation with the official state, but like a state nonetheless. Similarly, in a more corporate society, like in many western countries, one may think one is acting against the corporate interests, say, by wearing that Che Guevara t-shirt or a rainbow flag, without thinking that some big corporation makes them in some poor country and charges you 15€ a piece for them. The point here is that the dominant social categories are very hard to resist or subvert, regardless of whether they are linked to the state or capitalism because they can always ‘get with the times’ by hijacking them and turning them into something that benefits them, at the detriment of others.

Similarly to Elden, Shields (165-166) explains Lefebvre’s triad through how it pertains to the body. However, as it is more or less just the same that I already covered, I’ll leave it to you to check out on your own. What I want to explain instead is how one should not forget that his triad consists of spatial practice, representations of space and representational spaces. Shields (161) comments that in discursive parlance, which I prefer, we might call representations of space discourses on space and representational spaces as the discourse of space. I think it would also be apt to call spatial practice the non-discursive space. Anyway, in phenomenological terms, these are then linked to what the triad that consists of the perceived space, the conceived space and the lived space.

To get back on track here, I don’t really understand why Malinowski only discusses the perceived-conceived-lived triad, when it seems, at least to me, that Lefebvre is keen to discuss both. Christian Schmid (29) explains this well in ‘Henri Lefebvre’s Theory of the Production of Space: Towards a Three-Dimensional Dialectic’ (2008 translation by Bandulasena Goonewardena), as included in ‘Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre’ edited by Kanishka Goonewardena, Stefan Kipfer, Richard Milgrom and Schmid:

“They are doubly determined and correspondingly doubly designated. On the one hand, they refer to the triad of ‘spatial practice,’ ‘representations of space,’ and ‘spaces of representation.’ On the other, they refer to ‘perceived,’ ‘conceived,’ and ‘lived’ space.”

Or, to explain the same point in shorter form (29):

“This parallel series points to a twofold approach to space: one phenomenological and the other linguistic or semiotic.”

In other words, one should treat Lefebvre’s triad as a twofold triad, on one hand as linguistic/semiotic (spatial practice-representations of space-representational spaces) and, on the other hand as phenomenological (perceived-conceived-lived). I find not discussing the latter triad problematic because, as pointed out by Shields (162), focusing on the perceived space, for example, ignores spatial practice. To be more specific, he (162) points out that for Lefebvre the perceived space is the naive, commonsensical vision of space where things are just the way they are, out there, neutrally positioned. This is why I opted to explain what is meant by perception earlier on through the work of Lacan (as well as Merleau-Ponty). So, more broadly speaking, I find it problematic to ignore the linguistic/semiotic aspects of the triad, in favor of its phenomenological aspect. I want to add that I am not against phenomenology, even thought I do not subscribe to it. I just don’t find it useful when it comes to addressing anything social. It’s simply too individualistic and thus fails to help me to provide solutions to the social problems that I focus on. That said, I still try to find time to better understand this position.

It seems to me that Malinowski, as well as Trumper-Hecht, confuse the spatial practice (perceived space) with the space of representation (lived space), which is an easy mistake to make according to Shields (161) due to the confusion introduced by Lefebvre. Shields (161, 165) points out that the central parts of the book are particularly messy and unorganized, resulting in inconsistencies that the reader is left to parse. Apparently Lefebvre wasn’t too keen on having his work subsequently edited, as noted by Shields (165). So, yeah, that is an easy mistake to make because the source material is somewhat inconsistent. For reasons unknown, Trumper-Hecht (237) actually refers to spatial practice in connection to conceived space and lived space, which Malinowski (64-65) corrects in his treatment of the triad. Nothing worth being up in arms anyway.

Broadly speaking, I don’t mind what others do and, for example, Trumper-Hecht (237) is certainly correct in her statement, as also reiterated by Malinowski (65), that all three parts of the triad should be taken into account and they should all be studied, not just one of them because it appears to be more important than another. I just don’t agree with Trumper-Hecht or Malinowski in that representational spaces (spaces of representation or discourses of space) are somehow about local accounts as opposed to how, in general, people come to experience space as influenced by their material surroundings, as well as their conceptions of their surroundings, which, in turn, are likely influenced by dominant or hegemonic conceptions (representations or discourses) that have been instilled in them by other people, namely family and teachers (but, of course, including anyone who has influenced them). I also think that it is impossible to explain lived experience because once it is put into words, even only in thought, it is a mere conception of lived experience. As explained by Schmid (40):

“On this point Lefebvre is unequivocal: the lived, practical experience does not let itself be exhausted through theoretical analysis. There always remains a surplus, a remainder, an inexpressible and unanalysable but most valuable residue that can be expressed only through artistic means.”

Schmid makes a good point about art though. I think you can express something through art. However, this has nothing to do with research. I’m all for art and lived experience. I love it! But it is pointless to try to attempt to analyze art or experience because that always results in mere conceptions of the real deal.

Anyway, in addition, I also don’t agree with Trumper-Hecht or Malinowski that fieldwork, making notes, taking photographs, doing videos etc., deal with the perceived space as perception is just about the senses, how we make sense of raw sensory data that is not accessible to us as such, and spatially this part of the triad deals with the material aspects of space, what is, at any given moment. Of course, it’s inevitable that a researcher does deal with spatial practice, where bodies are situated in relation to one another at any given moment in time. I mean if you study the presence of written language or linguistic elements in space, it’s rather obvious that the way bodies are in relation to one another matters. But stating that a researcher typically deals only with the plainly visible, i.e. the perceptible, is just off, at least according to my understanding of Lefebvre. As I pointed out already, this has to take place in the lived spaces, in the representational spaces or discourses of space, because otherwise there is no linguistic or semiotic content to the material expressions one studies. The results are, of course, mere conceptions of our lived experiences, our engagements with the world, but that’s sort of inevitable, unless you want do art instead (which is fine, but the point is that you can’t have it both ways).

In summary, I don’t really understand the hostility towards landscape scholarship expressed by Malinowski (62). It makes no sense, considering the apparent influence of Lefebvre, a spatial theorist who is known for taking concepts very, very seriously. This includes not only space and spatiality but also landscape, which is a central concern to everyday life and lived experience due to how it relies on the material world, while actually being a specific conception of it, yet actualized by the people themselves on daily basis as a representational space. In short, in my understanding, landscape is a way of organizing the world, our lived experience. Therefore, taking that into account should be a central concern (albeit not the only concern) in any landscape studies, including linguistic or semiotic landscape studies. This does, by no means, negate or undermine the importance of focusing on the linguistic or semiotic elements in the landscape. I’d say the exact opposite is the case. It actually makes it more important to focus on them.

So, yeah, I reckon Nash (381) makes a good point when he argues that linguistic landscape research appears to be old wine in new bottles, an existing product that has been simply been repackaged. I mean, if your focus is only on language and you never explain what’s the deal with landscape in linguistic landscape studies, except that it just what conceptualizes language, you know, like a backdrop or a container, you are bound to run into this kind of criticism. If you shelter from criticism by resorting to asserting a disciplinary boundary, that it doesn’t concern you because in this field or discipline we are not concerned by such, you are bound to run into this issue of being labeled by fellow (socio)linguists as just old wine in new bottles. Now, I reckon that at times Nash really stretches it when he resorts to explaining this in terms of wine bottling, to the point it can be a bit (t)iresome, but he does make a good point. In short, if the focus is on language and not landscape why even call it linguistic landscape? Why not call it, say, situated sociolinguistics or geolinguistics (I know, already taken)? Or as advocated by the Scollons, why not call it geosemiotics? I reckon that’s an apt label. Then again, I agree with Nash on that there is nothing that prevents one from familiarizing oneself landscape studies and using their beverages (oh, and there’s a lot of varieties to choose from, even phenomenological ones) to create your own blend. That’s what I do. I’m a happy mixologist.

Gabriel the Archenemy

To be productive, rather than just commenting on commenting, this time I’ll be looking at the work of Gabriel Tarde, best known for being effectively erased from the history books by Émile Durkheim or, rather, by those who loyally followed Durkheim. There’s that something about disciples or acolytes, those who follow some great leader. They are usually way worse, way more dogmatic than the person they follow. You end up with a some sort of school where everyone has to be like the great leader or, well, like what the disciples think the great leader was like and thought. We could say the same about structuralism (linguistics), psychoanalysis (psychology), historical materialism (philosophy), analytical philosophy, to name a few, because people who subscribe to them have ended up setting them as schools of thought that set the rules of the game according to which everyone else is supposed to play.

Now, what is Tarde known for, if anything (because, well, he isn’t that well known)? In short, his game was microsociology and he was up to something as bastardous as quantifying the social! Both probably sound batshit crazy on their own, but even more so when included in the same sentence. That’s because you’ve been told that sociology deals with the society, that is to say groups of people, not individuals, and that the natural sciences are the quantitative sciences and social sciences are the qualitative sciences, the former being often called the hard sciences and the latter often being called the soft sciences. Well, as crazy as it may sound but Tarde was certainly a pioneer in this regard and clearly at odds with those reductive characterizations.

I only got to know Tarde’s work through reading ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (1987 translation by Brian Massumi) by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. He does also get mentioned by Deleuze in, for example, ‘Difference and Repetition’ (1994 translation by Paul Patton), where it is only fitting to include him, considering the book title. Bruno Latour also has a wonderful book chapter titled ‘Tarde’s idea of quantification’, contained in a book published in 2009, titled ‘The Social After Gabriel Tarde: Debates and Assessments’ edited by Matei Candea. I’ll cover it in parts, as well as Tarde’s ‘The Laws of Imitation’ (1903 translation by Elsie Clews Parsons) because nothing beats reading the originals. There will be bits from other publications as well, but these will the ones covered most in this essay.

Latour (147) opens up his book chapter, explaining the issue that we deal with, even today:

“In the twentieth century, the schism between those who dealt with numbers and those who dealt with qualities was never been bridged. This is a fair statement given that so many scholars have resigned themselves to being partitioned into those who follow the model of the ‘natural’ sciences, and those who prefer the model of the ‘interpretive’ or ‘hermeneutic’ disciplines.”

So, as I just pointed out, these images of what natural sciences and social sciences are like are something that we’ve grown up with, largely thanks to the academics involved on both sides. Latour (147) further clarifies this:

“All too often, fields have been divided between number crunching, devoid (its enemies claim) of any subtlety; and rich, thick, local descriptions, devoid (its enemies say) of any way to generalize from these observations.”

The first part is exactly what I have to deal with when it becomes apparent that I deal with numbers. The enemies or, rather, detractors (because I don’t see others as enemies, really) can’t comprehend how looking at numbers can have any nuance. It’s like they assume that what I do, namely pointing out certain patterns, has to do with me just counting how many times something occurs and then I tell you that this is the case. That’s just way too reductive. There’s far more nuance when it comes to going through sets of data. Of course it depends how the data was formed, what type of stuff was taken into account and how it is arranged because that all affects how it can be assessed. Simply put, if you do something simple like look at a large set of data, one variable at a time, it’s fair to say that it’s going lack nuance because all you get is the frequency of something. But if you can look at data and examine it with multiple variables, to see if we can find some correspondence (typically done through contingency tables, aka cross tabulation or crosstab), that’s where things start to get interesting.

Now, what’s so special about Tarde then? Well, as stated by Latour (147-148), he was never under any illusion that what is to be considered quantitative in social sciences has to be like it is natural sciences. As crazy as it may seem, Tarde (1-2) considers social sciences to be a better fit for quantification than natural sciences because there is no necessity in social sciences to explain something in terms of mechanistic causality, reducible to a matter of force, energy or the like. Latour (148) summarizes that for Tarde the upside of assessing the social is that what is assessed is always close, whereas the natural sciences deal with something that isn’t, because there’s always this distance, a yawning gap between the “overall structure and underlying components” in natural sciences, caused by a lack of information about, well, this and that, anything really, as it’s a guessing game as to whether you can ever be sure that you now have it all under control, that you are aware of all the pieces of the puzzle. Tarde (4-5) argues that:

“The astronomer states that certain nebulae, certain celestial bodies of a given mass and volume and at a given distance, exist, or have existed. The chemist makes the same statement about certain chemical substances, the physicist about certain kinds of ethereal vibrations, which he calls light, electricity, and magnetism; the naturalist states that there are certain principal organic types, to begin with, plants and animals; the physiographer states that there are certain mountain chains, which he calls the Alps, the Andes, et cetera.”

Summarizing these specific cases pertaining to specific sciences, he (4) states that:

“And, in all cases, the first data are simply affirmed; they are extraordinary and accidental facts, the premises and sources from which proceeds all that which is subsequently explain.”

So, as Deleuze and Guattari might explain this, the natural scientists always assume that they start from beginning when, in fact, we are always in the middle of things. In other words, despite the arbitrariness involved in this, certain cases, what Tarde (5) calls capital facts, are held as the starting points. Tarde (5) challenges this approach:

“In teaching us about these capital facts from which the rest are deduced, are these investigators doing the work, strictly speaking, of scientists?”

To which he (5) answers:

“They are not; they are merely affirming certain facts, and they in no way differ from the historian who chronicles the expedition of Alexander or the discovery of printing.”

He (5) actually goes as far as to say that the historian actually has an edge over the scientist. For him (5), the issue is not that everything revolves around cause and effect, that one thing leads to another, but rather the reliance on resemblance, what we might as well call identity, what something is, or, rather, what something appears to be, as subsequently classified, measured and enumerated as such. He (5) wants to challenge this:

“[L]et us imagine a world where there is neither resemblance nor repetition, a strange, but, if need be, an intelligible hypothesis; a world where everything is novel and unforeseen, where the creative imagination, unchecked by memory, has full play, where the motions of the stars are sporadic, where the agitation of the ether unrhythmical, and where successive generations are without the common traits of an hereditary type. And yet every apparition in such a phantasmagoria might be produced and determined by another, and might, in its turn, become the cause of others. In such world causes and effects might still exist; but would any kind of a science be possible?”

To which he (5) answers:

“It would not be, because, to reiterate, neither resemblances nor repetitions would be found there.”

Now, if this seems somewhat familiar to you, it might be because you’ve read ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ by Deleuze and Guattari, ‘Difference and Repetition’ by Deleuze or ‘Logic of Sense’ (1990 translation by Mark Lester and Charles Stivale) by Deleuze. This is likely because Deleuze (and Guattari) are influenced by Tarde. It’s also because all these guys, Deleuze, Guattari and Tarde, are influenced by the Stoics, at least to a certain degree. There is just something very similar about them, especially with regard to this passage written by Tarde (6):

“[T]he mind does not fully understand nor clearly recognise the relation of cause and effect, except in as much as the effect resembles or repeats the cause, as, for example, when a sound wave produces another sound wave, or a cell, another cell. There is nothing mysterious, one may say, than such reproductions. I admit this; but when we have once accepted this mystery, there is nothing clearer than the resulting series.”

In other words, it us, we, who come to understand the world as a series of causes and effects, causes and effects, based on how we approach the world through resemblance. Now, Deleuze (4) has this to say about the Stoics in ‘The Logic of Sense’:

“There are no causes and effects among bodies. Rather, all bodies are causes – causes in relation to each other and for each other.”

So, in other words, there are just bodies (in the broadest sense of the word, like a human body or a body of water etc.) that are the causes, in relation to one another and for one another, as summarized by Deleuze (4).

When you think of it, like a Stoic might, it certainly makes no sense to understand the world as this leading to that, as a matter of cause and effect (to emphasize the and aspect, as done by Deleuze). Why? Well, because all bodies are in the present, here and now, and all they do is to (co)exist in space, in relation to one another, in some arrangement, in some assemblage. If they are co-present, at all times, one thing cannot happen before anything else because nothing can happen in isolation from everything else. So, what we instead are causes and causes, and more causes, that come to appear as effects, once we investigate something. Sure, we can speak of it as a matter of causes and effects, but that’s just something that we come up in retrospect, once we isolate something from everything else for the sake of clarity.

To use a sports example, because why not, when one player crashes into another player, it’s strictly speaking erroneous to claim that one player is at fault, that he or she was reckless and thus caused the collision. Why? Ah, you see, it’s because if we say that only one player is at fault, we treat the rest of the world as if it was static or, a least, somehow existed in separation from the player that is deemed to the one causing the infraction. The problem here is that all the players move simultaneously, in relation to one another, so it’s not as simple as saying this one player caused the collision. It is certainly real, no doubt about it, but it’s not an effect as bodies always deal with mere change in the states of affairs, how the bodies are arranged and mixed in relation to one another. We can, of course, think of it as an effect, but then we are discussing altogether something different, something that we come attribute to the bodies, as explained by Deleuze (4-5). So, yes, in a way there are effects, but not in the way we typically come think of them as having to do with bodies.

Right, where was I? Okay, so, Tarde (6) makes note of how we can speak of resemblance in terms of a quantity. The things that share resemblance are repeated. This is known as growth, like in the case of multiplying cells of a body. The other way to look at this would be in terms of groups and series. Here Tarde (6) notes that all sciences are alike in this regard, even the social sciences (like it or not):

“In all of this I fail to see anything which would differentiate the subject of social science.”

In short, to get somewhere with this, as expressed by Tarde’s (1):

“In social subjects we are exceptionally privileged in having veritable causes, positive and specific acts, at first hand; this condition is wholly lacking in every other subject of investigation.”

So, as summarized by Latour (148), what is social is always close, here and now, readily observable. Now, that may appear like a bold claim, that it’s just that easy, but we’ll get to it, eventually (in this essay or some future essay). For now, you may find yourself having a laugh at this, as if we could only focus on all things social and that’s it. Well, no. Tarde (1) doesn’t claim that we can just ignore everything that isn’t social just because we focus on the social:

“[A]re human acts … the sole factors of history? Surely this is too simple!”

He (1-2) continues:

“And so we bind ourselves to contrive other causes on the type of those useful fictions which are elsewhere imposed upon us, and we congratulate ourselves upon being able at times to give an entirely impersonal colour to human phenomena by reason of our lofty, but truly speaking, obscure, point of view.”

So, no, let’s not go down that path. It just results in idealism, one type or another. It’s not just about the social, just like it isn’t all just about what isn’t social. He (2) continues:

“Let us likewise ward off the vapid individualism which consists in explaining social changes as the caprices of certain great men.”

He makes this point to warn not to understand all things social as having caused by a handful of notable people, heroes of their time, also known as great men (this is only accurate to retain, because of the sexist bent of the times, because at the time it would have been unthinkable to refer to great individuals, to great people, because, you know, women weren’t considered as great, let alone people worth considering).

Now that we are on ‘-isms’, he (7) further comments on nominalism and realism, noting that the former it is marked by individual characteristics or idiosyncrasies that are the only significant realities and the latter is marked by its sole focus on resemblances between individuals and how they are produced. In other words, the former focuses on the unique aspects of each individual, as differentiated from others, whereas the latter focuses on the similar aspects of each individual, as judged in relation to others. He (7) further notes that (what we might contemporarily call) individualism is a type of nominalism and socialism is a type of realism.

So, in summary, thus far, Tarde is against claiming that people do this and/or that because it is human nature to do so. That said, he isn’t saying that there aren’t certain factors that are out of our control, that pertain to the way we are or come to be. That’d be like claiming that everyone is exactly the same, from the start to the finish. There’s no need to be silly about this. Human biology, inasmuch as we understand it, does play a role. Then again, explaining something that we do as solely a matter of biology, that is in our nature, or so to speak, is just nonsense as well. Also, when it comes to the society, Tarde is against claiming that people do this and/or that because it is part of their culture to do so, in the sense that here culture acts as just another word for nature, as this omnipotent, God-like third party that explains why people what they do. Now, just because Tarde rejects such broad explanations doesn’t mean that he thinks that society is shaped a select few individuals, that people do this and/or that because a few greats made things the way they are. I’d like to add this, to point out, that this applies to everyone, as he (2) sort of goes on to imply.

Tarde’s (2) way of explaining what’s going on may appear contradictory because the social isn’t explained by the people, by the individuals, but by the relations of the individuals, what lies in between them. So, for Tarde (2), instead of great men, or, more contemporarily, great individuals (to not be sexist), or just individuals, great or not (to not be elitist), we should be focusing on ideas, what he prefers to call “inventions or discoveries.” To be clear, he (2) doesn’t like using the individual as the starting point because it is often hard to pinpoint when and where something came to be:

“[L]et us explain these changes [in societies] through the more or less fortuitous [apparition], as to time and place, of certain great ideas, or rather, of a considerable number of both major and minor ideas, of ideas which are generally anonymous and usually obscure birth; which are simple or abstruse; which are seldom illustrious, but which are always novel.”

It’s worth noting here that I replaced the word appearance with apparition because there is a risk that people focus on the appearance, as in the looks of something (to be ocularcentrist, once more), what something is, supposedly, rather than what’s at stake, how something comes to appear to us, if it does, inasmuch as it does, at a certain time, in a certain place. The French original uses the word apparition, so emphasizing this point is worth it.

I’ve explained this distinction in the past, in painstaking detail, so I won’t go more into it. It’s actually as simple as just explained here. Appearance can certainly be understood as an instance of appearing, as in, something like: ‘His sudden appearance was not welcome because no one had invited him to the party.” The problem with appearance is rather that it tends to be understood as pertaining to likeness, for example the looks of something or someone, like: “I couldn’t care less about my appearance as its irrelevant to the task at hand.” The problematic part is that people often come to think of appearance as how something really is, which, well, isn’t at all that clear when we start to actually investigate the issue, as I did in the previous essay.

There’s also another issue. Even when we use appearance like I did in the former (made up) example (above), we focus on the instance of someone appearing, someone who we know as already having existence, in that case a person crashing a party, whereas with apparition we focus on the very instance of appearing, how and why does this and/or that appear to me, the way it does, inasmuch as it does. We are talking about the conditions of appearing. So, to use the same example, we are not focusing on someone uninvited showing up, but on the terms of that person actually existing to us.

We have to be like detectives when it comes to apparition. Of course, taking into account the very fact that someone appears to us, the way he or she does, at any given time, in this instance at a party, uninvited, is going to be super complex. It’s going to be so complex that much of it is going to be pretty obscure to us, to the point that we can’t even say this and/or that appears to us because it fulfills this and/or that conditions of its apparition. So, as Deleuze and Guattari (192-194) put it in ‘A Thousand Plateaus (1987 translation by Brian Massumi), it’s not as simple as addressing “what happened” because when we deal with apparition there is no necessity, only contingency, and therefore the appropriate question is “[w]hatever could have happened for things to have come to this?” Moreover, it’s worth further specifying that it’s not even that we can’t know something that happened in the past for sure, as we are addressing that past always in the present, but rather that, to really emphasize this point, to hammer this home, there is no necessity, nothing as simple as this must lead to that, but rather that it may lead to that, but it also may not, which leaves us in doubt, in indeterminacy, as they (193) point out. Of course, as Tarde (2) points out, in many cases we can’t even know because of the obscurity involved. Yeah, sure, we can say it’s because we lost record of the first instance of this and/or that, but, well, in many cases no one really kept any records of this and/or that, hence the obscurity.

To be honest, it’s not even that important to be able to point out who came up with what as it doesn’t really change things. For example, it is contested whether Valentin Voloshinov wrote ‘Marxism and the Philosophy of Language’ (1973 translation by Ladislav Matejka and I.R. Titunik) as some say it was Mikhail Bakhtin. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it was Pavel Medvedev. Maybe it was more than just one person who wrote it. Then again, maybe it wasn’t. What matters is that it was indeed written. What’s novel and what you get out of it is what matters, for me anyway. The author, who we think wrote the book, is a figment of our imagination anyway, so what’s the fuss? It’s crazy how people obsess over such, about who’s idea was this and/or that, when who they are talking about is their figment of imagination. Sure, you can retain that figment of imagination, that’s fine, but I reckon the problem is that it tends to get asserted as being an actual person, not a conceptual person, not a figment of imagination. Now, of course, the obsession over who did what has to do with what Deleuze and Guattari call the passional self in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. So, what matters to people who fuss over such is that they want to get the credit, that they should be heralded for some past accomplishments that they probably didn’t accomplish all by themselves. It’s just me, me, me, followed by more me, me, me, and don’t you dare to forget about me! Petty squabbling. I like how Deleuze and Guattari (3) address this issue at the very beginning of ‘A Thousand Plateaus’:

“The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd. … Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit.”

And (3):

“To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.”

The point here is that not only were there two writers, Deleuze and Guattari, or so we’ve come to assume to be the case, because they decided to put their names on the book, but also that even on their own each of them is always many. To be clear, they say this because it is very hard to separate what is your own, or so to speak, and differentiate it from what isn’t your own. We may like to say that it was ‘I’ who came up with this and/or that, yet, oddly enough, even if that is the case, you only came up with whatever it is that is supposedly novel or actually novel because you were influenced and inspired by others, if not actually aided by them.

It’s also worth adding that the person who wrote something is not the same person in each instance. That said, we are in this habit of thinking that, say, someone like Deleuze is this specific person who held certain views and we can discover them by reading his works. The problem with this line of thinking is that it would appear that the person who wrote the books wrote them at the same time, as if frozen in time, unaffected by anything, any influence, any life experience. This is, of course, impossible and that’s why I like to point out that it is actually just a figment of one’s imagination. Then there’s also the problem with the reader, who isn’t always the same person, as the actual reader is not stuck in time nor place either.

Right, back to Tarde (2) who elaborates what he means by inventions or discoveries:

“[A]ny kind of an innovation or improvement, however slight, which is made in any previous innovation throughout the range of social phenomena – language, religion, politics, law, industry, or art.”

The point here is that invention or discovery should not be understood in a limited sense as having to do with an invention or an innovation, as technology. It can certainly be about technology and often it is about it, but that’s too limited for Tarde. So, yeah, any idea or social phenomena will count equally well.

Returning to the earlier point on how obscure the origins tend to be, for Tarde (2) part of their obscurity has to do with the way it takes a while for something to catch on:

“At the moment when this novel thing, big or little as it may be, is conceived of, or determined by, an individual, nothing appears to change in the social body, – just as nothing changes in the physical appearance of an organism which a harmful or beneficent microbe has just invaded, – and the gradual changes caused by the introduction of the new element seem to follow, without visible break, upon the anterior social changes into whose current they have glided.”

He (2) further comments on this, noting that the way innovations come to be is thus, in part, illusory because it gives us this sense of “fundamental continuity in historic metamorphoses.” In other words, because changes tend to be ever so subtle, we come to think of them as a continuum or “a chain of ideas”, one leading to another, as he (2) points out. Now, this does not mean that ideas, that is to say innovations or discoveries, are not connected. They are. However, as he (2) points out, they are all distinct and discontinuous, yet connected. It’s just that the connection isn’t a given. Instead, as he (2) clarifies:

“[T]hey are connected by the much more numerous acts of imitation which are modelled upon them.”

Here we get to the title of his book which has to do with imitation. So, in summary thus far, we innovations and imitations. People come up with this or that novel thing and then that gets imitated. That’s the gist of this. Therefore, for Tarde (3):

“Socially, everything is either invention or imitation.”

Now, as pointed out already, it makes no difference in terms of what we are dealing with, whether its social, vital (biological/genetic) or physical, as he (7) goes on to state. You simply have an invention of some kind, something novel, that appears at some point in time, somewhere, which will then be repeated by others, imitated by them. That’s the gist of this, as he (7-8) points out. All the sciences, including the social sciences are very alike in this regard. That said, he (8) notes that people tend to be struck by the orderliness of the natural sciences whereas the social sciences seem more like a hot mess:

“[W]e should not be surprise if the [social sciences] seem chaotic when we view them through the medium of the historian, or even through that of the sociologist, whereas the [natural sciences] impress us, as they are presented by physicist, chemist, or physiologist, as very well ordered worlds.”

But, as they say, appearances may be deceptive. In his (8) words:

“These latter scientists show us the subject of their science only on the side of its characteristic resemblances and repetition[.]”

Which, I would add, is not a problem in itself. What is left out is the problem, as elaborated by him (8):

“[T]hey prudently conceal its corresponding heterogeneities and transformations[.]”

In contrary, in the social sciences, the social scientists, in this case the historians and the sociologists do the exact opposite, as already mentioned in this essay in reference to Latour (147). In Tarde’s (8) words:

“The historian and sociologist, on the contrary, veil the regular and monotonous face of social facts, – that part in which they are alike and repeat themselves, – and show us only their accidental and interesting, their infinitely novel and diversified, aspect.”

He (9) provides an example pertaining to history. For him (9), historians are always too busy to explain to their audience how it is that, for example, Gallo-Romans, became the way the did, by going through “every word, rite, edict, profession, custom, craft, law, or military manœuvre” introduced by the Romans in conquered Gaul and how those ideas spread in the area, swaying the people, making these newly introduced ideas eventually more popular than the old ways, customs and ideas.

Okay, he (9) is well aware of how painstakingly dull a process that would be, to go through it all, to discuss intricacies of Latin, Roman poetry, law, religion, art, craftmanship, varieties of Roman architecture, including but not limited to varieties pertaining to temples, basilicas, theaters, hippodromes, aqueducts and atriumed villas, and teaching of military manœuvres to local soldiers. This would then followed by an assessment of Roman Christianity, its rites and how it spread to Gaul, as he (9) goes on to add. That said, as I like to think, being lazy is a very poor excuse (not that people say that they are lazy, why would they, even if they are?). In his (9) words:

“And yet it is only at this price that we can get at an exact estimate of the great amount of regularity which obtains in even the most fluctuating societies.”

The point here really is that in social sciences there is this habit or practice of focusing on the “accidental and interesting” (8), “novel and diversified” (9), which I reckon is just fine, inasmuch it is clearly indicated that all the regularities have been glossed over in the process (i.e. that you just didn’t bother with the other stuff). I would say that this picture is pretty accurate even contemporarily.

Of course, it is worth adding that the way academics works, not only are social scientists generally expected to focus on “rich, thick, local descriptions” and natural scientists on “number crunching”, as Latour (147) summarizes the issue, but they are incentivized to work in these ways. Conversely, straying from the path, doing anything beside what you are expected is effectively disincentivized. In short, we could say that you are disciplined to act in a certain way because you will be punished for acting in any other way.

For example, my work is arguably quantitative, albeit you could say that in certain ways it is also qualitative. Anyway, what it is or isn’t is beside the point. What matters is how it comes across to others, to one’s supposed peers who are to judge the work. In my experience, it is very hard to be appreciated for what you do if you don’t follow in the footsteps of established names in your field, whose work more or less define what you should be doing and, conversely, what you should be doing. Now, appreciation is not what you should be worried about, really. I mean surely you are not trying to sell something! Or are you?

This is exactly where it gets interesting. When we take a closer look at the academic practices themselves, we can see a pattern, a regularity. It’s highly ironic, really, considering how in social sciences you are expected to go for the “accidental and interesting” (8), “novel and diversified” (9), yet this practice, doing just that, and not something else, is, in itself, marked by conformity to similarity and regularity. In terms of incentives, there are none for those who wish to try something different. Why? Well, because, if you don’t do what you are expected to do, you will find yourself in the margin, that is to say not funded and your work not accepted, which, in turn, reinforce one another as it is harder to get funded if you haven’t published and it’s harder to get published if you lack funding as then you likely spend your days doing something else.

There’s of course also the productivity angle. Oddly enough, being lazy, that is to say not going through a ton of data, and focusing on something small, typically in the name of the “novel and diversified” (9), is incentivized whereas thinking big is not incentivized. When the only measures of success are how many manuscripts you’ve managed to get published and in which publications, it only makes sense to get things done with the least effort involved. Again, it’s highly ironic that it’s about quantity over quality, considering how we then get quantity out of qualitative studies. Conversely, it only makes sense not to spend hours and hours on something, to get to the bottom of things, if you will, if it is treated equal to something where none of that effort was involved. Now, of course, this has to do with the way the system works, how it revolves around this type of measurebation.

Anyway, Tarde (9-10) comments on how this works in practice. So, instead of putting in the hours, studying various social phenomena, in all of their tedious everydayness, it’s just way easier to attempt to make sense of it all, either by resorting to the great men theory, that, say, Julius Caesar played a key role in the Romanization of the Gauls, or that certain preachers Christianized the Gauls, or rationalizing how well Christianity and Romanism meshed together, when it isn’t all that clear what Christianity or Romanism even are, considering how they were formed on the basis of various ideas originating in different parts of the Roman Empire. Here it’s worth going back a bit, to his (7) point about nominalism and realism, how we like to attribute something to dissimilarity (the individual) or, alternatively, to similarity (the group). We could also call this the subjective and the objective explanations.

Tarde (12) is well aware of how the social world appears just incoherent, having all these currents that just flow somewhere, at times intersecting. However, he (12) won’t fall back on attempting to explain how we make sense of it, on a daily basis, as a matter of subjective experience or as guided by objective laws. It’s at this stage that he (12) indicates why he thinks that, in spite of his or her flaws (what just discussed), the historian is more advanced than the natural scientist:

“It is but recently that the naturalist has had any glimpses that were at all clear of biological evolution, whereas the historian was long ago ware of the continuity of history. As for chemists and physicists, we may pass them by. They dare not even yet forecast the time when they will be able to trace out, in their turn, the genealogy of simple substances, or when a work on their origin of atoms … will be published.”

Now, of course, you have to make note of how this example is from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, right at the when experiments were conducted on atoms. To be clear, this book originally came out in 1890, which is some seven years before J. J. Thomson discovered the electron, a subatomic particle, and nearly two decades before Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden discovered the atomic nucleus. Anyway, this is still relevant as the point here is to push things. What is considered the elementary particle is at the heart of the issue. We can always ask if there is something more elementary than what is posed as the elementary particle. In short, the issue here is the continuity and the indeterminacy.

So, if it isn’t subjective, as natural scientists like to label the work of social scientists, or objective, as the social scientists like to ridicule the natural scientists for believing in such a thing, then what is the deal? What is Tarde after? He is after something completely different and I think Latour (148) explains this well:

“Paradoxically, those in sociology who try to ape the natural sciences have mistaken the latter’s constitutive lack of information for their principal virtue. Yet what is really scientific is to have enough information so as to not have to fall back upon the makeshift approximation of a structural law, distinct from what its individual components do.”

Now, you might object to this and point out that natural sciences involve plenty of data. Sure. Granted. Then again, as Latour (149) points out, the data they work on is nowhere near to the data you get out of human acts. The problem is that all of this pitting one against the other, natural vs. social sciences, hard vs. soft sciences, objective vs. subjective, individual vs. structural (feel free to come up with more of these), is completely missing the point. Tarde isn’t advocating for either because, well, to be frank, the whole debate is just idiotic to him. Latour (149) aptly summarizes what we have:

“[I]f we stick to the individual, the local, the situated, you will detect only qualities, while if we move towards the structural and towards the distant, we will begin to gather quantities.”

So, again, for the umpteenth time, social sciences are supposed be about qualities whereas natural sciences are supposed to be about quantities. Now, Tarde is having none of this. As explained by Latour (149), he is actually flipping everything on its head:

“For Tarde the situation is almost exactly the opposite: the more we get into the intimacy of the individual, the more discrete quantities we’ll find[.]”

Now, this doesn’t explain why that is, so Latour (149) elaborates why that is:

“[I]f we move away from the individual towards the aggregate we might begin to lose quantities, more and more, along the way because we lack the instruments to collect enough of their quantitative evaluations.”

So, because social sciences deal with human acts, that is to say social phenomena, they always occur to close to the individual. You don’t need sophisticated tools for the analysis. Observation works just fine. Okay, sure, you may benefit from tools and they probably will make your life easier doing just that, but the point is that you get a lot out of social phenomena even without special instruments. This is not the case when we move from the social phenomena to the natural phenomena. In natural sciences you can only do so much without a laboratory, whereas in social sciences some paper and a pen might not even be necessary, even though they are certainly handy. I mean you could do what I do without a computer, even on paper, perhaps even without it, but it sure would be cumbersome. Anyway, this is the earlier point about distance.

Latour (150) emphasizes that it is of utmost importance not to confuse Tarde’s understanding of quantification of the social with how quantification works in natural sciences. Quantifying the social involves crunching numbers, yes, but it is not done in order to uncover some structural law, how things really are, how the society really is, or the like. By looking a large number of instances we are dealing with aggregates. That said, again, the point is not to assume that we are dealing with a some superorganic or transcendent (otherworldly) entity once those instances are aggregated.

Latour (150) exemplifies this issue in reference to Tarde’s (25) earlier book, ‘Social Laws: An Outline of Sociology’ (1899 translation by Howard C. Warren), noting that when we speak of ‘they’ we are in the habit of forgetting that ‘they’ always consists of a number of actual individuals. As explained by Tarde (25):

“I … maintain that this … relation [is] not … a connection binding one individual to a confused mass of men, but merely a relation between two individuals, one of whom, the child, is in process of being introduced into the social life, while the other, an adult, long since socialized, serves as the child’s personal model. As we advance in life, it is true, we are often governed by collective and impersonal models, which are usually not consciously chosen.”

In short, the relation, how we become who we’ve become is always in relation to actual people, who’ve become who’ve they’ve become always in relation to actual people, not some transcendent (otherworldly) or superorganic entity. He (25) continues:

“But before we speak, think, or act as ‘they’ speak, think, or act in our world, we begin by speaking, thinking, and acting as ‘he’ or ‘she’ does. And this he or she is always one of our own near acquaintances. Beneath the indefinite they, how-ever carefully we search, we never find anything but a certain number of he’s and she’s which, as they have increased in number, have become mingled together and confused.”

In other words, it’s not that it’s wrong to attribute who we are, who we’ve become to others. That’s exactly the point he is making here. It’s rather that these others, ‘they’, are always actual people. This reiterates the earlier point about realism, how we should not think of groups as these given entities. Instead we should think of groups as our own products, as subsequent abstractions of what we gather as bearing similarity to one another.

Now, by reading Tarde (25), we may be fooled to think that he is advocating for the individual. I mean it appears that he does not believe in the group and if he doesn’t believe in that, then that ought to mean that he must give primacy to the individual. However, that’s not the case. When he argues against the group, ‘they’, he is arguing against society as this transcendent (otherworldly) or superorganic entity that explains why people behave the way they do. For Tarde (25-26) what’s important is not the group of individuals, nor the individual, but the relation between individuals. As Tarde can be a bit verbose at about this at times, Latour (151) offers a good summary to this:

“[W]e should find ways to gather the individual ‘he’ and ‘she’ without losing out on the specific ways in which they are able to mingle, in a standard, in a code, in a bundle of customs, in a scientific discipline, in a technology – but never in some overarching society. The challenge is to try to obtain their aggregation without either shifting our attention at any point to a whole, or changing modes of inquiry.”

If this, how this is explained as not being about the subjective, nor about the objective, seems familiar to you, it’s probably because you can find some others who think this way, even if the nomenclature differs somewhat. For example, Voloshinov’s understanding of collective experience is arguably very similar to this because he is against giving primacy to the individual as an autonomous actor but also against treating the individuals as mere drones to some otherworldly entity that makes people act the way they do. It’s always actual people that we deal with, from who we learn things. It’s always actual people who’ve come to influence us in certain ways. I reckon that it’s not a mere fortuitous accident that Deleuze and Guattari discuss both Tarde and Voloshinov in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’.

Now that I got that covered, it’s time to return to Tarde’s central concepts: invention and imitation. He (xiii) notes that he is using the word imitation differently from its everyday usage, that is to say in a broader sense than it is typically used, so it may cause some confusion, at least initially. For him (xiii), imitation is not restricted to the conscious act of imitation. It can be conscious or voluntary but it can also be unconscious or involuntary, as he (xiii) points out. For him (xiii) this is not an issue because he doesn’t consider people to be fully autonomous individuals nor mere slaves to some superorganic or transcendent (otherworldly) power that makes the do things. It’s rather that people “pass by insensible degrees from deliberate volition to almost mechanical habit.” As already explained, and reiterated here, on one hand, Tarde wants to avoid lapsing into giving primacy to the subject and, on the other hand, he wants to avoid asserting that there is some superorganic or transcendent (otherworldly) structure that defines human behavior. As summarized by Latour (151), imitation is about “tracing the ways in which individual monads conspire with one another without ever producing a structure.”

Okay, now we just have to explain monad, a concept that goes back to the ancient Greeks, namely the Pythagoreans, but later on adopted and adapted by others, namely Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. I know, oh dear, it seems like this will involve going on a tangent, but I’ll try to keep this short. Tarde (5) discusses monads in his essay titled ‘Monadology and Sociology’ (2012 translation by Theo Lorenc), explicitly attributing the concept to Leibniz. I’ll get to this very soon. Latour (156) clarifies Tarde’s position on quantification, noting that it will indeed seem crazy if start from where others tend to start, what we are used to:

“The quantitative nature of all associations will seem bizarre if we mistakenly impute an idea of the individual element seen as an atom to Tarde.”

Now, we could replace atom here with whatever is considered the elementary particle. Atom just happens to be the elementary particle of his time, an outcome that was possible to achieve with the instruments of his time, as pointed out by Latour (156). Tarde’s view is opposed to this. Anyway, to make more sense of what he is against, it’s fruitful to summarize it, as done by Latour (156):

“In this traditional view, quantification starts when we have assembled enough individual atoms so that the outline of a structure begins to appear, first as a shadowy aggregate, then as a whole, and finally as a law dictating how to behave to the elements.”

In other words, you start with the elementary particle, followed by finding enough of them and testing them so that you can figure out they work. The point here is to come up with a structure, a law that explains why this and/or that works the way it does. Now, of course, Tarde is having none of this. Latour (156) further exemplifies this traditional view:

“The division between a qualitative and a quantitative social science is in essence the same as the division between individuals and society, tokens and type, actors and system.”

To paraphrase this, it’s not that you can’t have such pairs. It’s rather that there’s always this gap between them and somehow the society, the type or the system is supposed to explain the individuals, the tokens or the actors. We could explain this the other way around as well, because even individuals, tokens or actors are equally poor starting points for Tarde. Latour (156) explains Tarde’s view:

“[T]he whole scene is entirely different. The reason why there is no need for an overarching society is because there is no individual to begin with, or at least no individual atoms.”

At this point you might be wondering, the … now? The point here is that we can’t start from an individual, nor from a structure, because either way, we posit something that we then fail to explain (actually just won’t explain). Latour (156) further elaborates Tarde’s view:

“The individual element is a monad, that is, a representation, a reflection, or an interiorization of a whole set of other elements borrowed from the world around it.”

In other words, we appear to be one and many, at the same time, just like, well, everything else does, “because of a vast crowd of elements already present in every single entity”, as summarized by Latour (156). To exemplify this, Latour (156) states that unlike in the traditional view, an individual, that is to say what we think to be an individual, is not acting or reacting to other individuals, like isolated atoms (in the sense of the smallest particles, the starting point), but pushed by a vast number of other elements which are gathered in the monad, offering an indefinite number of potential outcomes, depending on how the state of affairs is assembled. Latour (157) rephrases this:

“Behind every ‘he’ and ‘she,’ one could say, there are a vast numbers of other ‘he’s’ and ‘she’s’ to which they have been interrelated.”

So, in less abstract terms, whatever we do, inasmuch as we do, we do because of who we’ve become and who we’ve become depends on the influence of others. We are typically influenced by our parents, as well as other family members, as well as our teachers, friends, coworkers, lovers, etc., who, in turn, are influenced by their families, their friends, their lovers, their coworkers, their teachers or former teachers, who in turn are influenced by … Anyway, you should be able to get gist of this, what is meant by monad and how it changes how we come to understand the quantification of the social.

Now, what I want to add here is that our influences are not limited to the other people. For example, if I down a beer or five, that influences who I am, at that very moment. When you think of it, it’s only fitting that it is said that a person is under the influence of alcohol when they’ve been drinking. The influence is, of course, fleeting, but that could also be said of other people, not of all people, but some people nonetheless.

For Leibniz, having lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, monads are still effectively relegated into a secondary position under God who regulates them and their connections, as summarized by Latour (157). This is not the case with Tarde because the problem with that is that by not giving them priority, as posed by Leibniz, transcendence is introduced into the picture, you know, like a structure that explains the parts, which is exactly why he doesn’t go down that path, as noted by Latour (157). In his (157) words:

“If there are monads but no God, the only solution is to let monads penetrate one another freely. Tarde’s monads are a cross between Leibniz and Darwin: each monad has to get by in order to interpret or “reflect” (Leibniz’s term) all of the others, to spread as far and as quickly as possible.”

In other words, monads is all there is. If one is to save God here, it has to understood as pantheistic because without transcendence (that otherworldly) everything is smooshed in one plane, one level. That would work like how Baruch Spinoza explains this in his ‘Ethics’ (see part one, translation by 1883 translation by R.H.M Elwes):

“By God, I mean a being absolutely infinite – that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality.”

Of course, people might reject this as not God because it is defined differently, having no transcendence, no otherworldly independent existence from us, which was more or less the problem that Spinoza ran into in his time in the 17th century. Anyway, the point here is that Tarde’s definition of monad is not the same as Leibniz’s definition. In short, instead of transcendence, we get immanence.

Latour (157) states that in order for the monads to make sense, Tarde needs something else, something immanent to replace the transcendent (otherworldly) explanation as to how they work. Tarde (144-145) explains in ‘The Laws of Imitation’ that these are desire and belief:

“Invention and imitation are, as we know, the elementary social acts. But what is the social substance or force through which this act is accomplished and of which it is merely the form? In other words, what is invented or imitated? The thing which is invented, the thing which is imitated, is always an idea or a volition, a judgment or a purpose, which embodies a certain amount of belief and desire.”

Now that does not explain what desire and belief are. Broadly speaking, he (145-146) calls them the substance and the force and states that they are quantities, whereas sensations are qualities with which the desires and beliefs combine. He (145) indicates that sensation is related to the senses, such as visual or auditory senses. He (145) exemplifies sensation by noting that when one is in a crowd, in a theater or in a concert, one may feel a sensation of what one is witnessing. He (145) adds that this sensation may be intensified by the presence of others, which one can only attest to, if you’ve ever been in a crowd. Conversely, one ought to point out here that the sensation may not feel as particularly intense if the crowd is very small, or, rather small for venue where the event takes place. In other words, sensation is a quality because you can’t quantify it. You can only decrease or increase it’s intensity. The sensation remains the same, but it is only more or less intense. Therefore change always results in a change of quality, not quantity.

This is similar to how Deleuze (222-223) differentiates extension or extensities from intension or intensities in ‘Difference and Repetition’, the former being something that you can quantify, such as size, volume or distance, and the latter being something you can’t quantify, such as temperature, pressure or tension. So, for example, if you have glass of water and you pour half of it to another glass, you now have two glasses that contain water but the temperature hasn’t changed, except, well, unless the other glass doesn’t affect the temperature (like you took the glass out of a freezer, just for the sake of altering the water temperature). Now, of course, these two are combined, inseparable from one another, as pointed out by both Deleuze (223) and Tarde (145-146). For example, if you increase the temperature (intensify the movement of particles) of a certain volume of water, you may end up causing a change in the volume of water as the liquid transitions to gas, that is to say changes in quality.

Right, to distinguish desire and belief from invention and imitation, Tarde (145-146) calls the former two psychological quantities and the latter two social quantities. To make more sense of this, he (146) states that:

“Societies are organized according to the agreement or opposition of beliefs which reinforce or limit one another. Social institutions depend entirely upon these conditions. Societies function according to the competition or co-operation of their desires or wants. Beliefs, principally religious and moral beliefs, juristic and political beliefs as well, and even linguistic beliefs (for how many acts of faith are implied in the lightest talk and what an irresistible although unconscious power of persuasion our mother tongue, a true indeed, exerts over us), are the plastic forces of societies. Economic or æsthetic wants are their functional forces.”

So, to break this down, what we have is desires or wants, as he calls them here. What we also have is beliefs, which are, well, all kinds of beliefs. Unfortunately Tarde isn’t particularly explicit about these terms and you have to go back forth the different parts of the book. The second edition preface is worth reading in order to get more out of this. Anyway, Latour (150) offers a good summary of how to make sense of these two sets of two core concepts:

“[T]he very heart of social phenomena is quantifiable because individual monads are constantly evaluating one another in simultaneous attempts to expand and to stabilize their worlds. The notion of expansion is coded for him in the word ‘desire,’ and stabilization in the word ‘belief’ … Each monad strives to possess one another.”

In other words, desire is what pushes people innovate, to change things, and belief is what seeks to prevent innovation, to prevent change. Tarde (xvi) elaborates that social relations may belong to two groups, one that tends to transmits a desire, thus pushing people to invent, and another that tends to transmit a belief, thus pushing people to imitate an invention, “persuasively or authoritatively, willing or unwillingly”. The former he (xvi) considers instructive and the latter commanding. Moreover, he (xvi) indicates that imitation/belief have a dogmatic character, in the sense that it becomes taken as a given, the truth. That’s why Latour (150) states that it functions to stabilize desire, which, in turn, prevents invention. That’s pretty much how dogmatism works, having beliefs that are so firm, so entrenched that any conflicting desire/invention must be prevented. It’s worth reiterating here that imitation is considered, in part, unconscious or involuntary. That’s why beliefs work the way the do. I don’t think people choose to be dogmatic, even in the face of it being made obvious to them that they are being dogmatic. It’s rather that they desire it, they want it.

Tarde (xvii) further specifies imitation, noting that change can occur not only through invention, followed by imitation, but also by counter-imitation, that is to say, objecting or resisting imitation, refusing to imitate an invention. That said, Tarde (xviii-xix) does not consider that invention, hence the moniker counter-imitation, doing the exact opposite of what one is supposed to imitate. For him (xix) it’s also not non-imitation, which is when no social relation exists to permit imitation, such as no physical contact with others who one could otherwise imitate. In other words, counter-imitation is about disassociation whereas imitation is about association, as he (xix) points out. This is also what he (xix) calls the logical duel that occurs when different people of different beliefs come into contact.

Tarde (93) also further specifies the relationship between desire and invention, noting that one needs to look to them as series and in series, one invention always building on many prior prior inventions. I guess it’s sort of obvious, at this point already, but it’s worth emphasizing because the inventions that already exist and how they are imitated, as well as counter-imitated, affects desires and beliefs, which in turn may result in more inventions or preventing inventions. As he (92) points out, people don’t invent for the sake of inventing. There has to be something that pushes people to come up with something new. It’s the same thing with imitation; people don’t imitative for the sake of imitating, but always out of utility to them, as he (92-94) goes on to add. The point here is that one mustn’t simply think that inventions spring out of desire and that imitations out of beliefs. It can be the other way around as well, because we always build on what already exists, or so to speak. We are always in the middle.

So, for example, as he (93) points out, “the desire to smoke, to drink tea or coffee, etc., did not appear until after the discovery of tea, or coffee, or tobacco.” Indeed, people don’t have some primordial desire, some urge for a cup of coffee. You do need to be aware of coffee, that’s it’s this thing in the first place, for you to start to desire it, likely through imitation, as based on a firm belief that it’s just something people do. It’s the same with clothing, as he (93) also points out; modesty, covering your body, and indecency, showing some skin, require there to be the notion of clothing. If there was no invention of clothing, being naked would be just fine or, well, it wouldn’t necessarily be fine but it would then not be fine for some other reason, some other invention that people then have started to imitate and believe in. That said, I reckon clothing was invented for a good reason, for example to stay warm in colder climates. So, yeah, in a way clothing is invented in response to a desire. Then again, as already pointed out, the invention of clothing comes to fuel other desires and beliefs, one that people didn’t have prior too their invention. In short, invention/imitation and desire/belief work both ways.

Sometimes there’s also the possibility of stumbling into something, which then becomes something that was never envisioned prior to that moment, as he (94) points out. Then there’s also the regulations, what we might call firm beliefs, typically coded into laws which influence invention and limitation, often restricting them. This external influence he (94) calls the “outward master” whereas when its about our actions, what do we do and what can we do, really, the limitations are based on who we’ve become, the “inward tyrant.”

In summary, it’s worth pointing out that while Tarde may seem dismissive of certain fields or disciplines, such as chemistry and physics, I think he is more critical of social sciences than natural sciences because it seems that his ire is actually directed at social sciences that give primacy either to the individual (subjectivism) or the society (objectivism). He is certainly particularly fond of biology (of his time), which works in its own way, a way that he likes. I reckon he would actually argue in favor of defining the natural sciences, namely chemistry and physics, qualitative rather than quantitative because what’s interesting in something like liquid turning into gas is the qualitative transformation. Deleuze explains this well in In ‘L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze’, a compilation of interviews conducted in 1988 and 1989 by Claire Parnet and published in 1995, when addressing the letter U, ‘U comme Un’:

“But even if you take a formula like all bodies fall. What is important is not that all bodies fall. What’s important is the fall and the singularities of the fall. Even if scientific singularities – for example, mathematical singularities in functions, or physical singularities, or chemical singularities, points of congealing, etc. – were all reproducible, well fine, and then what? These are secondary phenomena, processes of universalization, but what science addresses is not universals, but singularities, points of congealing: when does a body change its state, from the liquid state to the solid state, etc.”

So, in other words, repeating the procedure to see that it happens is simply beside the point. It doesn’t add any value to repeat it a hundred times. Someone can always point out that maybe you should try it once more, just to be sure. This is the earlier point about the futility of attempting to start with an elementary particle, an instance, followed by gathering more and more of those instances in order to come up with a structure or a law that is based on that procedure. As explained by Deleuze and Guattari (17) in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, the one, as well as the multiple, are always subtracted from multiplicities that are aggregates of singularities (such as the fall or the point of congealing that Deleuze lists in the above quote). In short, the point here is that a multiplicity is not a sum of parts. Multiplicity is not the same as multiple (which would be one plus one plus one, etc). We can’t get to the multiplicity by adding the ones because that results in multiple, not multiplicity.

If we understand quantification as a matter of adding up enough ones (as multiple), in order to discover some structure of society, then yeah, quantification of the social doesn’t work. However, as discussed already, this is not how Tarde understands quantification. The way he explains all this makes quantitative approaches apt for social sciences, whereas qualitative approaches are apt for natural sciences, at least chemistry and physics. That might be my Deleuze and Guattari inspired reading of Tarde though.

Okay, so, what about the numbers then? Is there anything concrete that we can learn from Tarde? Is there any use for this beyond the conceptual brilliance? Well, beside being a game changer, flipping the way we approach the world in sciences on its head, he does offer us a discussion of statistics, why he considers them so useful in social sciences. He has an entire chapter on this in ‘The Laws of Imitation’ (see chapter IV). In short, yes, this is of actual practical use, not just something that you can include in the mandatory yet impractically concise theory section of a research article.

So, Tarde discusses two distinct ways of doing research. Firstly, he discusses how research is conducted in archaeology. Secondly, he discusses how research is done in statistics. In summary, before I attempt to elaborate what he thinks of these, it’s worth noting that for him each of these has its pros and cons.

Starting from archaeology, and skipping the points of contrasts of his time (because they seem a bit off from a contemporary perspective), Tarde (90) states that the archaeologist dig deep, so, so deep that everything becomes impersonal. That more or less comes with the territory as the deeper you dig, the more in the past you reach, the less personal things tend to get because it’s unlikely that any records have survived from those times, as he (90) points out. What you have left to examine are bunch of ruins, skeletons and a handful of artifacts. Sometimes you get the odd manuscript, some fragment of some official records but they also tend to be impersonal because it’s unlikely that official records contain any names. Now, he isn’t being snarky about this. He is well aware of these limitations and doesn’t think doing archaeology is futile. On the contrary, he is clearly a big fan of doing such work:

“And what a wonderful treasure of facts and inferences, of invaluable information, has been extracted in this humble shape from the earth’s entrails where it picks of modern excavators have penetrated, in Italy, in Greece, in Egypt, in Asian Minor, in Mesopotamia, in America!”

I mean he seems pretty pumped by that. I reckon that’s quite the compliment from a guy who seems to be big on numbers. This is because, for him (91), the archaeologist focuses his or her efforts on inventions:

“Through the archæologists we know what particular group of ideas, of professional or hieratic secrets, of peculiar desires, constituted the individual whom the annalists call a Roman or an Egyptian or a Persian.”

Pay attention to the words ‘ideas’ and ‘desires’. Simply put, for Tarde the archaeologist is the exemplar of the researcher who focuses on inventions and the desires that lead people to invent. Anyway, he (91) continues:

“Below the surface, in some way, of the violent and so-called culminating events that are spoken of as conquests, invasions, or revolutions, the archæologists show us the daily and indefinite drift and piling up of the sediments of true history, the stratifications of successive and contagion-spread discoveries.”

Indeed, I reckon this is exactly what the archaeologist does, or is supposed to do anyway, to penetrate the surface, to look past what’s most obvious, to uncover where some invention originated because it not only tells us just that, where some invention originated (which is, of course, interesting in its own right), but also how the invention might have been imitated, how it might have spread geographically. It also tells us about the desires that of a certain time and place, of certain actual people, who sought to come up with something because they came to desire its invention. The evidence may also tell us, in contrast to evidence unearthed elsewhere, that certain beliefs were so important to certain actual people that they counter-imitated a certain invention, that they refused to adopt something, be it technology, customs, dressing, language (feel free to think of other examples, the point is that it could by anything that one copies or refuses to copy). Taking into account the actual location, the excavation site, we may also realize that certain invention was never imitated at that location due to non-imitation, a lack of contact among peoples.

Tarde (96) can’t help but to be amazed by the findings of archaeologists. For example, he (96) reminds us that, when you think of it, it’s crazy how something like amber, used for decoration, spread in Europe at a time when it was actually arduous and dangerous to travel anywhere. He (96) is also fascinated by something as mundane as axes and arrowheads, how that technology has spread around the world so long ago that it’s even hard to image what life was then. He (97) summarizes his fascination in archaeology:

“Archæology can … show us that men have always been much less original than they themselves are please to believe.”

Ah, yes, I agree, but if you tell people that they are far less original than they think they are, that they are copycats, perhaps very good copycats but copycats nonetheless, they’ll probably flat out refuse that because no one likes to think they are unoriginal as that hints that they lack autonomy (which I reckon they do, but not completely). Relevant to conducting research, he (97) adds that:

“We come to overlook what we no longer look for, and we no longer look for what we always under our eyes.”

Again, I agree. This is why I like doing something in large numbers. It involves having to pay attention also to what we are likely in the habit of overlooking in favor of all things dissimilar. He (97) exemplifies this:

“For this reason, the faces of our fellow countrymen always impress us by the dissimilarity of their distinctive traits. … [W]e ignore their common … traits. On the other hand, the people we see in our travels … all look alike.”

To be more poetic about this, he (97) rephrases this:

“For the cause of the illusion which partly blinds the man [or the woman] settled down among his [or her] fellow citizens, the film of habit, does not dull the eye of the traveller among strangers.”

Anyway, the point here is that we are in the habit of overlooking everything that appears similar to us. It’s like it becomes background and everything dissimilar seems to pop out from the background. Now, does this mean that we don’t perceive all that similarity? Well, no, I’d say no. We do, but we don’t do that consciously. We take it for granted. He (97) also comments on which one is better, to be an insider or an outsider:

“One might say that the truth lay between these opposite impressions. But in this instance, as in most, the method of averaging is erroneous. … [T]he impressions of the [traveler] are likely to be much more exact than those of the [citizen], and they testify to the fact that … traits of similarity always outnumber traits of dissimilarity.”

So, an outsider, someone with no stake in the everyday life of others, is in a privileged position to notice how appearances can be deceptive and be able to look at what the insiders consciously overlook at a regular basis. Now, of course, I don’t think it’s this simple. I think you do need to know a lot about what you are dealing with in order to to know what you are looking for. Parachuting someone into some far off land won’t work, well, unless, unless that person can stay there for like decades, which I doubt (it just doesn’t happen these days).

Anyway, in summary, thus far, with regard to archaeology, Tarde (98) is keen on it because it helps us to realize “that we ourselves are infinitely more imitative than inventive.” I agree. It is very hard to be inventive, to be creative. I mean I probably haven’t had a single original idea in my life, at least not yet. These essays, for example, are just me riffing on other people’s work, their inventions and, to large extent, imitations. It’s just imitation on imitation, on imitation, on imitation. And I reckon that it’s just fine. It’s more of an issue when people think they are somehow original or authentic, the real deal, and boast about it. Now, of course, whether we are inventive or not depends on what counts as new. So, yeah, I may have come up with something new, but only very minute. That minute novelty might then be imitated by someone else, who, in turn, invents something else, perhaps equally minute, and so on, and so on. Have I done it on my own though, be it inventive or not? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it’s me, as I recognize myself. No, in the sense that we are always many. I’ve certainly been influenced by many others and most likely imitate them, even when I think I don’t. I’ve also been helped by others, so I wouldn’t be who I am without them.

What I like about Tarde’s (99) elaboration of invention and imitation is how, based on archaeology, we come to realize what imposters people tend to be when they claim that they are original or that their group, their people, their civilization, are original and inventive. For example, he (99) points out that:

“Arabian art, in spite of its distinctive features, is merely the fusion of Persian with Greek art, that Greek art borrowed certain processes from Egyptian and perhaps from other sources, and that Egyptian art was formed from or amplified by many successive Asiatic and even African contribution.”

Followed by explaining it in fancier terms (99):

“There is no assignable limit to this archæological decomposition of civilizations; there is no social molecule which their chemistry has not a fair hope of resolving into its constituent atoms.”

In short, as I pointed out already, as we are always in the middle, born into this world with everything already in place, we basically borrow everything from others and you are fooling yourself if you think otherwise. Of course that doesn’t mean that you can’t invent anything. If that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t imitate all there is, here and now, because someone had to invent whatever it is that you habitually imitate. So, yeah, I like Tarde’s discussion of archaeology because it is quite humbling.

Before Tarde moves to discuss the statisticians, he (101) reiterates an earlier point how archaeology is impersonal. You might think that it’s a bad thing, but contrary to what you might think, and, perhaps, to popular opinion, it’s great that it is impersonal. This is not to say that you don’t appreciate people. No, no. It’s rather that, as Tarde (101) explains it, that when you look at humans and human events, emphasis on the plural, you want to get rid of the individual as a starting point because one is always many.

Tarde (102) likens the archaeologist to the statistician because both operate “from an entirely abstract and impersonal standpoint.” Similarly to the archaeologists, the statisticians (of his time, of course) do all kinds of things, but what is distinct about them is their focus only the works or acts of fellow humans that reveal their desires and inventions, which he (102) goes on to list:

“[B]uying or selling, of manufacturing, of voting, of committing or repressing crime, of suing for judicial separation, and even … of being born, of marrying, of procreating, and of dying.”

Note how he (102) is actually referring to certain practices, that is to say certain established systematic acts, not the works created by the acts. The thing with acts is that it is very hard to keep tabs of acts. On the contrary, it is very easy to keep tab with the works because they stay (inasmuch as they do, of course, as decay and destruction does happen). Therefore focusing on the works makes sense. It is also hard record people doing something because the mere awareness of being observed may alter people’s behavior, as I’ve noted in previous essay. Anyway, I’ll let Tarde (102) further contrast the archaeologist and the statistician:

“If archæology is the collection and classification of similar products where the highest possible degree of similarity is the most important thing, Statistics is an enumeration of acts which as much alike as possible. Here the art is in the choice of units; the more alike and equal they are, the better they are.”

In other words, what’s different about them is number of items we are dealing with. I mean it’s kind of obvious, really, but it’s worth emphasizing. Moreover, as he (103) goes on to add, archaeology deals with the past, “for the most part dead, worn out” whereas statistics tends to deal with the present, here and now, inasmuch it is possible anyway. So, statistics is interested in how current inventions, currently imitated propagate, grow and expand, until they no longer do and start to decline as some other invention, parallel or subsequent, becomes imitated and effectively replaces the other or older invention(s). Simply put, archaeology deals with dead people and dead societies, whereas statistics deals with living people and living societies. That also means that archaeology focuses more on invention than imitation and is better suited at assessing that, whereas with statistics the opposite is the case, as he (103) points out. You need the numbers on your side to examine how some practice expands, how something is popular in a society, until, well it no longer is. Otherwise it’s just a guessing game.

If Tarde (103) comes across as thinking that statistics is superior to archaeology, it’s because it sort of is, yet only because it piggybacks on archaeology. In his (103) words:

“Archæology laboriously travels back from imitations to their source. … [S]tatistics, on the other hand, almost always knows the source of the expansions which it is measuring; it goes from causes to effects, from discoveries to their more or less successful development[.]”

In other words, the statistician has the luxury of knowing what’s relevant, what it is that we are looking at and how it became manifested or practiced in a certain society, whereas the archaeologist does not have that luxury. So, in a way, I reckon Tarde is highly appreciative of the archaeologists because they have to go through all that, for the benefit of others. In addition, if one simply ignores the inventions, which is exactly what the statistician wants to examine, one is easily led astray, being uncritical to one’s own work. For example, if one examines criminality, what Tarde actually himself did during his life, one has to be aware of how the judicial system works in a specific society, what is what, what is considered a criminal act and, conversely, what isn’t considered a criminal act, otherwise one risks ignoring that the categorization of criminal acts, as this or that criminal act, is, in itself, an invention. Remember, one should not fall back on transcendent (otherworldly) ideas to explain things and statistics should not be in the service of such approach, at least not according to Tarde. This becomes particularly important when one compares statistics from different points in time. One needs to be aware of how, for instance, a statistical category may have expanded in a certain year to include something that was not included previously because otherwise one may be fooled to think that a certain phenomenon suddenly became important when, in fact, it has to do with the categorization and the input of data.

In addition, Tarde (106) reminds us not to confuse what we can count (extensities), innovations and imitations, which desires and beliefs which we cannot count (intensities). For example, he (106) points out that while we can measure, that is to say count, church attendance, quite accurately, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that all people who enter a church on a Sunday are religious. Sure, in most likelihood that is the case. However, even if that is the case, we can’t know how religious they are. In other words, going back to the issue of intensities, we can’t say how intensively religious people are just by looking at church attendance statistics. Okay, if the trend is declining, then yeah, it would seem to be the case. That said, religious faith may be in decline even if the attendance is not going down but rather staying the same. This doesn’t mean that it’s futile assess such things but rather that we must be aware of this limitation, that the assessment is indirect as what we are really interested are the driving and stopping forces behind inventions and imitation, which are the desires and the beliefs of people.

Of course, to make statistics work, you need a lot of data. Again, this is not what we tend to have of past societies. Tarde (105) is crystal clear about this point, when he notes that:

“How many trivial medals and mosaics, how many cinerary urns and funeral inscriptions, we should be willing to exchange for the industrial, the commercial, or even the criminal statistics of the Roman Empire!”

Indeed, that’s what we have left of those societies, so that’s what we have to make sense of them. I mean, all those items that he lists are pretty shitty collecting evidence of anything, because they are, at times, literally mere fragments of what once was something. That said, when that’s all you have, that’s all you have. On the positive side, Tarde (107) notes that archaeology provides more rich data than statistics:

“A Pompeiian fresco reveals the psychological condition of a provincial town under the Roman Empire much more clearly than all the statistical volumes of one of the principal place of a French department can tell us about the actual wishes of its inhabitants.”

This is something that one needs to be aware of. There’s pros and cons to statistics, just as there are pros and cons to archaeology. The problem with statistics is that it tends to be so broad, so generic that it’s hard to say anything specific, anything local. Or, perhaps, that’s how it was, back in his day. I mean paper and pen was still very much a thing of his time. Typewriters were barely available back then and not really that suitable for statistics anyway. What we have now is way ahead of what he could even dream of. Something like a spreadsheet is already somewhat archaic, albeit very much in use. Now you can have all kinds of databases, which connect to other databases, and the effort that goes into managing it all is effortless when compared to having to do everything manually.

If you want to read more on the contemporary uses for quantification in social studies, the final section of Latour’s book chapter deals with how Tarde was way ahead of everyone and, arguably, still is ahead of many, despite all the advances in technology that make his ideas on how to make use of statistics possible. If you are interested in this, you’ll want to look at other texts written by Latour as well as this is not the only one that deals with Tarde.

I realize that many don’t like quantification, for many reasons, ranging from how arduous the data gathering and processing can be, at least initially, to how eery the findings can be, but the thing is that you can use this approach in any way you see fit. I reckon that often people don’t like it because once they see the numbers being visualized, presented to them in a way that is easier to comprehend, they realize that people, including themselves, are not at all as autonomous as they think they are and what’s presented to them feels painfully, if not distastefully accurate. Quantifying the social also has a bad reputation because it can certainly be used to assess people’s behavior and sell them all kinds of stuff they didn’t think they needed (because they didn’t need such; the inventions, the stuff that is marketed, resulted in new desires, which they subsequently wish to fulfill by buying that stuff). More eerily, the same data can, of course, be snooped on or seized by third parties, private and public entities alike, for whatever purposes, which may subsequently used against you, directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly. That said, the very same tools can be used to assess desires and beliefs in societies, to render them visible to people, which then makes change possible. Of course it is up to the people to make the changes, assuming that they even want to make changes. I don’t know about others but at least I’m quite hesitant about telling what implications the findings of my studies have, beyond pointing out how they reflect dominant discourses, inasmuch as they do, of course.

The Obstacle and The Way

I was going to write on something else, what I have to say about Gabriel Tarde and Guy Debord, and to get the recaps on the ADDA 2 conference done, sooner than later, but then I got some bad news. Well, not really bad news. I didn’t mind, really. Happens. It actually led me to read something that I wanted to comment on, so I’ll do that here.

So, as a backstory (a very long one, so feel free to skip ahead, to the marker I’ve set up later on … search for MARKER), I sent a manuscript to a journal, something like over a year ago. It went through four revisions, three months apart on average. Late last year, the reviewers were happy with it, giving me feedback on minor things, to make just a bit tighter. Woohoo! That was all fine, well and good, and I agreed with them. Job well done, eh? Not so fast! Hold on, sonny boy!

For reasons unknown, I can only guess, the editors weren’t happy with my work. They wanted major changes, despite the reviewers being fine with the text, you know, pending certain changes, brushing up things, here and there, the usual. Now, of course, I had the luxury to choose between making major changes or making major changes, whatever they wanted, so I made major changes, the best I could, juggling with the content, taking out some content, to make room for the further additions. It took about five months to get more feedback, which revolved around being concerned about the complexity of the theory. Despite, probably, doing disservice to the text, I made it slightly lighter, swapping certain tougher concepts with lighter ones, just so that it would hopefully be more accessible to the reader. Some days ago I got this unnecessarily apologetic email about how, despite all the efforts that went into this, the editors decided to reject it. Apparently the theory was still too heavy for the reader. I took that to be the issue.

There also this other issue. Well, supposedly anyway. I mean this wasn’t an issue when the reviewers were just fine with the manuscript months ago, so it’s super cool that you, the editors, bring this up for a reason for rejection in the end. That only makes sense. Anyway, the issue was that they thought that my findings didn’t match the concern about arts and crafts in the Finnish education system. Right. I mean, this manuscript has to do with visual multimodality, about the modes of writing and image, with emphasis on students and teachers. It’s pretty obvious that the findings pertain to arts and crafts. I mean I even specifically contrast the use of the two modes in arts track classrooms and non-arts track classrooms. The actual … now? I also reflect on this in relation to ‘Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design’ by Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen where the use of writing and images is explicitly addressed, on page 16 in the 2006 second edition, the page I explicitly refer to, against the common sloppy academic practice of just referring to an article or, better yet, a whole book, because, you know, unlike others, I like to be as transparent as possible about these things. I also included information from prior research, which is, unfortunately, very hard to find, because there’s hardly any arts and crafts related educational research that deals with the Finnish educational system. That’s what the studies that I found actually point out. I pointed that out in response to the reviewer who wanted me to look into prior research on this. Anyway, that should also make it obvious how this is about arts and crafts in the Finnish educational system. I mean what else could it be about?

For me, this a matter of focus, what it is that I want to accomplish, what questions do I ask. There’s no right questions nor wrong questions to ask. Henri Bergson (58) explains the matter of questions and answers, how positing the questions more or less gives you the answer, in ‘The Creative Mind’ (1946 translation by Mabelle Andison):

“[I]t is a question of finding the problem and consequently of positing it, even more than of solving it. For a speculative problem is solved as soon as it is properly stated.”

In other words, the answer to your question is conditioned by that question, the solution to your problem is conditioned by that problem. So, once you properly posit a problem or come up with a question, you can only find what you seek, inasmuch as you do of course, not something else. So, when I ask the question of what educational discourses are manifested a landscape, I can only answer x, y and/or z educational discourses are manifested in the landscape, or none, if none are manifested. See, the answer is built into the question! If I were to answer that question by stating that x, y and/or z health and safety discourses are manifested in the landscape, then I’d answering the wrong question, an interesting question in its own right but the wrong question nonetheless.

What I just explained is what I tell my students when they struggle with research, when they wonder what it is they should look into and how they should state that in the form of research questions. I just tell them what Bergson states in ‘The Creative Mind’, to make note of how you invent the question or the problem, which you then seek to address. The addressing part does require effort, sure, but as long as you put in the effort, you can’t … it up, because it’s your invention, your question you answer, your problem that you solve, and the answer or the solution is always, always conditioned by the question or the problem. As Bergson (58) points out, this is not like when you were at school, when you had a book with questions that you answered by filling in the missing bits and then you checked if your answer was correct and corrected it if it wasn’t.

For me, this other issue was just a non-issue. The actual issue had to do with theory. As it was pointed out to me in a conversation after I read the rejection message, either the theory doesn’t work, which I doubt, considering how I’ve applied the same framework twice already and got good feedback on it, or the readers just don’t understand the theory, or, well, can’t be bothered to do any additional reading that might help them understand it. This is apparent (note how I keep using this word, how something is apparent, how something appears to be) in the feedback where the reviewers and editors fail to grasp what apparition is. I realize that it is uncommon to approach things via apparition, you don’t even need to read what I’ve read because you only need to look the word in a dictionary.

So, let me educate you, for a moment. This has to do with ‘appearance’ and ‘apparition’. The former has to do with the description, what something looks like (to put this in ocularcentrist terms), whereas the latter has to do with how something came to being, what are its conditions and possibilities to exist, as experienced by us. That’s a massive difference and changes the game completely. You might not believe me, so let’s look it up in a dictionary (OED, s.v. “apparition”, n.):

“The action of appearing or becoming visible.”

Whereas appearance is (OED, s.v. “appearance”, n.):

“The action or state of appearing or seeming to be (to eyes or mind); semblance; looking like. to all appearance: so far as appears to anyone.”


“The state or form in which a person or thing appears; apparent form, look, aspect.”


“The general aspect of circumstances or events; the ‘look’ of things.”

So, as I just summarized, apparition has to do with becoming, how something comes to appear, the way it does, inasmuch it does. Appearance, in turn, has to do with how whatever has come to being looks (to put this in ocularcentrist terms). For many, the problem is that this nuance between the two is generally not grasped well and the words tend to be used interchangeably, as the dictionary definitions do point out. I’m not a member of the language police, so I won’t go saying that it’s wrong use them interchangeably. What I am saying is that I’m using them in senses that are distinct from one another. Why? Well, this can be explained in multiple ways but let’s look up the definition of discourse that I tend to rely on (for this very reason, mind you). Right, Michel Foucault defines discourse in ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’ (1972 translation by Alan Sheridan):

“[P]ractices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.”

Pay attention to how he isn’t saying that discourses are practices that refer to the objects which we speak. What he is saying is that the objects of which we speak are formed by practices. Note also how these practices are systematic. Perhaps that’s a pleonasm, to call practices systematic, considering how, at least for me, a practice is always something that is established, shared, communal, done multiple times, habitually, if you will, you know, systematic. Then again, explicitly indicating that it’s systematic puts emphasis on it, as opposed to being just whimsical (which it is not).

To make more sense of this, as I attempted in one of the manuscript versions, we can explain this the way Immanuel Kant (A249-A250) explains it in ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ (1998 English translation by Paul Guyer and Allen Wood), when he distinguishes between phenomena and noumena. The former has to do with apparition, how things come to appear to us as sensible (as seen if we continue to explain this in ocularcentrist terms), inasmuch as they do, of course, whereas the latter has to do with the things in themselves, the way they actually are. Now, this does not mean that the things we are sensing (or looking at) do not have appearance. They do. However, the point with Kant is that we can’t get to the bottom of things. What we have instead are representations of the things. This means that we cannot access reality directly. This also means that when we examine something, whatever it might be, we can never really know if it is the way it is, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, hence the problem. Note how for Kant it can be intuited that there are these real things, things in themselves, but we just can’t get to them, so we are left to dabble with the world through representations, through appearances, the way the things look to us (to explain this in ocularcentrist terms again).

I’ve explained this before, but I’ll do it again here, where it is relevant again. Gilles Deleuze elaborates this particularly lucidly in a transcript of his lecture on Kant titled ‘Synthesis and Time’ (translation by Melissa McMahon), dated March 14, 1978. He first explains how things were before Kant:

“Previously philosophers spoke of phenomenon to distinguish what? Very broadly we can say that phenomenon was something like appearance. An appearance. The sensible, the a posteriori, what was given in experience had the status of phenomenon or appearance, and the sensible appearance was opposed to the intelligible essence.”

In other words, before Kant, what we had was phenomena and noumena, but they were understood as appearance and essence. Deleuze continues:

“The intelligible essence was also the thing such as it is in itself, it was the thing in itself, the thing itself or the thing as thought; the thing as thought, as phenomenon, is a Greek word which precisely designates the appearance or something we don’t know yet, the thing as thought in Greek was the noumenon, which means the ‘thought’.”

I could not explain this better. So, again, back in the day, phenomena had to do with the sensible appearance, whereas the noumena had to do with the thing in itself, the thought, the idea. This is basic Platonism, as Deleuze goes on to point out:

“I can thus say that the whole of classical philosophy from Plato onwards seemed to develop itself within the frame of a duality between sensible appearances and intelligible essences.”

Deleuze adds that what we get from this is a duality in which the phenomena are thus whatever me might call subjective whereas the noumena are whatever we might call objective. Simply put, you are living a lie and reality is only reachable in thought, or so to speak. In his words:

“A fundamental defect, namely: appearance is in the end the thing such as it appears to me by virtue of my subjective constitution which deforms it.”

This is not, however, the way Kant explains the duality of phenomena and noumena. I’ll let Deleuze explain this:

“[T]he phenomenon will no longer at all be appearance.”


“[T]he phenomenon is no longer defined as appearance but as apparition.”

The consequences are massive, which may be why my dear readers probably struggle with apparition whenever I use it. In Deleuze’s words:

“The difference is enormous because when I say the word apparition I am no longer saying appearance at all, I am no longer at all opposing it to essence. The apparition is what appears in so far as it appears. Full stop. I don’t ask myself if there is something behind, I don’t ask myself if it is false or not false.”

Why do I not ask myself if it is true or false? Well, because, for Kant, you can’t get to the noumena, the things-in-themselves, the ideas, because you can only think of them. What do we do instead? Do we opt to wail in agony over the futility of dealing with reality? No. Deleuze states that we need to redefine what is that we can do:

“[W]hat can we say about the fact of appearing?”

In contrast to dealing with appearance (which is pointless, mind you, because what you want to do instead is to engage in thought, according to Plato anyway), we do something completely different. Deleuze puts it concisely:

“The apparition is very different, it’s something that refers to the conditions of what appears.”

To get to the point, Deleuze states that:

“We will seek the conditions of [the] apparition [of the phenomenon].”

To better explain this, before Kant, the Platonist deals with a disjunction of appearance/essence. Following Kant, we deal with a conjunction of apparition/conditions of apparition. So, in short, when we engage with phenomena, things, objects, whatever they might be, we do not attempt to get to the bottom of things, to explain how things really are as noumena. Instead we focus on the phenomena, the things, the objects, whatever they might be. We ask what are the conditions of the apparition of these phenomena, these things, these objects, whatever it is that we are dealing with.

As I’ve been reading a bit this and that lately, it appeared to me that the way Deleuze explains Kant actually makes me think of what Sextus Empiricus has to say about the Pyrrhonian Skeptic way of dealing with phenomena and noumena, understood as appearances and what is thought or judged (7), in book I of his ‘Outlines of Pyrrhonism’ (1933 translation by R. G. Bury). Sextus Empiricus (15) states that:

“[W]hen we question whether the underlying object is such as it appears, we grant the fact that it appears, and our doubt does not concern the appearance itself but the account given of that appearance, – and that is a different thing from questioning the appearance itself.”

And (17):

“[N]o one, I suppose, disputes that the underlying object has this or that appearance; the point in dispute is whether the object is in reality such as it appears to be.”

He (15) provides an example:

“[H]oney appears to us to be sweet (and this we grant, for we perceive sweetness through the senses), but whether it is also sweet in its essence is for us a matter of doubt, since this is not an appearance but a judgement regarding the appearance.”

Okay, I wouldn’t say that the way Sextus Empiricus puts this is exactly the same as the way Kant puts it, but they do seem to agree that things are to be addressed on the basis of what appears to be. To be honest, I reckon I have a tendency of expressing things this way, that something appears to be the case, that it is apparent that … or that it is evident that … or that it seems … because I don’t claim to know how things really are. Of course, it could well be that the way things appear is the way they are, but can we know for sure? I don’t think so. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. I don’t know and I’m not particularly troubled by that either, so it would appear to be the case that I find myself in agreement with Kant and Sextus Empiricus on this matter.

Also, what I like about both of the formulations is that even though they change the game, what’s what, what it is that one is trying to achieve, there is no doubt involved that things don’t have this or that appearance, that, for example, honey doesn’t taste sweet or that the walls of the room I’m writing this don’t look white. I reckon honey does taste sweet and these walls look white.

To get back to Kant, I reckon his formulation is very handy in this regard but I don’t really follow Kant, nor Sextus Empiricus. The problem with the Kantian reformulation, as great as it is, is that it retains the dualism between things and things in themselves. So, a phenomenon, a thing, an object, let’s say a beer bottle, appears to me as it does, but there is this real beer bottle (or whatever it actually is noumenally), this idea of it. As Deleuze goes on to explain, the subject does not constitute whatever it is that appears to him or her, only the conditions of apparition. So, to give you the full version of the previous quoted bit from Deleuze:

“We will seek the conditions of [the] apparition [of the phenomenon], and in fact the conditions of its apparition are, the categories on one hand and on the other space and time.”

Without going into details, in Kant’s (A369, B129) formulation, the categories, as well as space and time, are tied to the subject. In other words, to investigate the conditions of apparition, we turn inward to the subject. This is sort of fine, in terms of the conditions, but what bothers me is that duality between things and things in themselves is retained in the background. This bothers me because it’s still like saying that things or objects are the way the are, in some ideal world, with the improvement in the thought process that indicates that we can’t really know the things or the objects the way they really are because we can’t access that ideal world.

This part that still bothers me is explained in Plato’s ‘Parmenides’ (1871 translation by Benjamin Jowett), where (the characters of) Socrates and Parmenides ponder whether something mundane like hair, mud and filth (dirt) have their own ideas or are ideas limited to something grand like abstract ideas of justice, beauty, goodness and humanity, or elements like fire and water. Parmenides ask these questions, to which Socrates hesitantly answers:

“‘No, Parmenides; visible things like these are, as I believe, only what they appear to be: though I am sometimes disposed to imagine that there is nothing without an idea; but I repress any such notion, from a fear of falling into an abyss of nonsense.’”

To paraphrase this, (the character of) Socrates is torn between thinking that everything has an idea, even the mundane things, which then sounds ludicrous to him after giving it a bit of thought, and only some abstracts have ideas, that is to say that only certain ideas count as ideas, not all sensible entities that one may encounter. Now, if you ask me, it does sound hilarious to assert that hair, mud and dirt have their own ideas, in the sense that they are essences, things in themselves, distinct from one another, in some otherworldly realm that is the true reality because that means that the true reality has this finite yet crazy long list of things. What bothers me about this is that this makes creativity impossible. If that beer bottle is just a mere manifestation of an idea, as is this table, this keyboard, this screen, this floor, this room, then everything is preconfigured. We never invent anything. Now there are, of course, many takes on this, what Plato really thinks as counting as having its own idea, and perhaps he doesn’t think that way, but, then again, for example in ‘Republic’ he does seem to think that mundane things like beds and tables have their own ideas. If they have their own ideas, surely everything else has as well and that’s a nightmare, if you ask me.

To get out of this nightmare, we land on Kant, who, sort of fixes the issue, but not really. It’s sort of more like sidestepping the issue, bracketing it, eliminating it from consideration, at least for the time being, rather than actually fixing it. Now, to be fair, I’m not saying that Plato is wrong. I think he is, but I have to leave it open that he might be right. I just don’t buy it that he is. The same goes with Kant. I mean damn, I think that’s already quite an improvement in the formulation. I don’t mind it that he leaves it open like that, to be possibly reconsidered later on whenever he manages to do that (which he didn’t, of course, as there is this finiteness to human life). I think you should approach others in good faith, acknowledging that there may have been limitations to what they could achieve.

If you are confused with all this, it’s probably because it can be quite confusing, at least initially. Also, to be fair, we are actually dealing with, pardon the expression, some heavy shit, stuff that has bothered our brightest minds even well before Plato, so if you’ve never really had to challenge your own ways of thinking about things, this can be quite the headache and so your brain will probably tell you not to keep doing it. That is to be expected really.

So, for Kant the subject is central, albeit not all there is. In short, Kant’s approach is known as transcendental idealism which involves a transcendental subject to which the conditions of apparition are tied to, including space and time, as already noted. We are also still dealing with distinct things, first and foremost. When we compare these things, these identities, the difference is between these things. In other words, the key issue here is that difference is subsidiary to identity. As already explained, the problem here is that everything is just given, to begin with, even mud, hair and dirt, and we just try to make sense of them as they appear to us the way they do, inasmuch as they do, because while we can’t know them for sure, we can intuit that that’s the case, that there are these things in themselves.

Now, what if, what if we do something wild like flip Plato on his head? What if we start from difference, give it primacy, and think it gives rise to identity, as just what happens to be, at any given moment? What we get from that is transcendental empiricism, which you can read more of in Deleuze’s ‘Difference and Repetition’ (1994 translation by Paul Patton). What’s the difference between the two, between transcendental idealism and transcendental empiricism? Well, if it isn’t something you figured out already, on your own, the key difference, relevant to the discussion at hand, is that the conditions of apparition are no longer simply tied to the subject. What’s outside, or so to speak, is now the key thing here. The starting place is no longer you, the thinking subject. That also means that you are product of this world, the product of differentiation, just like everyone and everything else. You are still you, don’t get me wrong. You still have your identity. It’s just that your identity is not who you think you are, it’s just immanently who you are, what you’ve become.

This applies to everything, for example the headphones on my table or the tomatoes that I’m eating, right now. They are the way they are, until they are no more, like the tomato that I just digested. The headphones are still headphones but not the same headphones that I bought years ago as they’ve endured a lot of wear and tear. We can, of course, speak of them as the same headphones, but, strictly speaking, they are not, or, rather, they are always in the process of becoming, thus being exactly what they are, as they are, ever so slightly different at all times, until, one day, they are no longer recognized as headphones. This already hints where I’m going with this.

With something like the tomatoes or, better yet, apples, this change is much easier to recognize. Apples are a great example because when you bite a chunk out of an apple, it appears to be an apple that is just missing a piece. It’s like 78 percent of the apple that it used to be, but still an apple. However, give it a rest, leave on your table for about an hour and you’ll notice that this is not as simple as first having an apple and then having an apple minus a part of the apple. You should be able to notice how the apple has started cave in on itself, as if self-destructing, because oxygen is now penetrating the insides of the apple and causing it to go brown.

Now imagine attempting to explain the same thing with the apple to me, that the apple has either one idea, coupled with the idea of a part of an apple, or a part of thing, or that there’s like 22 percent idea of an apple, coupled with 78 percent idea of an apple (or the like, feel free to change the terms and/or percentages). Now think of the same thing with my worn headphones. Are there ideas that correspond to the minutely different versions of my headphones? The point here is that you end up having to argue that everything has a corresponding transcendent idea, no matter how minute or inconsequential, to the point that it seems like nonsense, which is what troubles Socrates in Plato’s ‘Parmenides’. How about them apples, eh?

None of this really changes things physically, that happens on its own, with or without you, but it radically changes the way you think about things or objects. The obvious major upside here is that we longer deal with some transcendent, otherworldly list of ideas to which everything that exists conforms to. What does this have to do with apparition? Well, for Deleuze and/or Félix Guattari, the things that we deal with are always in assembled or machinic, in the sense that things are drawn together, inasmuch as they are, of course, and operate as machines, having their cogs and wheels, within other machines that operate within other machines and in relation to other machines. The human body works this way. Your body is not just this one homogeneous entity, like molded foam or something.

Part of this is also linguistic or semiotic. Comedian Sean Lock made an astute observation about the inner workings of language when he wondered out loud “At what point does a leaflet become a pamphlet?” We could carry on with that, to wonder when it turns into a booklet? Or, to wonder when that turns into a book? What separates a bottle from a vase? The glass? There’s little trouble involved in identifying them by appearance, just by the way they look. Again, no one is doubting their appearance. But what is interesting, at least to me, is not that a bottle appears to look like, you know, a bottle, and vase appears to look like, you know, a vase, even though nothing prevents you from using them interchangeably, if that’s what you are into, but the conditions that make us treat them the way we do, as bottles or as vases, as leaflets, as pamphlets, as booklets or as books. We can, of course, fall back on Plato on this and state that all these things are the way they are and we recognize them as such as they are representations of certain ideas, but, for some reason I’m not buying into that.

So, this leads us back to Foucault’s definition of discourse (skip back quite a bit), how it has to do with not how we just sense things or objects as this or that and then call them this or that, but how we come to form them through practice. It’s worth emphasizing that while it’s thus certainly creative (as there’s no pre-existing otherwordly list of items for us to refer) it’s also systematic. In other words, the way we form objects or things is not whimsical. There has to be some tacit agreement. I can call a bottle a vase but it doesn’t make it a vase, even though I can certainly make use of a bottle as a vase. In borderline cases that might actually be fine, but that leads us to the question of what are the conditions of the bottle appearing to me and/or you as a vase? See! See! This is what I’m after with apparition.

Now, I would argue that it’s not just the glass, but yes, it has to do with the glass (or plastic, but who uses plastic vases?). There’s something about the form of the glass, the way it is shaped and how we’ve come to agree on what to call a vase and not a bottle. Of course, it’s not actually we, me and you (the reader), who’ve come to an agreement on this. That has happened way before and something tells me that people didn’t actually have some formal meeting about it, nor keep a record about it. As a side note, this is the point Deleuze and Guattari make about being in the middle of things. Anyway, at times some language police bureau attempts to provide us with words that we should use for this and/or that, only to fail miserably as people just ignore them and use some supposedly god-awful word instead. It’s like how I think of all rice pasties as Karelian pasties regardless of what it says on the labeling. We could say the same thing about how some authority, piece of legislation or government decree attempts to define the shape of something, how something should look or the like, only to have people complete ignore it.

Right, to further complicate this, to assess the conditions that make something appear as it does, inasmuch as it does, we may have to assess those conditions, what makes them appear to us the way they do, inasmuch as they do. So, what makes something made out of glass to appear to us a vase and not a bottle thus also requires us to assess what it is that makes glass appear to us the way it does so that we recognize it as such. Do I still need to explain what apparition is about?

To be fair to the editors, I reckon I could have done a better job at explaining things. Granted. I think things could always be better, at least in retrospect. That said, explaining complex things isn’t simple and simplifying something complex tends to be rather counterproductive. A typical article is something like, what, 7000 to 8000 words, give or take, all inclusive. Now, to address something complex like apparition may involve quite a bit of elaboration, unless I can take it for granted that people know what I’m on about, which I tend to doubt, considering the feedback I tend to get on theory.

In this essay, so far, I’ve explained that one concept for about six pages (single spaced), which is some 4000 words. Of course there’s a bit of froth in that, considering that my essays aren’t exactly the tightest pieces of writing. Nonetheless, I don’t think I manage to do justice to the complexity of the issue in six pages, no matter how tight I make it. Now, let’s assume that I manage to do that in 4000 words. Okay, that means that I’m left with 3000 to 4000 words to explain everything else, including the introduction and conclusion which typically just repeat bits discussed elsewhere in an article. In addition, because articles are typically all inclusive, the list of references is considered part of the word count. Well guess what! Guess whose first article has a list of references that is nine pages long (single spaced) or roughly 3000 words! So, looking at this from that angle, if the typical article is 7000 to 8000 words, I’m left with 4000 to 5000 words to explain everything. What was it that I was supposed to do again, research, have some actual analysis and findings? I’m all for that, 100 percent, otherwise I’m just recycling what others have written in the past, at best synthesizing some ideas. Then again, that should not come at the expense of the conceptual framework, otherwise I’m just spewing out some random findings about something random or taking it for granted that everyone knows what the deal is, which I doubt. On top of this, as I attempt to balance these things, to express everything as concisely as possible while being as elaborate and lucid as possible, I get feedback that requires me to further explain things, to unpack some of the concepts more or the like. The thing is that that’s not helpful, at all, considering that I’m left to make the choice as to what to take out to make room for the necessary changes. That means that told later on I might run into being told that I must further elaborate on what I took out in the last round of edits, once again not being told what should go instead.

It’s also worth pointing out, reminding you, that this correspondence usually takes months. Simply put, that means that when you take something out and add something else in its place, you must wait for months for some anonymous person to tell you that they’d actually like you to better explain what you took out months ago. I’m actually quite amused when I get a rejection where it’s stated that it’s regrettable that despite the months of efforts that went into the manuscript, it has not resulted in publication. I’m always like, what months of effort? Yours or mine? I most certainly don’t work for months on one manuscript. I mean it’s more like a week, at best. The edits take like a day or two, certainly less than a week, regardless of how major changes are required. Of course it depends how you define a month, a week or a day, what goes into it.

When I write, I’m like a whirlwind. I’m just super productive. I get things done. I just do. I could say something like I take pride in that, but I don’t. Pride is just something that gets in the way of things. It makes you complacent. When I write, I guess it just comes to me. It’s probably because, one way or another, I’m always in the zone, making observations, thinking, kind of like writing, but to myself, so when I actually write, it’s more like I’m just pouring what I’ve already formulated on to a page.

To keep this anecdotal, I just went for a run. It took me like an hour. Good pace, good workout. Uphill, downhill, no hill. Anyway, at the same time I listened to a philosophy podcast, which introduced me to certain ideas, not necessarily something that I’ll use, but it broadened my horizons. Sometimes I learn about a new concept or my mind wanders into make some connection that I hadn’t made before. My point is that I stay ahead because I never stop moving. I don’t work by having set hours. My days make no sense to most people. I’m always up to something, always in the middle of things.

I guess it’s a bit like playing pool or snooker. I constantly think ahead so when I’m about to make a move, I’m already prepared for what comes after that move and when it comes time to make the following move, I’ve already occupied myself with what comes after that. So yeah, I never stop moving. I’m more like just changing the course, the direction, swerving, which means that it’s only likely that I’m way ahead of those who wish to rein me in.

So yeah, I’m always puzzled by the time the process takes. Sure you could say that reading and giving feedback is different, that it takes more time than writing. Nah, no it doesn’t. For example, when I give feedback to my students on their theses, or grade them, I have to read something like 40 to 60 pages, give or take (it used to be between 60 to 80 pages). That takes me a day, something like six hours to be precise, depending on how familiar I am with what the text deals with (I might have to check a couple of extra things). Boom, done, easy! Next! It’s also very productive for me because I get exposed to their work. It allows me to gain more insight on this and/or that, which may come handy later on in some unforeseen context. I don’t look down upon them, thinking that they are mere student works, like that one …er who went there when commenting my work. I’ll have none of that I’m better than thou crap.

If it was up to me (which it certainly isn’t), I’d take a (figuratively) massive hammer to the inner workings of the academic world. This model where equals acts as judges to others just has to go. It also makes no sense that the correspondence takes forever. I’ve had people respond to my letters abroad, with letters from abroad, much quicker than how people manage this, on a computer, accessible basically anywhere, anytime, these days. Connecting the two, equals acting as judges and the lack of correspondence, there needs to be actual dialogue. It’s not dialogue when you get feedback like change this, this and this, no matter how it is presented, because what’s implied is that if you don’t make the changes, you won’t get published. In other words, the feedback is just one way. Sure, you could attempt to challenge the reviewers and/or the editors, but in practice that’s not an option. I guess you could be bold and brave about it, challenge them, duel them, but the problem is that it’s not a fair fight. It might appear that the odds are in your favor. However, regardless of the outcome, regardless of how convincing you are with your arguments, the other side doesn’t have to concede defeat because they are in a position of authority. You could also point out that it’s all based on supposed authority, not actual authority. They could not point to anyone who could back that claim. God? Yeah, what was it that Deleuze and Guattari say about priests? Anyway, the point is that they could accept the challenge, to see who’s who, but of course they won’t. To be fair, when you have that position of authority which allows you to deny a challenge without looking bad, of course you are going to make use of that. I mean, duh! It only makes sense. It is well within their best interest.

Right, my take is that, in the end (albeit, as I’ve pointed out, nothing ever ends … because we are always in the middle; where is the beginning, where is the end anyway?) the editors just couldn’t understand what I went on about, inasmuch as I did, of course (as I am limited by the word count constraints which means that something that I’d like to include is always missing, no matter what). My work is based on certain presuppositions, certain prephilosophical intuitions that form an image of thought or a plane of immanence which is radically different from the dominant image of thought that the vast majority of people subscribe to. Actually most people don’t even think that they subscribe to any image of thought. For most people everything just is, the way it is. There is no construction for them. I challenge this notion and I’m very open about being opposed to the dominant image of thought, which is also known as Platonism. I damn sure pointed this out in the manuscript, you could not miss it, assuming you read it and understood the point, of course. Anyway, long story short, I’m as anti-Platonist as it gets.

So, what’s the problem then? Well, I’ve explained this in the past, a number of times probably, but I’ll do it again because, apparently, people aren’t getting it. Deleuze and Guattari address this issue in ‘What Is Philosophy? (1994 translation by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell). As this is a broader issue, not only pertaining to philosophy, I’ll do changes to their text. These will be [marked] accordingly. They (28) elaborate the issue:

“Every [academic] runs away when he or she hears someone say, ‘Let’s discuss this.’ Discussions are fine for roundtable talks[.] … The best one can say about discussions is that they take things no farther[.]”

Exactly! The issue is not that there is no discussion but that there is no actual discussion, no genuine dialogue. No one ever wants to discuss these issues with me. As I pointed out, it’s not actual dialogue to get comments from reviewers because it’s never a level playing field. It’s not an actual discussion because it only works one way. Deleuze and Guattari (28) actually continue, adding this is because:

“… since the participants never talk about the same thing.”

I agree and I’m well aware of this issue. That’s why I try to be explicit about my position and explain what comes with it. However, it’s nearly pointless if the others don’t get it or, more problematically, won’t get it. So, what I’m after is that when you read what I write, here, or in an actual publication, try to step into my shoes, to see the world the way I do, to see whether what I’ve expressed makes sense in its own light. For example, I don’t see eye to eye with people who do phenomenology, but I assess their work and what they’ve accomplished with it in terms of phenomenology. Simply put, I try to understand the work in its own terms. If I were to point to some flaws in it, I wouldn’t just state that this and/or that doesn’t work, unless it fails to function within its own logic. What I’d do instead is to point out that phenomenology has this and/or that shortcomings and hence I don’t subscribe to it as an image of thought. See, that doesn’t mean that the work is bad, unworthy of publishing or the like. I’m also willing to acknowledge that I might be in the wrong when I subscribe to a certain image thought and others may well be in the right when they subscribe to something else. I don’t think their image of thought holds that well but I grant it that it might be just me who is wrong. Anyway, Deleuze and Guattari (27) make note of this very issue:

“Is there one plane that is better than all the others, or problems that dominate all others?”

In other words, how do we know which plane or image of thought is correct one then? Well, simply put, we don’t, at least not for sure. That’s actually beside the point, to wonder whether someone like “Descartes was right or wrong” as “Cartesian concepts can only be assessed as a function of their problems and their plane”, as they (27) point out and exemplify. If you think that there is something familiar about this, it’s because I’ve already sort of covered this issue in this essay. Feel free to go back to the points made by Bergson and you should notice that posing them problem is at the heart of the issue, not whether something is true or false, right or wrong. In their words (27):

“Planes must be constructed and problems posed, just as concepts must be created.”

As a side note, before I continue with this, they (27) add that people who engage with this type of stuff, in their case philosophers, just “have too much to do to know whether [their plane] is the best, or even to bother with this question.” So, to get back on track here, if we can’t know what is correct, nor should we even bother to ask such a pointless question according to Bergson and Deleuze and Guattari, what should we do? For Deleuze and Guattari (27) issue is timely, quite literally so:

“What is the philosophical form of the problems of a particular time? If one concept is ‘better’ than an earlier one, it is because it makes us aware of new variations and unknown resonances, it carries out unforeseen cuttings-out, it brings forth an Even that surveys [survole] us.”

To paraphrase this, as the matter is about intuitions and posing a problem, one is always attempting to trace or come up with a problem and to solve it, to make sense of it. In short, different times, different problems, different solutions. That’s why they (27) state that:

“[I]f earlier concepts were able to prepare a concept but not constitute it, it is because their problem was still trapped within other problems, and their plane did not yet possess its indispensable curvature or movements. And concepts can only be replaced by others if there are new problems and another plane relative to which [something] loses all meaning, the beginning loses all necessity, and the presuppositions lose all difference – or take on others.”

So, to use their (28) examples, if I find Plato, Descartes or Kant out of touch with the times, it is because they are, at least for me (wait a moment, I’ll get to this). Were they out of touch with the times back in the day when they were around? Probably not. But can you still be Platonist, Cartesian or Kantian, or Husserlian (feel free to think of just about anyone) for that matter? According to Deleuze and Guattari (28) you sure can:

“If one can still be a Platonist, Cartesian, or Kantian today, it is because one is justified in thinking that their concepts can be reactivated in our problems and inspire those concepts that need to be created.”

In other words, you sure still can, inasmuch you can justify it to yourself that their problematics still make sense and help us to grapple with contemporary problems, the problems we face today. As they point out, they might not be of direct use, as such, because, well, they dealt with the problems that bothered them in their time, but they might still be of use if they function as sources of inspiration, if what they did back in the day can be extended or worked into something that is relevant to our current problems. In other words, they can certainly function as points of departure for something new, something wildly different, yet applicable to the problems that are relevant, here and now. Of course, each of these, and others, come with their own baggage, their starting points and the concepts that they created to address certain problems that they encountered during their time, so they might not work that well as points of departure, considering how times have changed and keep changing. That’s, of course, not to say that they can’t function as points of departure. It all depends and it’s up to you to figure if they do or if they don’t.

To get back to the issue of how we deal with the views of others, Deleuze and Guattari (28) are rather pessimistic about the issue, as I already pointed out. It should be evident that they are just fine with just about whatever, inasmuch as it can help us with posing contemporary problems and solving them. In some cases that means going against some of the notable figures, not because one takes issue with them, but because the way they pose certain problems and fix them lead to the problems we face today. Anyway, I’d say they are the exception in this regard. I reckon it’s hard to find people who assess the works of others in good faith, on their own terms, as based on how they pose a problem and how they work to solve it. I think reading others in bad faith is very common, not because people don’t have the time to change planes (they do), but they just don’t want to do otherwise (as they just don’t want to spend their time on something that might undermine them and their achievements because it’s sort of counterproductive for them, undesirable if you will). In their (28) words:

“[W]hen [academics] criticize each other it is on the basis of problems and on a plane that is different from theirs and that melt down the old concepts in the way a cannon can be melted down to make new weapons.”

As I pointed out already, many people act in bad faith. Okay, fair enough, they might not be aware that there are different planes or images of thought, but that’s kind of the issue, why Deleuze is so, so against transcendence, aka Platonism, in any and all of its forms. The problem there is not that you don’t appreciate the Platonic plane, in its own right, with regard to the problems the Greeks dealt with back then (you should be able to grasp this by reading something like Plato’s ‘Parmenides’), but how it comes to function in a way that seeks to eradicate all other ways of thinking, you know, like how priests seek to make sure that heresy won’t crop up. I like how Deleuze and Guattari (28) condense the issue:

“[The criticism] never takes place on the same plane.”

Indeed. This is how I feel when someone criticizes my work. I’m like … so … what you are really saying is that my work sucks (another way of saying that I suck) because I’m not on the ‘right’ plane and don’t ask the ‘right’ questions, the ‘right’ plane being his or her plane and the ‘right’ questions being the questions he or she considers important, as seen important from his or her plane. This is what puzzles me. Why is it that I’m supposed to ask the questions of someone else, to find solutions to problems posed by someone else, when it is me who is asking the questions, posing the problems and finding solutions to them? Would it not make more sense for others to do the same, on their own? Who is writing here? Me or you? If you want to contribute, why don’t you holla at me? Maybe we could come up with something completely new and interesting! Who knows!

While it might seem to be the case, Deleuze and Guattari (28) note that it’s not fruitless to engage with the works of others, including those who reside on a different plane:

“To criticize is only to establish that a concept vanishes when it is thrust into a new milieu, losing some of its components, or acquiring others that transform it.”

So, when you address the work of someone else who resides on a different plane, that is to say who subscribes to a different image of thought, it is inevitable that the concept is not going to work the way it does on the different plane if you bring it to your plane and assess it on your plane. That’s because the configurations are different. It’s as simple as that. To be positive, that doesn’t meant that borrowing concepts from other planes doesn’t work. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends. For them (28) the problem is rather that:

“But those who criticize without creating, those who are content to defend the vanished concept without being able to it the forces it needs to return to life, are the plague of [academics].”

This is exactly why I don’t like feedback where someone points out that something doesn’t make sense, that it doesn’t work or should be explained better because what the person is really saying is that when he or she assesses the work, the concepts used by the person being assessed, that assessing person hasn’t bothered to offer the person being assessed anything of value. If they were up to the task, willing to chip in, to engage in actual dialogue, they’d make note of how they come to this from a different plane and how they’d put it is in this or that way, which would make it more comprehensible to people outside the plane of the person being assessed or the like. That’d be totally fine, just like Deleuze and Guattari point out. That’d be productive. Alas, that’s not how it usually is because people are happy to criticize without creating. They are happy to assert their status over others from their plane. Why? Well, I’ll let Deleuze and Guattari (28-29) explain:

“All these debaters and communicators are inspired by ressentiment. They speak only of themselves when they set empty generalizations against one another.”

In other words, it’s not about what’s what, what’s relevant to the problems posed and solved by others, but about the people involved. This is why I pointed out that I object to critics who act like they are the writers, not the writer him- or herself. It’s only apt here, because I referred to (the character of) Socrates earlier on, that Deleuze and Guattari (29) liken these people to him because, if you read how Plato portrays him, he is like opposite of someone who wants to engage in genuine dialogue, like, you know, a friend might. This is because (the character of) Socrates doesn’t give a hoot about the conversation, nor the other people involved. He just wants to assert that he is right. The other people function as conceptual foils for him. They are just there to validate him. That’s why Deleuze and Guattari (29) point out that Socrates completely fails to understand what friendship is by rendering a dialogue into a mere monologue:

“[Socrates] turned the friend into the friend of the single concept, and the concept into the pitiless monologue that eliminates the rivals one by one.”

Yeah, so, as I pointed out, he is just making a point, engaging in a supposed dialogue where the other person basically just nods as it makes no difference whether the other person is saying this or that, agreeing or disagreeing, having something to say or not. Socrates just keeps on talking.

Now, I reckon this is not all a bad thing. This is because there is no guarantee that a dialogue among friends (as the Greeks would have it) will lead to anything. Friends may well be too nice to you, just agree with you and not challenge you. In other words, friends might not make the greatest of interlocutors when it comes to coming up with something new. Now, this does depend on what kind of friends one has and how the relationship is defined, so there’s nothing inherent to friendship that prevents creation. Someone unfamiliar might be better in this regard because they don’t have that existing connection, that desire to stay friends with you that might dissuade them from challenging your views.

That all said, I reckon the problem with (the character of) Socrates is that he has already made up his mind about something. He is just using it to prop up his own beliefs and to show it is he who is in the right. The discussion is thus just a charade. He isn’t interested in what someone else has to say nor changing his mind during a conversation. He is just reasoning his way to his own beliefs.

It’s only apt to point out that ancient Greek for a belief or an opinion is doxa (δόξα). It’s actually also about a common belief or a popular opinion (OED, s.v. “doxa”, n.):

“Opinion or belief; spec. the body of established or unquestioned attitudes or beliefs held generally within a particular society, community, group, etc.”

It is also said that it comes from “the stem of δοκεῖν to seem, to seem good, to think, suppose, imagine”. It’s worth emphasizing that it should not be confused with orthodoxy, which is the right or correct belief or opinion held by a certain group, such a religious group. The thing with doxa is that it is unquestioned, taken for granted, whereas with orthodoxy there is this emphasis of actively upholding it as right or correct. The problem with someone like (the character of) Socrates is that he is not attacking the doxa, challenging it, but actually upholding it or replacing it with another doxa, as Deleuze and Guattari (144-145) go on to point out. They (146) express this particularly well:

“This is clear to see in certain competitions: you must express your opinion, but you ‘win’ (you have spoken the truth) if you say the same as the majority of those participating in the competition.”

This is one of those things that I like to poke fun at when I’m handed a questionnaire or a survey. I’m amused by the expectation to provide correct answers, so, in the past, I’ve asked the person handing out the questionnaire or the survey whether he or she wants me to express the truth, to answer correctly, to give answers what the person wants to hear, or whether the person wants to read what I have to say. Anyway, the point here is that you get something out of it, namely popularity, if you express what people want to read. That’s doxa for you. They (146) continue:

“The essence of opinion is will to majority and already speaks in the name of a majority.”

So, when I’m told that what I do, what I think, what I write, isn’t correct or, to be more polite, that it doesn’t make sense, that it doesn’t compute, or so to say, what is meant by it is that it doesn’t conform to the opinion of the majority. It’s against consensus, which is generally understood as (OED, s.v. “consensus”, n.):

“Agreement in opinion; the collective unanimous opinion of a number of persons.”

The problem with consensus is that it doesn’t exist. Pierre Bourdieu (149) explains this particularly well in his aptly titled talk ‘Public Opinion Does Not Exist’, as included ‘Sociology in Question’ (1993 translation by Richard Nice):

“[There is an assumption] that everyone assumes that there is a consensus on what the problems are, in other words that there is agreement on the questions that are worth asking.”

This is particularly relevant to this essay because it connects back to Bergson’s formulation of what it is to ask a question and answer it, what it is to pose a problem and solve it. I keep running into this issue, being told that I need to do this and/or that, to ask these and/or those questions because people in the relevant field are (supposedly) in agreement about what the problems are and what questions are worth asking. That’s doxa for you. I don’t win, that is to say I don’t get published, because I don’t express the beliefs of the majority. This is evident, for example, when I get negative feedback on the quantification of the social, along the lines of this isn’t what people do these days, we do ethnography (or the like) instead (typically without defining what is meant by ethnography or what is that one supposed to do). For me, this it is not an issue because I pose the problems and ask the questions and the tools that I use are apt for solving those problems and answering those questions. The way I see it is that you pose certain problems and ask certain questions and use certain tools to solve those problems and answer those questions. That’s fine by me. It only becomes an issue when it is asserted that these are the problems that one must focus, these are the questions that must be asked and these are the tools that you must use to solve these problems and answer these questions. So, in a nutshell, as Bergson puts it, we pose problems and seek solutions to those problems, we ask questions and seek answers to those questions. It’s as simple as that. If I do things the way I do, it’s because I need to do them the way I do in order to answer the questions that I have asked, to solve the problems I have posed. Sure I could do things in other ways but then I would be posing different problems and asking different questions.

What makes doxa particularly problematic is exactly the assumption that there is a consensus, that things just are the way they are. At least with orthodoxy it is evident that there is an assertion of how things are and it is held to be the correct or right opinion or belief. In other words, it is easier to challenge orthodoxy because by asserting that something is correct or right entails that something else, what it is not, is not correct or right. So, in a way, doxa is like orthodoxy which hides in plain sight, as explained by Deleuze and Guattari (146):

“It gives to the recognition of truth an extension and criteria that are naturally those of an ‘orthodoxy’: a true opinion will be the one that coincides with that of the group to which one belongs by expressing it.”

This leads us back to the prephilosophical intuitions, presuppositions, planes or images of thought. To use the examples often discussed by Deleuze and Guattari, I’m fine with notions like orthodoxy or despotism because they show their true colors. It is asserted in those that they are in the right. Of course, I don’t agree with that, that they are. I mean obviously not. The people involved just have the audacity to openly claim to be right, by the will or grace of God, or something equally absurd. What is presupposed, their authority to be in the right, is not hidden. The only thing you need to do is challenge this presupposition for to make that foundation crumble. Sure it may take a lot of challenging, a lot of cracks in that foundation for it to crumble, and therefore a lot of blood, sweat and tears will be involved, but at least there’s an opening. Just chisel away. The problem with doxa is that the presupposition is hidden. It’s as if there was no presupposition, no foundation, which makes it insidious. It allows those with hidden presuppositions to win because the conditions for winning are what is presupposed. The game is rigged. That’s why (the character of) Socrates always wins. It’s all scripted, it’s all scripted by Plato.

I think I’ve covered the backstory to this long enough (here’s the MARKER for you to jump to), so it’s time to get to the point. I recently ran into a commentary written by Crispin Thurlow. Published in the International Journal of Multilingualism in 2019, Thurlow addresses an issue that I’ve been going on and on, and on and on, and will probably keep going on and on, and on and on, in his commentary titled ‘Semiotic creativities in and with space: binaries and boundaries, beware!’

In summary, he makes note of how the articles he is commenting on (all part of a special issue that the commentary is also part of) do little to address the relevant concepts, namely space and landscape. In his (99) words:

“[T]he papers in this special issue tend to treat people’s creative semiotic actions as taking place in space, as opposed to thinking of space as an distinctive resource for creative semiotic action in its own right.”

He (99) then broadens this issue and address the research tradition known as linguistic landscape studies in general:

“The understandable inclination (or tradition) in linguistic landscapes has always been to look at the emplacement of language, centring words as the primary analytic focus and thereby elevating language as the key semiotic resource.”

I agree. I think this is the hallmark of linguistic landscape studies. It’s also something that I think is just fine. I think it is important to focus on language that is manifested in writing all around us. Of course, we might add here that we should not ignore images here either, but that’s beside the point here. Anyway, he (99) continues:

“We are less good at (or interested in) attending to the way space itself – and in its own terms – is deployed as a powerful, creative semiotic resource.”

Again, I agree. I think this also characterizes linguistic studies fairly accurately. It is also a fair depiction of the studies. There are some who explicitly address this issue, Thurlow himself included, but they are part of a clear minority whose concerns about this are rarely acknowledged, possibly due to a lack of interest, or desire, as pointed out by Thurlow (99) here. No one certainly gives a hoot about what I have to say, judging by the responses I get to my manuscripts. Anyway, to be productive, not merely critical of others, he (99) elaborates the issue:

“Space is not merely con-text, it is text. Space is not passive backdrop to language, but an active semiotic-cum-material resource which is also actively (not necessarily mindfully) taken up and deployed.”

He (99) then lists the issues he takes with the studies included in the special issue. As I’m sure you can read them by yourself, one by one, study by study, I’ll only summarize the main points. It’s not that space isn’t mentioned, that spatiality isn’t a concern, but it isn’t investigated. Space, spatiality and spatialization are just these words that are mentioned, likely because they have a lot of purchase these days. In other words, they have buzz value, much like any other trendy word or concept that one has to throw in to attract funding. He (100) is concerned with the apparent lack of conceptual clarity because:

“[W]e do a disservice to linguistic-semiotic landscapes and to the nature and extent of people’s creative engagements in/with space if we fail to consider spatiality properly, addressing the way people consciously or unconsciously use space as a powerful meaning-making resource. At the risk of sounding repetitive, spaces are not simply where communication takes place, space is communication.”

To which I’d add that as no communication is neutral, neither is space. As language is social, as it is politics, at least the way I understand it through Deleuze and Guattari, as well as through Speech Act Theory, space is social, space is politics. Now, to be fair, as Thurlow (100) points out, these issues pertaining to spatiality are not something people in linguistics are familiar with and, perhaps, they are hard to include in journals that focus on language or languages. However, as he (100) also points out, I think that it’s intellectually dishonest and indeed does a disservice to everyone to opt to ignore the issue as beyond the boundaries of linguistics. Thurlow (102) also addresses the word landscape, how it is used:

“By the same token, landscapes ought not to be treated as places per se, but rather ways of seeing and, indeed, ways of engaging in/with space, both in scholarly or conceptual terms but also in everyday life[.]”

Once again, I agree. This is something that is missing from most linguistic landscape studies. While I can’t claim that I have read every linguistic landscape study, I reckon this is an issue that severely undermines the vast majority of linguistic landscape studies. There’s typically absolutely nothing about landscape in most linguistic landscape studies, except the word. It’s painfully accurate how Maurice Ronai (137-139) made note of this issue over four decades ago in his 1976 article ‘Paysages’ that appeared in Hérodote, how many studies (in geography) that claim to be about landscape have nothing to do with landscape. The problem with this becomes apparent if we expand on the concise summary of landscape as a way of seeing or way of engaging with the world provided by Thurlow (100).

To keep this short (as this blog turned into an essay repository is dedicated for the assessment of landscape and it’s connection discourse, so feel free to browse away), by ignoring the importance of landscape, and just publishing new studies that have nothing to do with landscape, that is to say beyond the use of the word landscape, the researchers risk ending up creating more and more landscape representations that reinforce the dominant social categories and thus also risk giving them legitimacy. This is the exact opposite of what geographic landscape scholars have advocated for already decades ago. For them, as well as for me, we need to be critical of what we do and what we engage in so that we don’t end up creating representations that end up being authoritative taken for granted models for engaging with the world. So, the researchers should be aware how landscape is doxic, so that the prevailing doxa doesn’t end up reinforced or replaced by another doxa. As argued by Ronai (153), it’s easy for the researchers to fall into this trap because the more research they do, the more recognition they get. In other words, the more snapshots the researchers provide of the world and tell how things are, without hesitation, without a critical stance to the endeavor that is, the more complacent and complicit the researchers become in (re)producing the existing order of things and legitimating it through their positions of authority. As Ronai (153) also points out, this may seem quite trivial, some nonsense about a concept, as it likely seems to most people, but that’s exactly the kind of attitude that obscures how landscape functions.

To wrap things up, I was surprised to read that Thurlow brought up this issue and, well, pointed out it as a shortcoming in his commentary on the articles that are part of the special issue. It was about time someone with actual credibility (unlike me) actually brought this up. I can’t say I’m pleasantly surprised because I think this issue has persisted far too long and probably will keep persisting, despite his critical comments which, to me, echo Henri Lefebvre’s critical comments of understanding space as a container, as a mere given, and Richard Hartshorne’s critical comments of understanding landscape as a mere synonym for a delimited area of land. Something tells me that people are unwilling to change their ways because that would involve going beyond the limits of one’s discipline and that sounds a lot like hard work. It’s way easier to just ignore the issue and sideline those who do otherwise. If enough people do otherwise, others will have to do that as well and, well, that leads to hard work and challenging oneself, which is, in itself, hard work and involves plenty of moments of discomfort, so, for them, it is the best course of action to sideline those who do otherwise.

Deleuze and Guattari (214) make note of this issue, how one has the tendency to ignore things even when they have already changed, in the hopes of that the things just go away eventually. That is, of course, just fooling oneself. It’s just that one wishes that what once was would come back because having to get with the times would be quite chaotic. It’s just way easier to hold on to what was. The older one is, the more weary one tends to gets of change. In their (214) words:

“Old age is this very weariness: then, there is either a fall into mental chaos outside the plane … or a falling-back on ready-made opinions, on cliches that reveal that [one] … no longer has anything to say.”

To avoid the ageism here, I would add here that it’s not only about one’s age, albeit I can see how that plays a role when it comes to growing weary, but about how set one is, how satisfied one is with one’s place in the world, hence the earlier remark about complacency. If the world passes by, or so to speak, one either has to get with it, to move, to change, which is not only hard work, especially for the weary, but also forces one to recognize that the past is gone and so might be your previous accomplishments. Deleuze and Guattari (214) aren’t exactly kind in their characterizations of people who opt to live in the past:

“[T]hose weary old ones … pursue slow-moving opinions and engage in stagnant discussions by speaking all alone, within their hollowed head, like a distant memory of their old concepts to which they remain attached so as not to fall back completely into the chaos.”

What was it called in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (1987 translation by Brian Massumi)? Refrain? They’d rather just refrain! Oh, what a fitting end for this essay!


Keep It Clean

As pointed out last time, I attended ADDA 2 conference, short for Approaches to Digital Discourse Analysis 2. I’ve dabbled a bit with digital discourse analysis in the past so I thought I’d spectate the event. Last time I focused on the plenary speakers and the tech demo, so this time I’ll focus on the regular sessions. Again, I’ll be selective with this, covering only some of the sessions, based solely on my interest in the topics. I’ll cover only the first day in this essay.

I first attended the session on ‘Language ideologies, attitudes, and norms’. First up, Anna Heuman presented on a topic that dealt with verbal hygiene, as used by Deborah Cameron in her 1995 book that carries that name. According to Cameron (1), this has to do with how we deal with language, not as a matter of using it but as a matter of dealing with it, working on it, improving it. Of course, as suggested by the title, improving language is hardly a neutral matter. So, when one indicates that someone’s language needs improving, it is seen as lacking in this and/or that way. As she (1-3) points out, it’s about cleaning it up, getting rid of some unwanted unclean aspects of language. What it really deals with, in an everyday sense, is how people come to scrub language clean, according to certain norms, values or standards, what one might also call discourses, practices, beliefs or dispositions, you know, depending on the nomenclature, that are time and place specific.

According to Cameron (3), this is not, however, to be confused with what is known as prescriptivism because it tends to be understood in negative terms, as bad or just plain wrong. On top of that, as she (3-4) goes on to point out, what it is countered with, anti-prescriptivism, is hardly any better as it easily slips into a form of prescriptivism, telling people what to do and what not to do despite its goals, telling those who tell others what to do and what not to do to to back the … off. Her (3-4) point here is not you should just cave in because resistance is futile but that you should be aware of how all language is value-laden, how everything is attitudinal, one way or another.

To make more sense of this, Cameron (4) exemplifies this with two views. In the first view, the prescriptivist view, language, in itself, is perfect and ideal, structured according to certain principles, but speakers keep failing at it miserably, constantly misusing it, corrupting it, bastardizing it. I reckon this might also be called the abstract objectivist view or structuralist view, or, the view of linguistics proper. In the second view, the anti-prescriptivist view, variability and change are heralded but the expert stance on people as some sort of poor creatures that keep abusing it is retained. For me, what happens here is that the standard is undermined by the assertion that there are these varieties, yet the framework of having a standard is retained. How so? Well, if we have a standard, what lies outside it, or so to speak, is the non-standard, the awkwardness that occurs in practice among those who cannot live up to the standard. What happens here is that instead of challenging this binary or biunivocalization, this dualism machine, the underlying logic is retained. So, when variants become the thing instead of the combo of standard and non-standard, there’s only a move from a single division, this or that, to further division, this or that or that, ad infinitum. In fancy terms, the logic of endless finitude is retained, which results in doing more of the same even though that probably wasn’t the goal in the first place.

To exemplify this with something else, let’s take something like what it is like to be an individual, as commonly expressed by people as a matter of self-identification. So, to use a Foucauldian example, the standard of sexuality is (or was, as will come apparent) heterosexuality, essentially a man and a woman as a couple who engage in certain acts, which leaves out anything that does not match those parameters. Homosexuality was certainly out of bounds, a perversion, an illness according to some infinitely wise, for the, what, 200 to 300(-ish) years that it was a thing, as distinguished from heterosexuality within the discourse of sexuality. As hinted already, it took quite a while for it not to be considered an illness and then a bit more for it to become accepted, first as something that isn’t a mere perversion, and then, later on, not that long ago, as something that is not unlike heterosexuality in its focus on the couple and marriage rights. Now, the point here is not to say that this isn’t good. No, no. The point here is that what happened is that in the discourse of sexuality, what it is to bonk, to put it crudely, something that was once deemed non-standard, a perversion or a corruption that falls short of what is prescribed (to match first Cameron’s example), is now deemed a standard, or a variant (to match second Cameron’s example). In short, what you get, what we have now is what appears not to be two standards, in the sense that a standard is always exclusive, but two variants that nonetheless act like standards, as exclusive categories that are distinguished by what remains outside. So, in practice, to make more sense of this, if you used to struggle for acceptance, not fitting in as a homosexual among the heterosexuals, you are no longer measured as proper or improper in that regard but you are now measured as proper or improper with regard to homosexuality as it has been established as its own thing. As a result, it just sort of happens because the logic of it is built in, again, some are deemed as improper and therefore fall outside its boundaries as perverts, as corrupts. Now, you can of course fix that issue by adding more variants but that is basically just moving the goalposts as what you are doing adding this or that to an endless list. That’s why I called it a matter of endless finitude. What’s problematic about it is attempting to fix a division, this/that, with further divisions. It results in just more of the same, more splits.

It’s worth noting that the point here is not to say that one shouldn’t do anything because by this logic resistance appears to be futile. No, no. For me this is best explained in Foucauldian terms: an act resistance is an exercise of power, a counter exercise of power, not inherently better or somehow more noble than what is resisted. This is because from one perspective an act is an exercise of power on someone, something to be resisted, whereas from the other perspective, from the opposite side, that act may be considered an act of resistance against some exercise of power against that side. In other words, power and resistance go hand in hand. Where there’s an exercise of power, there’s bound to be friction, some opposition, some resistance to that, inasmuch there is, of course. The point here is that power is always productive, creating something, even if it is something that is destructive or oppressive to others.

Anyway, I would rather challenge the rules of the game, the logic itself, as otherwise you are doomed to play by the rules, which results in what I explained above. I like how Deleuze and Guattari work their way out of this in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ (1987 translation by Brian Massumi) when they advocate for being minoritarian, as distinguished from minority. Yes, it’s about variation but not about variants. The problem with variants is that while they stand in opposition to a standard, a supposed majority that seeks to prescribe, homogenize, idealize and universalize everything in its way, which seems all well and good, they are lodged to challenge its authority by asserting their discreetness and concreteness, as this or that, as opposed to the standard, by prescribing, homogenizing, idealizing and universalizing whatever stands in their way, i.e. by using the very same tools used by their opponent. In other words, for me, the problem with variants, as discussed by Cameron (1-4), is that they are majoritarian. Deleuze and Guattari (105-106) explain this better so I’ll let them do that. Firstly (105):

“There is a majoritarian ‘fact,’ but it is the analytic fact of Nobody, as opposed to the becoming-minoritarian of everybody.”

Here it’s worth paying attention to the concepts: majoritarian and minoritarian. I characterized a standard as a supposed majority because there is no actual majority. A standard is always majoritarian. It is only a majority in the sense that it is included in the standard. That’s why a majority is always supposed. It’s not a body. It’s an effect, a product. Anyway, they (105-106) continue:

“That is why we must distinguish between: the majoritarian as a constant and homogeneous system; minorities as subsystems; and the minoritarian as a potential, creative and created, becoming.”

Again, pay attention to the concepts: majoritarian, minority and minoritarian. It’s clear that they reiterate some of the central bits here with some added emphasis. Majoritarian is about a standard, one that stays the same, hence it’s called a constant. It’s also homogeneous because something that is constant does not permit it to change. Of course something that is constant does not have to be homogeneous. Here it’s rather that majoritarian is always ideal, discreet, this or that, not something muddled (heterogeneous) and because it’s always the same (constant), it will always remain the way it is (homogeneous). It’s also a system, in the sense that you have that standard (constant) and what remains outside it, all that is actual but clearly lacking, as also pointed out by Cameron (3-4).

This is pretty much how Platonism works, having the ideal static (constant) world that is what’s the real deal and the material dynamic world that isn’t the real deal, being all corrupt with shallow passing imitations. As a side note, which I’ve made here and there in the past, someone may be dead, in this case been dead for over two millennia, but still linger, whispering to your ear, or so to speak, manifesting in no, not what you think, but in how it is that you think, which makes it very, very hard to explain the issue I take with dividuality, labeling people, including oneself, as this and/or that. Anyway, for Deleuze and Guattari, minorities are part of this system, operating within it as subsystems. So, if you challenge the standard, like in the case of sexuality, you may have changed the system, to some extent, but you remain in the system because variants are minorities, subsystems that coexists within a larger system. Minoritarian then is not to be confused with minorities because it is never fixed. It’s never this and/or that. Deleuze and Guattari (106) continue, elaborating how it is easy to be trapped in the system by mistaking the minority as better than a majority:

“The problem is never to acquire the majority, even in order to install a new constant.”

Followed by their statement that minoritarian is not about the numbers, about striving for a majority:

“One does not attain it by acquiring the majority.”

Therefore, as they (291) go on to point out:

“It is important not to confuse ‘minoritarian,’as a becoming or process, with a ‘minority’, as an aggregate or a state.”

What is a minority then? Well, this was covered already, but only in part. For them (292), a minority is what is “defined in relation to the majority.” Another way of expressing this is that majority and minority are both countable, whereas majoritarian and minoritarian are not countable. To be specific, while countable or denumerable, a minority is always, first and foremost, defined as a set in relation to the majority, as they (469-470) go on to elaborate. So, as exemplified by the two (470), we can count the people who … count as being white, according to the majoritarian standard, but, at least initially, what counts as nonwhite is non-countable, a fuzzy mass. As they (470) point out, it is at this stage, being between sets, that being cast in the minority is has the greatest potential, creating pathways out of the system, to becoming minoritarian. The initial stage, not fitting the bill, is, however, followed by a transformative stage in which the non-countable mass of non-standards are morphed into countable minorities, easily deciphered subsets (subsystems), adapted to fit the larger whole, the majority set (majoritarian system).

It’s worth emphasizing that minorities are not to be disregarded as aggregates or sets either. As things are, they way they are, it’s not pointless to try to change the system, even if it only changes certain bits in the system and not the whole system, inasmuch that is the best thing you can do, the best course of action at that moment, as they (470-471) clearly point out. Moreover, as emphasized by the two (292), as minoritarian is always a matter of becoming, the subject of becoming is always a variable of the majority, yet within the majoritarian system the only way out, or so to speak, to becoming minoritarian is via a minority as it acts as the medium, being contrasted with the supposed majority. In other words, as they (291) clarify:

“Becoming[s] … therefore imply two simultaneous movements, one by which a term (the subject) is withdrawn from the majority, and another by which a term (the medium or agent) rises up from the minority.”

So, for example, for them (292), the majority identity is man and therefore the minority identity is woman and from there, and only there, can one escape the majoritarian system. Again, this is not about numbers and thus not about bodies. It’s of little consequence whether there are more men than women because majoritarian is a system, a machine that operates to create a majority and minorities in relation to what is the idealized majority identity. That’s why it’s a standard and what’s outside are the non-standards, the variants.

It’s also little consequence what the identity is we are dealing with as whether it is the majority identity or a minority identity depends on the circumstances, time and place. For example, German is the majority identity in Germany, whereas, say, Bavarian, is a minority identity, a variant, in the same country. However, if we narrow the scope to Bavaria, now Bavarian is the majority identity and what isn’t Bavarian, let’s say Franconian, is a minority identity. Then in Franconia, Franconian is the majority identity etc. You should be able to grasp how this works. We can, of course, go the other way as well, to state that German is a minority identity on the level of the European Union, where the majority identity is European. Again, to be clear, this is not about the numbers, not about the counted bodies. This is about how people come to think what is the standard, which then cascades into all this that I’ve been going on and on about now for quite some time. The numbers are beside the point, a secondary problem because to get somewhere is not about winning the majority, as they point out (292).

In short, conceptually majority (majoritarian) is a mere axiom that defines what is considered to be the majority (in terms of the numbers involved), as they (469) go on to point out. This is, of course, from the point of view of existing in a majoritarian system. Once you are minoritarian, what they (106, 292) hold to be the only state of autonomy, from that point of view, minorities and majorities are of little concern. It is not that they don’t exist. They do, but only as effects which may have real consequences. To explain this by using the concepts coined by Deleuze and Guattari (292), it’s rather that for a minoritarian, or a nomad, identity, be it majority or minority, is an awfully stifling affair, all too molar, rather than molecular.

Anyway, back to the presentation, it was interesting to hear how verbal hygiene, i.e. upholding a certain standard, is exercised in the social media context that the presenter was studying. The thing is, which is, broadly speaking, something that came up a lot in the presentations and discussions afterwards, in both public and private conversations, that while writing online is hardly a new phenomenon, it is, nonetheless, puzzling in the way that it happens. Is it writing? Is it speech? Is it something in between? The way I see it, it is and it isn’t, in many ways.

Next up was Vanessa Isenmann. She presented on a similar topic dealing with questions that I just listed above. Her purpose was to examine the attitudes towards language, not the language in itself. This was done by presenting the informants with a test containing two texts, one being more formal and the other being less formal, laid back and cool, if you will. What was interesting about this was how there can, of course, be multiple factors that affect the attitudes. This was documented by the presenter and the discussion of these factors continued in the following Q&A segment.

Following the presentation, I scurried to another room to see Peter Wikström present on the topic of political correctness, or, rather how it can be utilized, not to argue against it, as a matter of hush hush, as a form of elitism (in the sense of having the luxury of making a choice) which it certainly can be, and thus in resistance to it, but to present something, whatever that may be, but, centrally, one’s own views in the guise of resistance to hegemony of elite. For me, not that it was intended as such, by necessity that is, this was hardly news. For me, language is, first and foremost, a political affair, about making things happen, doing things with words, if you will. Moreover, for me, resistance is just another name for an exercise of power, a surface or point of friction necessary for something to have a force upon what may or may come to resist that force, that exercise of power. It really depends how it is viewed.

This can be aptly summarized by the cliché or the slogan (which is only apt, considering how people tend to speak in clichés and slogans, all the time, almost exclusively, just repeating what they’ve heard or read) “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” This, of course, doesn’t mean that resistance is futile. No, no. It’s rather that this has to be taken beyond good and evil. There’s always an angle, and it’s not as simple as the good side vs. the evil side. Revolutions hardly get us anywhere, but that can also be said about letting things be the way they are. Oh, and I know, I’m not giving you anything with this but that’s because there are no easy answers, no prefabricated models that explain how things really are, nor how they should be. That’s something that I like to leave to people themselves, to push them to figure things out themselves. I reckon people have to find their way on their own, whatever direction that may be. For me, it’s not how things should be or how one should live, but about how things might be or how one might live.

After the lunch break I made my way to check out a presentation by Michelle Morgenstern, followed by another one by Marina Pérez-Sinusía and Daniel Cassany. Both presentations focused on social media platforms that tend to emphasize the use of images over writing.

Morgenstern focused on how social media platforms, such as Tumblr, tend to be group specific, with specific emphasis on age. In a nutshell, what I took from this, was how a social media platform can be seen as youthful and progressive, whereas another social media platform, let’s say Facebook, can be seen as prehistorical and conservative. This view is from the perspective of the youthful progressives, of course. On top of this, the two go hand in hand. So, in other words, being youthful is not just about one’s age, being under a certain threshold which may also vary, mind you, but about what is new or progressive, how things ought to change, as opposed to how things are or were. This means that the expressions of youthfulness and even the media, the conduits for the expressions, are time and place specific.

The following presentation of this session was similar to the first presentation by Morgenstern, albeit it focused more on how interaction on social media tends to occur between friends, i.e. a close circle of people. To be more specific, the presentation focused on how friendship is constructed among teenagers on Instagram, which I though was very fitting, considering what just presented a few minutes ago on youthfulness.

The comments, related to both presentations, included good points about how age still matters, even online. Someone pointed out, speaking from experience, that at times people get along fine, not knowing who’s who, taking the comments on an as is basis, but once someone points out that they are not young and thus not youthful, a shift in attitude takes place. This puts emphasis on the threshold. What is exactly youthful? Where’s the line? What is young anyway?

I also pointed out how on Instagram it seems to be a thing that instead of commenting on something, what appears to be a close circle of friends posts various emojis, mainly hearts but also stars and bulging biceps, as comments to some photo, typically of one’s self, alone or in company, food or landscape (as a side note, faciality is super strong here, as Deleuze and Guattari might point out). I don’t really get the point of that but, then again, I might not be youthful enough to embrace this practice.

I stayed in the same room for another session. Barbara De Cock and Sandrine Roginsky presented on how politicians use Twitter to construct an identity. Their focus was on the EU level so the discussion revolved around how politicians emphasize being European or being a certain national or from a certain region of Europe. Later on, in the Q&A, the discussion got extended to assessing whether politicians construct a professional social media identity, as career politicians, if you will, or whether they present themselves as like everyone else, down to earth, engaging with crowds of people at close proximity, planting trees and the like. Of course, there’s not one way to do these things, which, I think, the presenters did point out.

The following presentation, the final one of the day for me, by Sonja Kleinke and Julia Landmann shifted the attention from people to words, in the sense that Wikipedia served as their site of investigation. The point here was not only that the content on Wikipedia varies, depending on the language in question, as you can experience yourself, but that what appears to be the same content may also vary.

It’s of course obvious that some languages, namely English, has more entries than, let’s say Finnish. However, the point here, in this presentation, was that you might think that it’s all the same, assuming that the information is the same. Now, of course, as they pointed out, Wikipedia entries are not mere translations. That said, I reckon it’s worth noting that translations are never just about providing the same in another language because, well, translation is about paraphrasing, expressing the same in other words. Simply put, this introduces difference. Anyway, their point was, however, more on how the different language entries differ because expressing something like the concept of nation is framed differently in different languages, which result in having to explain things differently between the two language versions of what may be considered the same entry. This may also then lead to having to provide examples that are familiar to the speakers of a certain language, which, of course, alters the content between different languages.

I intended to get this conference wrapped up in this essay, but I ended up on a long tangent, so I’ll cover the rest later, in a form that I’ll figured out in the meanwhile. So, there’s still more to come on the topics presented in this conference.

Something virtual, something actual

I recently attended a conference, mainly out of convenience over anything else. It happened to be here, so why not? The title, ADDA 2, short for Approaches to Digital Discourse Analysis 2, should tell you what you need to know when it comes to what the various presentations dealt with. Okay, it was not simply out of convenience as I’ve dabbled a bit with digital discourse analysis in the past. It’s also what many of the students do and/or are interested in doing, so there’s that angle to taking part in this as well. Sure, there’s also the networking aspect, but that comes with all conferences and meetings.

Just like in the past, this short essay will not cover everything that went on during the conference, namely because one person cannot be in all places at once. So, if it seems like I’m leaving out something here, it’s because I am, because I have to. I’ll also discuss certain presentations or themes more than others. Some things just interest me more than other things or I don’t have much to add to these presentations. Sometimes I’m left speechless. As I wasn’t there to give a presentation, I tried to ask questions. I thought that’d be only fair. If you happen to read this and I did ask a question or just commented on something, it probably means that I was interested in the presentation. That said, of course there’s the possibility that I had nothing to say, nothing to add because the presentation already answered any questions that I would have otherwise asked. To keep this short, I’ll focus only on the plenary speakers in this essay. I may write another one, focusing on the regular sessions, but we’ll see.

The plenary speakers were all great. Carey Jewitt focused on an area that’s, strictly speaking, let’s say on the fringes of discourse analysis. Those to whom discourse is just about language (which it is, yes, but, at least for me, it’s not only about language), may have found the presentation being not on the fringes but on the outside. Anyway, Jewitt discussed haptics, how touch, both as actively touching (grasping) and as being touched, coming to contact with something physically, is something that has been hardly explored in connection to all things digital. That’s largely because, well, there is a lack of research in this field, although I guess it’s rather a lack of funding than a lack of interest among researchers.

Jewitt also noted how there’s a lack of apt vocabulary, not only to be used in research but also in general. For example, it’s hard to explain, to put into words, what heaviness or certain texture is like, without connecting it to some prior experience of having grasped a heavy object or touched a certain surface made out of certain material(s). Like you can say that something has a rubberized feel, that it gives in a bit but also helps you with the grip, making it less arduous to hold on to it. But you need to have handled items that have that kind of feel to them to know what I’m saying. Or, I could say that some surface feels like I’m running my fingers on a piece of sand paper. Again, you need to have done that, to get what I’m after.

Then there’s also the matter of proximity, to touch or to not to touch, or to touch with an object and what that entails. Credit for bringing this up goes to Peter Wikström in the audience. This made me think how, for example, handling a puck with a wooden hockey stick feels different than it does with a composite hockey stick. There’s just that something how different materials affect the touch, how a puck feels, even though, technically, you are not touching it with your body. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve tried that yourself, which I believe is the point Jewitt was making. Anyway, there was also talk about how digital technology is getting there, but it’s, let’s say, still in its infancy.

The talk about haptics also connects to the virtual reality (VR) technology presentation that took place on the last day of the conference. I know I’m straying here from the plenary talks, so, long story short, in case you want to jump ahead to the next relevant paragraph, to the next plenary session, I was somewhat surprised how well the team, Nico Reski, Aris Alissandrakis and Jukka Tyrkkö (I’m not sure who’s responsible for what), managed to make hand gestures work in their VR software. Okay, fair enough, I had no prior experience being in a VR environment, of any kind, so I can’t really comment on how it is in general when it comes to VR. I was expecting to have to use controllers, you know, those things that look like door handles, but I got to just move my hands and fingers to make things happen. I can’t remember what the gadget that makes this possible is called, but, yeah, I believe it’s the thing that was placed in front on the headset. It looks a bit like a USB dongle.

So, as there was nothing that I was gripping or touching with my hands, it means that there was no haptics, in the sense that I wouldn’t be able to feel anything, to have any direct feedback. I thought it was cool nonetheless. Just to be able to use one’s hands, without actually gripping on to something or wearing something, to make things happen felt impressive. Sure, it wasn’t perfect but I think I have to give them credit for that.

Overall, at first, VR felt like looking through binoculars and looking around wasn’t smooth, not like laggy or blurry but like edgy (fps and/or anti-aliasing related?), but after, say 20 seconds, I was there, not really thinking that I was in a room, standing in the middle of it, surrounded by a handful of people. The hands blended in well and I didn’t think of myself as just standing in a room, grasping air in front of me. Movement was a bit tricky, because the demo wasn’t about moving. Then again, I reckon that this is an outstanding issue with VR in general when it comes to walking in the virtual world. You’ll quickly find yourself outside the area you are supposed to stay in and eventually hit a wall. I haven’t tried such by sitting down but I’ve been told that moving about in the virtual world, as if walking, while actually remaining stationary can be nauseating (plus there’s, also, apparently, a whole host of other effects related to sensory mismatches between virtual reality and reality). I reckon it’s different with simulating driving or flying a plane though, but that’s probably because you feel like you are supposed to be sitting still. Apparently there are 360° treadmills that fix this issue but, unlike VR headsets, they are prohibitively expensive for customers. Then there’s also the issue with the headsets being wired, having those cords run from the back of your head. There are wireless adapters available which apparently work great, for just that, being wireless, but the thing is that you are then running on a battery, so you’ll run into the same issue as do with your smartphones, running out of battery. Also, it doesn’t make the set any cheaper.

I’ve been interested in VR technology, for entertainment purposes, because, at times I play games. I just haven’t had the opportunity test the technology, so that presentation was something I really wanted to try. I also realized that it might be useful in research, for visualizing certain real world phenomena in the virtual world. For example, my research pertains to indoor environments, so I’d be cool to be able to have an actual room rendered, then have the objects that I study having set qualities, such as language or mode, which you could then switch on/off to see how visually salient those phenomena are. That’d be amazing.

Like the demo guys pointed out, the issue with VR is that people don’t really understand it. That’s partially because it’s a fairly new thing. It’s not something that people who make funding decisions are familiar with. It has great potential for research, especially for presenting certain phenomena to people who are not academics. The presenters were using it as a research tool, to help crawling through big sets of data, but it’s not only for that.

Anyway, I’d love to get a headset as I’m sure it would have its uses. I remember pointing this out in some funding application. The application had this part where they asked what’s something that one should look into in the future. Of course, knowing my lack of, well, anything that would translate into getting a position that would pay me properly (I mean, I’m currently hilariously cheap, and thus very, very efficient in terms of the output), so that I could justify dishing out that kind of money, I’m not exactly expecting this to happen anytime soon though. Okay, the sets are not too expensive for my wallet and the prices are bound to go down as the companies push out the next generation of headsets. For me, it’s rather that, unlike many of my colleagues who could invest in such and get into it, right now, I have to save money just to make sure that if, sorry, when, I’m out of job, once a fixed-term contract runs out, my life is less of hassle. Whatever I buy, I need to justify the cost, to make money from that investment.

The next plenary speech was given by Rodney Jones. In summary, he gave an excellent talk on a very Foucauldian topic, how we are not only been kept an eye on through surveillance (I’ve discussed this in my previous essays), but also how we are pushed to participate in making ourselves visible so that it is easy to keep an eye on us. This he called genres of disclosure, how we, voluntarily, not really coerced or forced to do so, provide details of ourselves, including but not limited to our interests, our desires, our routines, our beliefs, to the world in various ways, ranging from government forms (this is, of course, a predigital thing as well) and talking to health care experts such as doctors, therapists and counselors (also a predigital thing as well, what Deleuze and Guattari certainly would call priests!) to various social media platforms. As already indicated, this is not a new thing, as such, as this is what Foucault addressed in his work. If I remember this correctly, he studied how church confessions had this purpose, to make people talk, which, in turn, created new ways to discipline and control people.

Jones also pointed out how not only do we end up sharing information about ourselves, that could end up used against us, mind you, but we also have to do that in particular set ways. The thing with data is that it can be pretty messy. It’s too noisy. That’s why you are asked to render your information into what seems to be the closest match, this or that category. Humans are crazy complex. I acknowledge that, even though in my own research I tend to emphasize homogeneity (people learning/copying/imitating things from other people) rather than heterogeneity. This is why we are asked to select, this or that, yes or no, up or down, male or female, tall or short, rich or poor (feel free to think more of these), instead of writing an essay length disclosure on who we think we are, hedging on various issues, addressing the issue from multiple perspectives, pondering, perhaps never really getting anywhere.

A priest (an actual priest, a doctor, a therapist or a counselor) might be able to simplify such narratives to a set of categories or, preferably, binaries, but that’s costly. Such interpretation takes time and money. In other words, priests are inefficient and thus no longer needed, inasmuch they can be made redundant that is. In terms of efficiency, it’s way better to make you do all the work. So, instead of giving you the option to rant about your life, you must now choose, this and/or that. This way it’s you who analyses you! The patient is the doctor!

Another related issue to this is that we come to express ourselves this way. I’m this and/or that. We come to think of ourselves in these categories, which not only causes a plenty of headache and distress if we fail to meet our self-diagnosed conditions, but also makes us an easy target. This is something that Foucault pointed out decades ago.

For example, firstly, labeling yourself this or that, let’s say homosexual (because it’s only apt in reference to Foucault, but feel free to replace that with something else, it should work equally well), results in us having to define a standard of what counts as homosexuality, what is properly gay and what isn’t, which results in judging some people (no, not heterosexuals, the other standard) as deviants, as not proper homosexuals. In other words, creating a standard of this or that, in this case homosexuality, formerly a deviation from the standard (and, yes, I know, this change hasn’t happened everywhere), results only in moving the goalposts. Sure, it may seem to be more inclusive (and, in a way, it is), but, despite the good intentions, what you end up doing is just excluding some other group of people, who do not conform to the new standard and thus end up being labeled as deviants, just like the homosexuals who were considered deviants against the standard of heterosexuality. This is why I like to think it’s better to rethink what being an individual is, to consider being as a mere passing moment in becoming, to no longer think yourself as this and/or that but as always becoming something, yet never reaching anything, as such.

Secondly, and perhaps more alarmingly (as these are intertwined), the categorization into this and/or that makes people an easy target (as mentioned already). The more information you disclose about yourself, especially in neatly packaged preset categories, as this and/or that, the easier it is to target you. These days this targeting is largely commercial, used to influence your desires in order for you to buy this and/or that, typically some … you don’t need (albeit they’ll tell you otherwise!). This also applies to political views, as Jones pointed out during his speech in reference to Cambridge Analytica. This could, however, be used against you more directly as well. It becomes way easier to persecute people for this and/or that, including but not limited to sexual orientation, religion or political views, if people pack themselves into neat packages and willingly disclose this information to corporations. Now you might object to this by stating that social media companies are not out to get you and, I reckon, you are right, they are not out to get you. They are all about the money. They couldn’t care less about such, inasmuch it doesn’t affect their business that is. However, to add something that I think that Jones didn’t mention, at least not explicitly (I think), the creepy thing is that the state institutions, those entities big on surveillance (who you might fear, not necessarily now but in the future), don’t need to directly keep an eye on you because corporations hold that data on you, that you disclosed to them, and the states can just strong arm the corporations into handing over that data (or else!) or require having convenient backdoors into the corporate systems. If that doesn’t work, there’s also the option to just directly plug into the cables, operating as men-in-the middle, because they can. I’m sure this is actually how it works in some countries; the data cables run through the intelligence agency.

Tuija Virtanen was third in line to give a plenary speech. She focused on the use of self-referential third-person constructions, using *…* to designate this. This is related to multimodality, in the sense that you’ll see this being used in many memes. Sure it happens on its own as well, but memes are where you’ve probably encountered this phenomenon. I don’t have much to say about this because it’s a very specific topic, what she called a form digital microtextuality. She had plenty of examples to illustrate this, but I don’t think I need to further explain this. Browse social media for a while and you’ll probably run into. You’ll see how it functions.

The fourth plenary speech was given by Pilar Garcés-Conejos Blitvich. She focused on morality, social regulation and online shaming that takes place in social media. The core concept was smart mob, which, I reckon, is to be taken as mob mentality that takes place online, typically through portable digital devices, also known as smart phones. This allows people gather and pile on people rapidly, without even having to be in the same place as the acts take place online.

Blitvich examined both sides of the issue, noting that, on one hand, it is good that people take action as opposed to letting things slide, but, on the other hand, it can quickly get out of hand, resulting in digilantism (digital vigilantism) and lynchings that can have far reaching consequences to the people who are targeted by the mob. Someone in the audience considered it problematic to refer to these groupings as smart mobs because mob sounds negative (which it does, like in an angry mob of people). Blitvich acknowledged this but responded to this argument with a level-headed counter-argument, noting that the moniker is apt in the sense that it typically is unruly behavior of a large crowd of people whose actions tend to have little consideration for the consequences. This was apparent from the examples she provided. This was, of course, in no way in defense of the people whose actions the smart mobs oppose online. It was rather that the response to those actions tend to be disproportionate, irreversibly rendering the person who is being piled on into an outcast, a pariah, a persona non grata. Simply put, the point was that one slip, on a bad day, maybe involving lack of sleep (or the like), and you not only get confronted by others for what you did and/or said, in order to correct you, fine, but also get branded for doing so. This means that the person is, in effect, made into a scapegoat (in the Biblical sense), to be removed from the society in order to purge the society from tainted, morally questionable behavior. So, yeah, I reckon Blitvich was in the right when she stood her ground on using the moniker smart mob. I’ve sort of covered this in my previous essays, those dealing with judgment and ressentiment, so I won’t go deeper into this. Anyway, it was interesting to see a presentation on this with emphasis on the online environment.

In summary, I quite enjoyed the plenary talks. Did they contain something new to me? Well, no, not really, but I still liked them and the way the topics were presented. They certainly didn’t seem as long as they were, so I reckon they were pretty captivating performances.

For all the cows

What has been up? Well, I haven’t written that much, for this that is, because there’s been a bit of this and a bit of that, followed by all kinds of other endeavors that end up taking my time. I did a lot of photo work last month and then I’ve been occupied by helping my students to get their theses in order, grading exams and essays. That’s all fine. They need to get their work done so that takes precedence over whatever this is. I’ve had some time to write, drafting some new stuff and combining some leftovers from articles into my dissertation, for that section that I need to do. I’ve also done some reading and writing on the work of Gabriel Tarde, something that I hope cover later on at some point.

I’ll keep this short, for once. I can’t remember if I mentioned it, I probably did, but anyway, I was, let’s say, passed over for a salaried PhD candidate position last semester. That’s hardly news because since the first initial grant from the department, I haven’t had any luck with grants, for reasons unknown (as the process is as opaque as it gets, as I’ve pointed out numerous times in the past already). To my surprise, that time I did get feedback, from three people, one who clearly liked my work and two, who, I remember were not negative, as such, but let’s say they were, at best, lukewarm. The gripe they had was that I lack a plan for the period of time I am asking for. That would have been 12 months. I did point out in my application that I have two articles out, two in review, so I expect to be done soon-ish or anything between 12 months, considering that the review process always takes its time. It’s funny how it was even pointed out that so far so good, decent publications, well done with the resources I’ve had (read: none) and about a year for this would make sense. The gist of it was that it would be great to get his (my) PhD done, but, perhaps, some other source should fund this, because, I take it that, there’s not a clear plan. What … plan? For me to wait? On my own, while read my texts? How on earth can I plan that? Right, so, this day, week, month, I’m doing nothing essentially nothing, just twiddling my thumbs, unless the articles are out of review and I’m (t)asked to do some corrections. Is that what’s missing? That I wasn’t indicating which day, week or month I’m more or less idling, as opposed to pointing out that I hope to get this done ASAP and I’ll do what it takes when I have the chance to do something that will help me get things done so that I get my degree. Infuriating. If it was up to me, I’d be done already, two or three years ago. Yes, I am that efficient. Others are not.

Anyway, in the meantime, I managed to get one of the articles out, with, somewhat surprisingly, very favorable reviews and useful feedback. None of this boorish yet superficially polite commenting on how I do things wrong just because I don’t follow some trendy school of thought, cough cough ethnography, or the like. Instead, I got some actually good comments, some which led me to read certain texts that led me to read other texts, gave me insight into this and that, not necessarily directly related to what I do but interesting nonetheless. See, I was totally worth the trust. I pointed out that this is what’s what and I delivered. I’m still waiting for the other article to come out of review. Assuming things go smoothly, which they may not, given how I have no say whether a text gets accepted or not, nor for what reason. Not bad for someone without a plan though, eh?

The fact that I didn’t land that gig led to another opportunity, which I wouldn’t have been able to take if I had landed that 12 month position. So, instead of that, I was tendered a half a year contract, teaching, handling a couple of courses and running MA thesis seminars. To be honest, the job wasn’t offered to me on the basis of academic excellence or some other nonsensical formal criteria. It was purely out of necessity, getting someone to do the job. I’ve only done a couple of lectures in the past, so, as some might say, it’s kind of silly to see me teaching, doing anything responsible. Come on, a student, teaching students! Nonsense! That said, as I’ve had some chats with students, they seem to have liked the way I run things. For me, the main thing is that I make things happen. Boom. Done. No unnecessary waiting. No piling up work and then failing to get anything done. Flexibility. Flexibility. Flexibility. Some might say that I’m too sloppy, too lenient, too informal. Maybe I am! Then again, it seems that I get things done, despite the seemingly haphazard appearance. Want feedback? I will give it to you. Want me to read through your text, make suggestions as to what to add, remove, change, order differently? Just ask me. Wanna see me personally, for some reason, be it course related or not? Just ask me. I make things happen.

The thing with the teaching has also been that it hasn’t been me just holding some lectures or giving people feedback on what I want them to do in their theses. For me, when you are attending my lecture or my seminar, you are learning with me. Sure, I may know a thing or two more than you, albeit that’s not true with regard to everything. I get a lot out of it. When I read theses or just course essays, it’s not just a mundane experience where I grade you according to some formal criteria. Yeah, sure, okay, I have to grade you. There’s that. But what’s been interesting is to notice how good some of the texts I’ve come across are. There’s of course quite a bit of variation. Some texts aren’t that great whereas others are. Then there are those standout texts, that just strike you, leave a long lasting impression. They are texts that are out of the ordinary. They aren’t necessary excellent texts. They may even have certain flaws, at least according to some formal criteria used in grading, but grades hardly tell you if this or that person is a good writer, has good ideas or is just inspiring somehow. The grading here is from 1 to 5 (E to A). Some students want those 5s (those As), but, if you ask me, a 4 (B) can be more interesting and captivating reading than a 5. I like certain roughness. Too much polish can make things tedious, drab and unimaginative. This is also why I greatly dislike formality. I understand it and I’m well capable of it, if necessary, but I think it’s just unnecessary. I could go on about this, how it leads to issues pertaining to power relations, but I’ll refrain this time. I’ve written about that before, so it’s not worth getting into that.

What is so interesting about reading those texts is that the people who write them are often considered mere students. In other words, the younger they are, not necessarily in terms of age, but in terms of time spent at the university and completed courses, the stupider they are considered to be. What’s actually stupid is this supposition that students are stupid, just because they are students and thus lack some piece of paper with a couple of signatures and stamp that supposedly tell others that this person is worth your while, i.e. not stupid.

I remember this treatment. When I was an undergrad, the staff tended to treat the younger students, namely the first and second year students, as pillocks. This changed somewhat at around the third year, certainly after people got their BA. Of course that was not the case with everyone. I think it was mainly the old guard, people who had credentials from some top of the line institution, who tended to engage in such behavior, emphasizing formality and the gap between the ‘educated’ and the ‘uneducated’. On the plus side, some of the staff just about to retire were also off the hook cool, not giving a hoot about what other staff members think about them. They’d point out that they do things the way they do because it’s not like it will get them fired, when they have like less than a year left. Oddly enough, by being unorthodox, they actually got things done.

I reckon the attitudes have changed from those times. I think the younger staff members have a different attitude to all this. Where you actually still see this posturing is at the graduate level. There are of course differences between people and between disciplines, as it seems that people in certain disciplines are way more laid back than people in certain other disciplines, perhaps because they are keenly aware of the underlying social aspects, i.e. how power relations work. In general, based on my own experiences, grad students tend to be thought of as bunch of … muppets.

For example, I once got feedback from a supposedly reputable journal, where my manuscript was referred to a piece of student work. That is correct in the sense that back then and as of now, as I write this, it would ok to call me a graduate student. I can’t remember for sure, but I think it was single blind review process, so the reviewers could have actually checked on it, that I’m a student. Of course, that doesn’t matter as I can’t take seriously any arguments that come from people who start things by going for argumentum ad hominem, for the lack of authority, stating that something is unworthy because it’s been written by a student. As I pointed out, I don’t mind this personally. Above all, for me, this is more telling about the reviewer(s) than anything else and, by proxy, the journal for approving such behavior. I reckon the editor probably didn’t even read the comments, just saw two rejections, though that this is a clear cut case, and clicked on something for a final rejection that then creates an automated statement. I mean the editor’s template statement was overly polite, to the point of hilarious rigidity, explicitly indicating appreciation for getting the opportunity consider my work, which, then, according to the reviewers, those who rejected it, was not worth publishing, nor appropriate for such a quality journal. Why would you even consider it, put it in review, if your reviewers, some who clearly seem to dislike students, mind you, are just going read it in bad faith, possibly disapprove of it because the author is, oh no, a student? As I pointed out, my guess is that the editor didn’t actually read the review comments.

I moved on because there was nothing to gain there and got the text published elsewhere where it was, it’s a funny thing, actually liked. Now, back then I didn’t really think this from the angle that I’m covering in this essay. What worries me is not that I got thrashed in review, as that’s about me, I can take it, but how an academic, likely holding a doctorate and employed by a university, possibly in a teaching position, conflates bad quality with being a student. For me, this is quite telling of how students are viewed in universities by the members of staff.

In my case, there was absolutely no need to call it student work, despite it being written by a student. Calling it student work, followed by a bunch of derogatory statements, was completely unnecessary and actually also undermined the assertions that followed it. It makes no sense, to show your true colors like that. Anyway, instead of referring to it as student work, the first mistake, making assertions, what I took to be lashing out, for some reason, the second mistake, the reviewer could have explained why he or she considers it mechanistic in its approach to what I was looking at, why, rather than providing an arbitrary cut off point in time, what I build on is out of date, and why my findings aren’t significant, but that didn’t happen. Maybe it was not worth his or her time to do such. I can’t know. I can only guess as I have no recourse (hence my earlier point about power relations). Again, relevant to this essay, the central problem here is that what is deemed not worth publishing, i.e. unworthy, is associated with the status of being a student, that is to say the lack of authority. In other words, because you are a student, you are considered unworthy and what you do, what you produce, your work, is thus also unworthy. The other assertions, that my work is despairing, by being mechanistic (what did you expect, a one-off immersive study of being in the world when surrounded by language? also, this is kinda funny, considering how my central concept is the abstract machine!), based on something dated (as if the date of publication was an indicator of quality?) and lacks any significant findings (only the first ever study of its kind, but, you know, whatever, didn’t provide a cure for cancer, my bad) is the icing on the cake.

Okay, fair enough, it is of course likely that university students, especially those fresh out of high school, aren’t the best writers, nor the best researchers. It’s also only likely that they gradually get better at it. That only makes sense really. Conversely, people holding doctorates and professorships are likely to be smart, knowledgeable and good at what they do, especially when compared to a first year student. That said, that’s about probability, about likelihood. When you state that something is bad because it’s student work, you are saying that students are unable to produce anything good, anything worth reading. It’s stating that anything that a student does is bad in quality, out of necessity. I don’t know about others but for me that is just an absurd thing to state. If we ignore all the poppycock, like philosophy and literature (because I’m sure some people think they don’t count), there are still people like Michael Faraday, a chemist and a physicist, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a mathematician (formally trained in other fields, mainly in philosophy and law), both clearly hopelessly undereducated, i.e. mere students, thus only capable of student work, yet, as we know, their work was hardly unworthy of publishing and remains widely influential, to this day (hence my earlier point about how the date of publication doesn’t matter). And no, I for sure don’t think I come even close to these two. Such comparison is beside the point, a point that even a mere student can understand.

Right, to be positive about this, which is the point of this essay, to promote students, it makes no sense, in 2019, to still consider those who happen to be younger, or those who happen to have started their studies only recently, as our inferiors. It’s also telling how I’ve been told not call myself a doctoral student because, well, student has a bad, inferior ring to it. Instead, I am to call myself a doctoral candidate. Ooooh! Swanky! Anyway, I’m glad I get to read student papers and theses. I’ve learned a lot from them, by reading ‘my inferiors’. To be honest, I’ve had the opportunity to read some extraordinarily good texts by students. I’ve been amazed by the quality. I wish I had written them. That stuff does not pale in comparison with what has been published, by people with degrees.

Then again, what do I know? After all, I’m a mere student. So a big … you to all you naysayers. I’m off to read some student papers.