23 December 2006

On the Concept of a Universe of Reference

For a long time I've thrown the term "universe of reference" about without clarifying just what I have in mind. I first came across this concept in Guattari's Chaosmosis, though I have no idea whether I'm using the term correctly as Guattari's language is very dense and he seldom takes the time to slow down and develop his concepts thoroughly. According to Husserl's phenomenological method, the transcendental epoche consists in carrying out a reduction where one suspends all questions of whether or not the datums given to consciousness actually exist or what they are as they exist independently of consciousness (in themselves), and instead resolves to describe what is given simply in terms of how it appears or gives itself.

In certain respects, the concept of a universe of reference is a correlary of such a phenomenological reduction, but for a community of subjects. That is, a universe of reference is composed of the entities and relations posited by a certain community of persons, without raising questions as to whether this universe is an accurate representation of reality or not. Thus, for instance, one universe of reference might include God, demons, ghosts, signs from God, Satan, and so on; whereas another universe of reference includes none of these things. In one universe of reference there might be a category known as "terrorists", such as in the film V for Vendetta where the government classifies any enemy of the State as a terrorist, where one and the same person classified as "terrorist" by the State might be classified by another group of people as a revolutionary or an activist. In the universe of reference inhabited by the neuropsychologist, repetitive handwashing is a sign of some neurological disorder and presents itself to the eyes of the observing clinician in these terms. Here a causal claim is made that implies a particular mode of treatment-- Medication. In the case of a psychoanalyst, repetitive hand washing is a symptom of a betrayed desire, implying the concepts of the unconscious, desire, intersubjectivity, objet a, and so on. Jacques-Alain Miller has a very nice article on just how symptoms differ from signs. The point here, of course, is that although at the level of sense-experience the neurologist and the psychoanalyst are viewing one and the same phenomenon, they are nonetheless talking of ontologically distinct entities. For the neurologist (barring the neuropsychoanalyst) there is no category of the symptom as the psychoanalyst understands it, while the psychoanalyst can have both a category of the neurological (indeed, Freud's original Project essay was articulated in neurological terms) and a category of the symptom.

The concept of a "universe of reference" is thus an ontologico-sociological category designed to capture the "folk ontologies" shared by different groups of people and that diverge from one another. The aim here, of course, is not to promote some sort of facile relativism. There might be one true and genuine ontology such that these folk ontologies are just various illusions or falsehoods. However, in developing rhetorical and discursive strategies with regard to various groups it is necessary to be familiar with the universe of reference they inhabit so as to formulate those speech acts capable of making a difference with regard to them. A speech act formulated on the horizon of post-Newtonian physics isn't very effective when speaking to a community that inhabits an Aristotlean universe.

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Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

I suspect that this is very similar to how I think - with the addition that I've spent a lot of time trying to understand the relationships between belief systems (which seems to be what many people - although not necessarily for you - mean when they use the term "ontologies" in this way) and other kinds of social practices.

I feel that - at a sometimes very, very abstract level - there are homologies between what people do, how they enact their shared lives, and how they think about those lives - not in the sense that either practices or thoughts could be conceptualised as more fundamental, such that one could be reduced to the other, but in the sense, as we've discussed before, that the subject is the subject of its object... Collective practices that enact a social environment always already include practices of thought - but the contours of these practices of thought aren't always best conceptualised or understood solely with reference to the contents of belief systems... (I'm not suggesting that you are doing this - just thinking out loud...)

I agree that openness and receptiveness, to the extent we can achieve it, has to precede critique - or, for that matter, effective communication of any kind. Creative misunderstandings can be productive in their own way - but one wants the ability to move beyond them, when needed... ;-)

In terms of the related issue you mentioned in the (parallel?) post preceding this one: I want to be careful here, because I'm easing into this issue on the level of social theory, rather than pragmatic politics (which has other tools at its disposal). If we want to begin thinking theoretically about the conditions of possibility for communicating across belief systems in the contemporary context, I suspect it becomes very, very important how we understand the nature of that context. Many approaches for conceptualising context, I suspect, are intrinsically too concrete - they focus on the contents of belief systems, but not on the formal properties - the homologies - that might unite disparate contemporary belief systems at a more abstract level, and they neglect the underlying logics expressed through collective practices...

It may be that, when these issues are brought more centrally into view, we will find that we do share at least a small slice of context - and it may also be that the context we do share motivates a few significant shared forms of perception and thought that can make it a little easier for us to bridge the divides that occur at the level of the contents of our blief systems, if we become a bit more sensitive to ways of articulating what we might have in common...

My formulations here are too abstract to be of any use at the moment... It feels a bit unnerving, though, that you are writing about this, as I was sketching something related this morning... ;-)

December 23, 2006 8:31 PM  
Anonymous bobo:) said...

The master’s discourse affirms the necessity of reference. The hysteric’s discourse interrogates and reveals the impossibility of reference. The discourse of the university opens the possibility of reference. Analytic discourse produces reference as contingency. Since universes of reference and universes of discourse are the same thing, already we can distinguish at least four different kinds of such universes. Sometimes universes of reference will clash as a matter of difference in degree—the same type of discourse but with different semantic valuations of reference—and sometimes they will clash as a matter of difference in kind.

Let’s look at your example of FOX News. You wrote that you are largely deaf to the claims and arguments of the newscasters even if they are true. This is strange, because you concede that you might agree on the truth-value of the newscasters’ statements, but still argue that you both live in different universes of reference! What you mean to say is that you *would* agree on the truth of these statements if were to engage with them in a different way. The fact is that when you watch FOX News, you are already situated towards the newscasters in a way that supposes the impossibility of reference. Other, more sympathetic viewers would situate themselves in a way that would suppose a necessity of reference: everything said on FOX News is true and must be true. Still others would engage with the statements in their possibility of reference: sure, what the newscasters are saying might be true, but it might also not be true. Analytic discourse shows how the statements can be true yet also remain contingent with respect to their conditions of production. The point is that there is a difference in kind in this example: you do not disagree with what the newscasters are saying per se, but are simply denying from the outset the very possibility of this particular universe of discourse having any reference. The result is that the referential value of the FOX newscasters’ statements emerges in the real as the impossible, becoming a kind of trauma. FOX News is thus a symptom for you.

In an analytic situation, such a symptom would be worked through by letting the impossible stop not writing itself. At this point you would realize that the statements on FOX News are true in their contingency, and must be accepted as such. Such a successful turning of discourse would hopefully dissolve the negative transference towards these statements.

Does this analysis make sense (if not reference)?

December 24, 2006 1:48 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I'm not convinced that analysis dissolves things as you suggest. What I'm speaking to here is a broader issue of a collapse of symbolic efficacy occuring right now in our culture. If the symbolic is not functioning in the way that it once did, no amount of analysis is going to dissolve that phenomenon as the support of the signifier isn't there to render it possible. Analysis can dissolve imaginary attachments such as when you find yourself perpetually and irrationally angry with your boss, but it's not suddenly going to make one see x as an authority.

December 24, 2006 1:56 PM  
Anonymous bobo:) said...

I think you misread me, although I admit that might be easy to do. When has contingent truth ever been associated with "authority" in the history of philosophy or otherwise? I probably shouldn't have wrote "must be accepted as such," a phrase which connotes the necessary, when talking about contingency.

The turn of analytic discourse means the dissolution of all authority. This is so by virtue of the subject's confrontation with the undecidable within the impossible. Such a traversal opens up the space in which, in a crude logical sense, both X AND not-X are true inasmuch as either may be asserted as a contingent decision of the undecidable.

In short, analytic discourse produces reference: S1 in the bottom-right hand corner. It is not an ontology, but rather allows for the traversal of different ontologies or universes of reference on their own terms of production--refusing, in the name of enjoyment, any final decision on being.

December 28, 2006 12:17 PM  

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