predicament, significance, thrownness, affect

The concept of 'natural meaning' has, I take it, to do with whatever we mean when we say 'smoke means fire'. A trite analysis of that would reduce it to a mere causal relation: that smoke is produced by fire, thus if we see smoke then we may infer a fire. Whilst that might seem to bolster the project of a reductive naturalist (who wants to construct bona fide meaning out of mere causal relation), I believe the analysis to be a dud. For what it does is ignore the fact that any of this only means anything because it means something to someone.

Smoke means fire - and fire is significant to us. The house is burning down! The fields with our crops in are ablaze! The enemy has set up camp over there! It may be hard to notice this background human significance to such natural phenomena but this, I suggest, is because of their ubiquity. We are related to our environments in myriad ways such that most of what goes on has a possible significance to someone - even if just because of our idle epistemophilic curiosity.

Thus the concept of 'natural meaning' presupposes and so cannot found a concept of significance - we cannot derive the meaning here from the causality. (This kind of point will be familiar to readers of Charles Taylor.) This concept of 'significance' or 'mattering' is, I contend, the most fundamental form of meaning we meet with; the kind of meaning we meet with in representational systems (e.g. in the purely representational aspects of language - which restriction ('purely') is worth making because language is itself not best thought of in merely representational (i.e. 'standing for') terms - since that does rather leave out its expressive, evocative, ritual, pairing, communing, and vast range of performative functions) is but a leaf on a branch of the tree of human significance.

Much happening and action of benign or malign character has significance to us but sometimes significance hurts in a particular way, and when it does so we call it 'predicament'. We have to do specifically with predicament when we meet with conflict or tension in our significant situations (i.e. within what Bourdieu calls our 'habitus'). I need to get the water back to the camp but the enemy are approaching and I may meet them and be captured. I want to apply for this new job but if I stay I may get a pay rise. What should I do? Man, it stresses me out.

But wait. Before carrying on I want to stress another aspect of both significant situations in general and predicaments in particular. This is that we are (a la Heidegger) thrown into them just as we are into mattering itself. Thrownness essentially characterises the human relation to the projects of daily life. We are always-already embarked on the journey of our predicaments before we know it. We don't choose the enframing matterings of our lives. Thinking about them, to some degree, is an achievement; thinking is not our entry point to mattering itself.

The best example of this is intimate human relationship. Any meaningful relationship is one in which we are necessarily at sea. We must give ourselves over to the relationship if we want to have it - for having it is being in it. (We are in relationships in the same way we are in moods.) Whilst at sea we may of course do all we can to find our bearings, identify landmarks, etc. The point, however, is that one is always-already launched in a relationship. And the same goes for many of our predicaments. We arrive in them before we know it. We arrive in them because we are walking forward, necessarily blinded: we cannot walk if we keep our eyes open, but if we walk then we risk the obtaining of predicament.

Predicament of the sort I'm interested in involves us finding a way to climb ourselves out of the hole we're already in. The first step is to recognise that we are in a hole. This will involve feeling scared and troubled. You cannot really offer recognition to the predicament other than through affective acknowledgement. But also you cannot take courage until you acknowledge the fearfulness of the situation. I was going about my business as normal (habitually inhabiting my habitus) when all of a sudden these pirates appear on the horizon... Feel the fear, the anticipation of loss, the wrench. ... This is a predicament! ... But then: take courage, dump the cargo to make an escape, become fierce and go to battle - do what can be done in the situation.

The ability to acknowledge predicament and take whatever mastery can be afforded despite one's thrownness involves what psychoanalysts call 'symbolisation'. It means: the capacity to condense out an atmosphere one unknowingly breathes into a solid one can handle, can get to grips with, get our head around (rather than having it around our head). For significant predicament the form of this acknowledgement is affect. In my affect of fear or anger I achieve relation to my objects; I disidentify from them. The identification - like that with the beloved in the 'thrown' always-already-on-our-way aspects of a romantic relationship - prevents, is antithetical to, thought. Which is perhaps fine when all is going smoothly: I let myself dwell, go, be, in the relationship, trusting in the goodness of the other (and of myself), letting my guard down. But if I am abused in the relationship, if this is not to go unregistered - in which case I would become depressed, then I will need that kind of understanding of the significance of my situation which we call an affective experience (probably fear or indignation or anger or hate). In the affect I stand over against the object, differentiated from it, and now making a move in relation to it (me moving towards it in adoration, moving it towards me in desire, taking me away from it in fear, pushing it away from me in anger).

We may be grateful to the unconscious that it has this bent coursing through it: to disidentify in affective moments. In dreams the disidentification drive gives rise to apt affects, but often uses symbolic substitutions for the objects. As Freud says, this substitution might help us with getting some sleep! Or perhaps the object choice is more a function of the architecture of the dreaming mind. That's a topic for another day.


Popular Posts