Thursday, August 16, 2007

Homo erectus as Alien

I might be willing to think that alienation isn't among the worst things that can happen to a person. But what do we mean by alienation? Alienation of what, from what? No doubt alientation in its various manifestations causes pain. Nonetheless it may still be preferable to the alternatives. I'm not sure.

Jesper Hoffmeyer considers the alienation of one's own world from the worlds of others in the context of the evolution of semiosis. He specualtes on the origin of speech:

And this fact–that the spoken word is common property, that it is a tool with which to share a world is perhaps the real reason for its emergence. The idea that we all inhabit our very own umwelt, an umwelt which we take with us to the grave, must gradually have begun to show up on the mental screens of our well-developed, cognitive erectus forefathers. At some point it must have dawned on them that they were solitary beings, dissociated from the universe that had engendered them but from which they had broken free by dint of their increasingly emancipated models of the ups and downs of life. The dividing line between things, that fundamental "not," must have begun to have an effect: the recognition of the fact that the line between categories is drawn by "someone" (who can differentiate between A and non-A) and that they too were "someone" and, thus, alien. Because to become on with the world, "someone" would necessarily have to cease to be "someone."

(Signs of Meaning in the Universe, p. 112, Hoffmeyer's emphasis)

Hoffmeyer asks us to imagine Homo erectus as a being with language (langue) but no speech (p. 186-187), an interesting twist on the idea of Homo loquens. Does speech actually free us from alienation? Does it ameliorate the psychic effects of alienation?

Hoffmeyer draws an unusual idea from the arbitrary relationship between speech and language. What happens when this arbitrariness breaks down, and what does its breakdown tell us about alienation? Julia Kristeva, who poetically says that uncanny strangeness "irrigates our very speaking-being, estranged by other logics, including the heterogenenity of biology" (Strangers to Ourselves, p. 170), writes about the breakdown of linguistic arbitrariness:

Obsessional neuroses, but also and differently psychoses, have the distinctive feature of "reifying" signs–of slipping from the domain of "speaking" to the domain of "doing." Such a particularity also evinces the fragility of repression and, without actually explaining it, allows the return of the repressed to be inscribed in the reification under the guise of the uncanny affect. While, in another semiological device, one might think that the return of the repressed would assume the shape of the somatic symptom or of the acting out, here the breakdown of the arbitrary signifier and its tendency to become reified as psychic contents that take the place of material reality would favor the experience of uncanniness. Conversely, our fleeting or more or less threatening encounter with uncanny strangeness would be a clue to our psychic latencies and the fragility of our repression–at the same time as it is an indication of the weakness of language as a symbolic barrier that, in the final analysis, structures the repressed.

Strange indeed is the encounter with the other–whom we perceive by means of sight, hearing, smell, but don not "frame" within our consciousness. The other leaves us separate, incoherent; even more so, he can make us feel that we are not in touch with our own feelings, that we reject them or, on the contrary, that we refuse to judge them–we feel "stupid," we have "been had."

Also strange is the experience of the abysss seperating me from the other who shocks me–I do not even precieve him, perhaps he crushes me because I negate him. Confronting the foreigner whom I reject and with whom at the same time I identify, I lose my boundaries, I no longer have a container, the memory of experiences when I had been abandoned overwhelm me, I lose my composure. I feel "lost," "indistinct," "hazy." The uncanny strangeness allows for many variations: they all repeat the difficulty I have in situation myself with respect to the other and keep going over the course of indentification-projection that lies at the foundation of my reaching autonomy.

(pp. 186-187, Kristeva's emphasis)

In Kristeva's view "the sense of strangeness is a mainspring for indentification with the other, by working out its depersonalizing impact by means of astonishment" (my emphasis). Analysis, she says, "can throw light on such an affect but, far from insisting on breaking it down, it should make way for esthetics (some might add philosophy), with which to saturate its phantasmal progression and insure its cathartic eternal return" (pp> 189-190). Thus philosophy has for Kristeva a therapeutic (or even soteriological) function, but on condition that, as I am interpreting her, astonishment is subject to eternal return. Philosophy cannot liberate us from existential alienation; it can perhaps however ameliorate its pain.

I have to wonder what the reification of the signifier does to my own thinking. And I wonder what this might mean for a being with language but no speech. Was Homo erectus any more or less repressed that Homo sapiens? Would such a being have lacked the means of working out any psychic reality?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 3:01 PM.


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