Freemasonry, Voodoo, Susan Buck-Morss and how to deal with archives.
March 8, 2014 § 2 Comments
Susan Buck-Morss was kind enough to speak to a small group of PhD students today. I’ve been waiting a while to hear her speak, so I was very excited. I asked her some half-baked question about extra-lingusitic modes of communication that allowed slaves who were once at violent odds with one another to establish trust across cultural and linguistic barriers. They shared many of these ‘modes’ with the Freemasonry, which was a diverse ‘organization’ that engendered ties of loyalty often stronger than loyalties to nation and state. Anyway… I will have to think about this a little more.
There is one thing that she repeated several times and it’s been itching me ever since. She said “The ontic precedes the ontological” and I’ve been trying to figure out what that means, especially as someone rather invested in ontological methods of description.
Unfortunately it was Heidegger, the Nazi who I’m always attempting to avoid canonizing, who first makes the distinction. For Heidegger the “ontic” are the descriptive characteristics of a particular thing and the “plain facts” of its existence. What is ontic is what makes something what it is. The ontological is used when the nature, or meaningful structure of existence is at issue. The ontological already exists on the level of meaning. For Heidegger the motivating question was what makes human existence particular to humanity. For Buck-Morss the motivating questions are what are the facts that precede meaning—the facts before they have been woven into the tapestry of a story. The patterns in the substrait of reality have to be seen in their totality before they are carved into monuments of history.
This is where we can happily make a departure from Heidegger, because in the methodology described by Buck-Morss, we must see the particular patterns of reality even before we develop descriptions of it. We have to find the “red thread” (was this a Benjamin thing or a Tafuri thing??) that violates disciplinary borders. Our plunge into the archive should be dizzying, disorienting, filled with discoveries of things that have long gone unnoticed, simply because the questions before diving into the archive have not yet been formed. Buck-Morss had different questions before she dove into the archives of Hegel’s newspaper of choice, Minerva. What she saw, however was hundreds of articles on the Haitian revolution, something that gets almost entirely erased from Hegel’s oeuvre. Buck-Morss argues that Hegel’s master-slave narrative is largely inspired by the Haitian revolution, a fact that should motivate us to read Hegel in a new light.
So I was thinking, how does this relate to Latour’s ontological method? Well, for me what I see is what Latour is interested in is actually ontology “in the making” and thus it is not really ontology, but a study of the formation of the ontological. And here we have to stop, at the threshold of description, interrogating the contents of a journal, (like Nature, for example) and reading every page in order to understand how that journal constructs an ontology of Nature. This is how Buck-Morss chose to read Minerva.
Anyway, this is one of those mornings where the ideas are swimming all disconnected like in the soup of the brain, so I will cut this missive short here, but not before meditating just a bit upon a work very special to my heart, Frederick Douglass’ and Ida B. Wells’ “The Reason Why The Coloured American is not in the Columbian World’s Exposition” Douglass and Wells did not find an American exhibitor willing to distribute “The Reason Why…” but they did find one exhibitor willing—the Haitians. Douglass dedicated the Haitian Pavilion in January of 1893, the Library of Congress has his handwritten notes for the speech he delivered on that day. Douglass was a former ambassador to Haiti.