Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Ontological Excess and the Being of Language - Robert Platt

Geeky cool language and being stuff - I enjoy postmodern philosophy for some reason.

Journal Reference:
Minerva - An Internet Journal of Philosophy Vol. 13 2009
Ontological Excess and the Being of Language

By Robert Platt

This paper engages in a close reading of Badiou’s Being and Event as an occasion to investigate the ways in which being and language may be related and does so by focusing upon his idea that mathematical language, in the form of set theory, is capable of managing the ‘ontological excess’ which he associates particularly with poetic language. Because, he argues, poetic language involves a sort of willful engagement with the ‘one-effect’, the presencing of multiplicity, and thereby the only possibility for being’s emergence, is made unfeasible. The paper locates some of the affects of excess in the experience of modernism, and specifically in the poetic language of Mallarm√© and Baudelaire. By considering what might be involved in ‘the saying-showing power of language’, as this idea is developed by both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, the paper seeks to show how excess is the very source of beings’ appearance in language, given that this appearance is silent and hence unsayable.


This paper is concerned with examining the relationship between the one and the many as a ubiquitous problem for philosophical thinking generally and for ontology particularly. It engages in a close reading of Alain Badiou’s Being and Event because this text offers a detailed analysis of how we might try to think about the relationship. Badiou’s text is treated as an occasion, in the most respectful sense, to address how thinking, writing or speaking could come to terms with the issues that he raises. At stake is whether ‘the one-effect’ may be conceived in its completeness and, in particular, whether mathematics, specifically set theory, is the means for achieving this end.

The difficulty lies with the need to render, or designate, individuals as parts of a totality, given that ‘rendition’ or ‘designation’ ― in whatever form ― generates a surplus or excess over the totality. The designation creates a one-effect in what will be called its mode of transcendence. Excess transcends the totality that rendition sought to designate. But equally, each individual constitutes a totality of its own parts, where each part is one. This is the one-effect in what will be called its mode of reduction.

Since the question of the one and the many concerns itself with a relationship, issues of structure call for consideration. Any words that could be found which might begin to outline such a structure would need to address themselves to the processes of transcendence and reduction. Transcendence arises in the implication that any naming of the one - by the act of naming itself - would point to an entity greater than the sum of its parts. Hence, it is generally accepted that ’society’, or ’the human body’, has qualities which cannot be found in the aggregate of parts. Furthermore, these qualities are likely to be interpreted as the animating ones which make conception possible in the first place. It is already apparent, through the act of ’naming’, that the use of language has significant implications for the production of the one-effect. It is the aggregate, or sum, which has traditionally been identified as ‘the many’; the many are, at least potentially, the countable constituents of any totality. Accepting that the body has a finite number of countable parts allows us to think that we know when the body is complete or whole.

But, in the greatest effort to determine that which exists on the basis of that which can be counted, what should count as one part remains entirely uncertain. While language insists, if language-users are to be consistent and communicative, that what is called an arm is part of what is called a human body, there is no such insistence that the former is an irreducible part; that it is not itself composed of other parts. So what is to count as one part is, potentially, infinitely reducible.

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