Root logic and the nature of "nature"

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Root logic and the nature of "nature"

Post by Jeff on Tue Feb 02, 2016 8:29 am

It's striking to revisit Lewis's remarks after encountering Bruno Latour’s examination of modernism’s Nature and Culture, as well as Deleuze and Guattari's introductory essay on the rhizome:

Lewis (emphasis mine) wrote:...the hierarchy of meanings is not like the hierarchy of things. That sense of the word which refers to the most ancient thing need not be the most ancient sense; that which refers to an all-embracing thing need not be the all-embracing sense. The thing we mean by nature (d.s.) may be the trunk on which we all grow; the sense nature (d.s.) is by no means the semantic trunk on which all the meanings grow. It is itself only one of the branches. Hence we shall go widely astray if we assume that whenever authors use the word nature they must be thinking of nature (d.s.). (42)

We can reject, Lewis tells us, meaning-becoming that postulates nature (d.s.) as origin from which all uses of the word "nature" spring. But I might venture to push Lewis's first claim further than he does in this passage, and read the implications of his etymological practice: that meaning-becoming does not abide by such root logic. (More "complex" than the binary root logic, we might call this rejected logic, following D&G, "fascicular-root" logic.)

Lewis writes that “ nature (d.s.) is by no means the semantic trunk on which all the meanings grow,” but he never goes on to propose what such a trunk might be. Further, I don't take this remark as the postulation of a semantic trunk—perhaps there is no such trunk. The moves from “character” to “hereditary” to “noble lineage” are as shaped by the political organization of the societies in which the word is used in a way that both outstrips and reinforces word origin and political organization alike. The word’s meaning doesn’t grow from a root and subsequently branch out; “nature” appears on the scene, and continues to act, improvises alongside countless other concepts and under various material circumstances that crowd the stage.

In short, I think Lewis implicitly makes a claim about the nature of “nature”—namely that there is none.  

The very performance of mapping the etymology of “nature,” then, prepares us for a critique of the concept, particularly if we are thinking of Aristotle’s assertion in the Metaphysics that “nature in the primary and strict sense is the essence of things which have in themselves, as such, a source of movement.” To assert what is or isn’t of a thing’s nature is only to trace “the impasses, blockages” of a concept in its history. Lewis, against this, seems to recognize the mapping process associated with word development, i.e. that it “is open and connectable in all of its dimensions; it is detachable, reversible, susceptible to constant modification” (D&G 12). To identify a meaning’s nature is to fall back on root logic, when there is in actuality a constant play of growth, decay, mutation, symbiosis, infection at play in its development.

I wonder, though, how Lewis's opposition of meanings and things is meaningful qua division of form/matter or Nature/Culture? D&G's development of rhizome logic is not just about concepts, it's also about orchids and wasps, things in the world (a move that perhaps prefigures Latour's call to dissolve the false boundaries imposed by the moderns). Is there a way in which Lewis's statement about things reveals a structuring logic that undermines this connection between his etymology and rhizome logic?


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