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Sunday, 16 June 2013

Traces: direct reference, cryptography and Kabbalah

On Friday, moved to a great extent by a growing fever, I started speculating about the nature of the contrast between direct reference and a Frege-Russell approach to denotation (in the rough way Kripke portrays such approach in N&N). Direct reference has that referring is not an act verb (like to build or to dig) but rather a position verb (like to be located, or to find, or to stay). Once I am in a given position, I make reference. I bump into something that refers - to refer is to make use of work that is already done, by whatever there is aided by communal (public) ears. Reference is not like reaching out but rather it is like stumbling upon. To successfully refer (even without noticing) is more like a discovery than an invention. Words are linked to things and no construction effort is required - it is as if there is more to language than what a speaker and a hearer do, know or are educated to believe. I once compared direct reference to written language - and to the grammatological turn. When something is written, it is not only about us communicating here, but there is an established corpora of written text, open to interpretation but present in all linguistic act. I would now compare direct reference to cryptography: interpreting doesn't matter, what matters rather is that if I get the password right, something happens. Shamanism. The magic of mantras: techno-shamanism. Words do things in the world - it is not about our agency, it is about their powers that we may or may not acknowledge, that we may be aware of, that we may access. These powers of words are there because words have left their marks where they have been - the causal story that connects a proper name to a baptism, for instance. Retrieving the thing from the world is a job of reading off these traces - the traces are there whether we know them or not. It is like magic (a magic prism... as Wettstein called his book with an epigram where wisdom is greeted in Hebrew) but also like anything we meet - and not anything we build.

In my class on Friday I then ventured suggesting that there is an underlying contrast between the atheistic humanism of the Frege-Russell approach and the Jewish mysticism of direct reference. Maybe fever made me go too far. Direct reference posit names tied to their bearers by a rigid tie that invoke bearers independently of what is known about them - names are like words in a sacred language that we inherited, in the language of creation. Names are tracking devices that trace back any occasion of their utterance to an original, ancestral act, to a beginning which is the beginning of what is named. A little bit like Kabbalah...

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