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Every panopticon has a blind spot, as must every observer

This one's pretty heavy going, but I remember Spencer-Browns calculus of forms from the days when I was a hippie; I thought it was pretty keen until it got to the math part. So, pulling out something human- or at least grad student-readable:

Critique as Second-Order Observation and Its Ethics
First, every “technology” of observation has its blind spot or unmarked space.  It is impossible to make any indications at all without delimiting a marked space.  That delimitation will necessarily be accompanied by an unmarked space that falls outside indications.  Put differently, there is no form that does not contain an unmarked space.  We can thus say that every apparatus of observation is characterized by a constitutive finitude.  There is no view from nowhere, nor way of observing that observes everything (even for God, as Judge Schreber well knew).  Second, every observation suffers from a sort of “transcendental illusion”.  The distinctions or forms we use to indicate things in the world become invisible while we use them.  While every indication requires a distinction that necessarily contains an unmarked space, we are generally unconscious of the distinctions we use (they withdraw into the background) and are unaware of the unmarked space that haunts our distinctions.  If we noticed the unmarked space of the distinctions that render our observations possible, then they wouldn’t be unmarked.  As a consequence, our tendency is to treat the world that we indicate (the empirical) as identical to the world itself, ignoring the manner in which our experience (the empirical) is transcendentally constituted by a distinction we have drawn.

However, there is an ethics to critique. .... At a very abstract level, we can say that “observing the observer” or second-order observation is the formal schema for all critique.  Critique does not so much consist in “debunking”, as observing the distinctions that a discourse uses to make its indications or observations.  Critique uncovers the historical a priori– to use Foucault’s term in The Archeology of Knowledge –or historical transcendental upon which a particular mode of observing the world is based.  In particular, critique aims to draw attention to the unmarked state upon which observations are based (what is excluded?), and the manner in which the distinctions or forms used to make observations withdraw from the observer, creating a “reality effect” that make the world experienced by observers seem identical to how one observes in the marked space.  In observing the distinctions that an observer uses to make their indications along with the blind spots that inhabit their distinctions, we open the possibility of broaching new areas of inquiry and investigation, as well as recuperating the excluded.  In other words, second-order observation is primarily about observing the blind spots, the unmarked space, and how they systematically function with respect to the marked space.

There’s a tendency to forget this when we make criticisms of observers for not having read x or y, or for failing to take q and r into account.  Such criticisms are always premised on the fantasy of omniscient observers that, like Laplace’s Demon, have no limitations physically, in terms of energy, in terms of time, in terms of information availability as to what they have access to, and so on.  When we make arguments of this sort, we’re implicitly berating people for not being omniscient.  There seems to be nothing generous nor ethical in such demands.  Indeed, they look like the demands of a sadistic Kantian superego.  Such demands are worse when we treat such oversight or ignorance as being based on malicious intentions, rather than as the result of mere finitude.

Second, we must also always remember that our observation of observers in our critical capacity does not violate the general structure that applies to all observations:  to observe is to draw a distinction that produces a form that necessarily produces an unmarked space and where the distinctions we use withdraw from our own awareness.  All too often, second-order observers treat themselves as being omniscient, failing to recognize that their own observations contain two blind-spots:  the unmarked state of their own distinction and the withdrawal of their own distinction from view such that the world comes to seem as identical to how they observe the world.  This is as true of the critic as of the observer whose transcendental the critic discloses.

When I've got a little more spare time, I'll try to reduce that to English. But you notice the "ethical" issues raised in comment threads all the time.

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Submitted by jcasey on

Not to be argumentative, but this seems like pretty good English, written with more more clarity than say, the typical deconstructionist stuff. Although I had a similar temptation: Can this be said in terms that are even more accessible? The insight conveyed is pretty fucking important, and may lead to disruptive, productive experiences on the part of the sufficiently curious. The message is hopeful for the oppressed. Every fascist system is blind to certain possibilities for resistance, for escape. Agents of Chaos take note.

You were a "hippie"'? (Warms my heart!) Salud.

Submitted by lambert on

The piece had a whiff of deconstruction about it, but you could sense the writer trying to write in an actual language. And the insight is important, especially to people who have the job of doing a media critique!

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Yep, hair down to here, etc. But that was a long, long time ago, it seems, now.