Uncanny Knowledges, 2

Against the Computational Model

Knowledge not at home. This is the question at hand, the question of uncanny knowledge, which previously I described as the possibility of knowledge as such, the possibility of a ‘legitimate’ knowledge derived from a plurality of illegitimate sources,1 which is to say, the originary leakiness, porosity, and contingency of knowledge in its very constitution. There is no pure knowledge, only “quotations of voices.”2 Every “enunciation” is “displaced,” existential ventriloquism.3

The use of “enunciation” sparks another intuition: knowledge is discursive. This is to say that knowledge, in its operation, is performed, enacted, validated, and revised through utterance. This is not to reduce knowledge to discourse. To do so would be to apply too much fixity to the concept. More generally, then, knowledge is the becoming speech of matter, or the coming to terms of which Gadamer writes in his Truth and Method:

language has its true being only in dialogue, in coming to an understanding. This is not to be understood as if that were the purpose of language. Coming to an understanding is not a mere action, a purposeful activity, a setting up of signs through which I transmit my will to others. Coming to an understanding as such … is a life process in which a community of life is lived out. … All kinds of human community are kinds of linguistic community: even more, they form language. For language is by nature the language of conversation; it fully realizes itself only in the process of coming to an understanding. That is why it is not a mere means in that process.4

Deleuze and Guattari would affirm Gadamer’s claim: “there is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages.”5 We receive our knowledges, just as we receive our languages, in a radically multiple, radically incommensurable condition. And if we continue in this line of thought, we see, then, that the question of our knowledge is just as much a question of our language.

As we begin to question language, however, we are confronted with a counter-dictum with which we must contend. Indeed, this dictum is the preeminent position held today regarding language and knowledge and we, here, are the contrarians. Jacques Lacan formalizes the position in his “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious.”6 For Lacan, the “letter” is “the material medium [support] that concrete discourse borrows from language.”7 He is sure to emphasize that “language is not to be confused with the various psychical and somatic functions that serve it in the speaking subject,” because “language, with its structure, exists prior to each subject’s entry into it at a certain moment in his mental development.”8 Language is a formal existent. The “letter,” then, is the form of language inscribed in the consciousness of the subject and insisting in the discourse of the community, a form that Lacan identifies as the infamous Saussurean algorithm: signifier over signified.9 This form is inscribed insofar as it is the mechanism of language, its operator in the unconscious (note the double sense of operator as both a logical term and an undercover agent), and it insists insofar as the algorithm is instantiated as a “signifying chain,”10 every signified another signifier, every signification referring back to a preceding signification. It is in this form that Lacan sees the possibility of both linguistics and psychoanalysis as sciences, a form which we can describe as a computational model of thought.

For Lacan, all language is reducible to the logic of S/s. Any expression that is not reducible to this form is not language. The result of this monism is a construal of language, and so consciousness, as computation. We see this most clearly in Lacan’s later work, culminating in the “mathemes” of the 1970s, which were intended both to formalize his ideas and to protect his genius from errors of transmission.11 According to these schemata, thought occurs through a discrete set of symbolic operators, which can be identified and organized by the psychoanalyst and used to decode human behaviour, so rendering humans into data to be processed. We are lured by the siren song of explanatory completeness.

However, Lacan, or at least the Lacan of this particular lecture (I hesitate to enact a closure, even here), misorders the levels of his structure. In “The Instance of the Letter,” he identifies the “letter” as the “medium” between “concrete discourse” and “language,” which is to say, language particularized, the induction of the subject into universal language. Lacan’s error is in supposing such a “universal language” to exist. Certainly, we can say that the subject, at some point in their development, enters into language, but this language is not idealized, transcendental, universal language, but precisely the “concrete discourse,” the “throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages,” that Lacan positions as secondary to ‘language as such.’ But there is no such language. There is only utterance, the becoming speech of the world.

Language does not happen ‘out there.’ Language happens here. The importance of this move is the rendering unhomely that such a drawing near of language effects. When language is no longer permitted the shelter of the universal it is left without a home, an uncanny vagrant haunting our memories. The feeling of a word trapped at the horizon of thought—it’s on the tip of my tongue, we say—is the whole of ‘language,’ a whole forever incomplete, an “untotalizable totality” (to borrow Jameson’s phrase). Put otherwise, language is never ours to possess, and yet we are continuously dispossessed by it, divested of our agency, speaking in tongues. We can never be quite at home in language.

When language, or thought, or reason, or mind, or knowledge, is made transcendental, removed from this world, its operation can occur without friction, without question, without compromise—it is made comfortable, homely. But this constellation of terms is, in its actuality, nothing but friction, questioning, and compromise, evidencing just how contingent, just how tenuous, just how uncanny our positions really are. To speak and to know is to be in touch with the world. This is the “danger” of being in its becoming, the chance of existence.12

The dominant ideology of thought equates cognition with computation. This is clear from the blasé acceptance of such an idea in the mainstream press: “your brain probably is a computer, whatever that means.”13 And yet, this ideology misses the accidental quality of its founding analogy. We must ask: why this machine? For instance, Alexander Galloway writes of ergodic machines, those machines that “run on heat and energy,” physical concepts that are contradictory, in principle, to philosophy’s privileged terms of “presence and being.”14 Computers, then, are “informatic machines,” which “follow that most basic law of Western idealism, that the formal determines the physical.”15 Material existence is but a shadow cast on a dim-lit cavern wall. Or, in Lacan’s terms, language (formal) determines discourse (physical) through the insistence of the letter.

Might we, then, imagine an ergodic thought, using these machines of “energy, heat, power, change, motion, evolution, or process” to provide a different founding analogy?16 Critics of Noam Chomsky’s “Universal Grammar”17 have proposed in its stead a “usage-based” linguistics,18 the chief tenets of which can be summarized in two points: 1) that “meaning is use,” and 2) that “structure emerges from use.”19 Such a linguistics is pragmatic and plural, as opposed to the latest iteration of Universal Grammar in the Strong Minimalist Thesis, which seeks the basis for lanaguage in a “simplest computational operation.”20 An ergodic thought might follow the usage-based linguists in their work, who in turn draw inspiration from the pragmatics of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.21 In this we see an alternative curent of thought, an anti-computational thinking, or more tangibly, a thinking of anti-computers.

Galloway likes to play with the uncanniness of texture, entropy, cryptography. To think in this way—to think playfully, to think ergodically, to think uncannily—is to refuse to pretend to the immediacy of transcendental subjectivity and to welcome the alterity of a knowledge not at home. This is how we start to become knowing bodies, by embracing friction and encryption, complexity and compromise, dialogue and play. This is how we begin to decomputerize our minds.


  1. A problem that extends beyond my own discourse, as indicated by this discussion of “KF~K” following the publication of Federico Luzzi’s Knowledge from Non-Knowledge (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019). See https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/knowledge-from-non-knowledge-inference-testimony-and-memory/

  2. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), 154. 

  3. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 156. 

  4. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. revis. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 462-63. 

  5. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 7. 

  6. Jacques Lacan, “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud,” in Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, 412-444, trans. Bruce Fink (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006). 

  7. Lacan, “Instance of the Letter,” 413. 

  8. Lacan, “Instance of the Letter,” 413. 

  9. Lacan, “Instance of the Letter,” 415. 

  10. Lacan, “Instance of the Letter,” 418. 

  11. Adrian Johnston, “Jacques Lacan,” revis. July 10, 2018, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/lacan/#HisOve

  12. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York, NY: Garland Publishing, 1977), 26: “The destining [or enframing] of revealing [the presentation or emergence of being] is as such, in every one of its modes, and therefore necessarily, danger.” I receive this idea of existence as chance from my time studying under Richard Kearney. It was a favourite line of his. 

  13. Kevin Lande, “Do you compute?,” Aeon, April 11, 2019, https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-probably-is-a-computer-whatever-that-means

  14. Alexander Galloway, “Anti-Computer,” March 19, 2018, http://cultureandcommunication.org/galloway/anti-computer, n.p. 

  15. Galloway, “Anti-Computer,” n.p. 

  16. Galloway, “Anti-Computer,” n.p. 

  17. Wikipedia, “Universal Grammar,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar

  18. Michael Tomasello, “Universal grammar is dead,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32, no. 5 (October 2009), 470-71, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X09990744

  19. Michael Tomasello, “The usage-based theory of language acquisition,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Child Language, 69-88, ed. Edith L. Bavin (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Available online at https://www.princeton.edu/~adele/LIN_106:_UCB_files/Tomasello-BavinChapter09.pdf

  20. Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky, Why Only Us: Language and Evolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016). 

  21. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, revis. P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). 

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