Walter Benn Michaels’s little, but intriguing book, The Shape of the Signifier (2004) comes to my mind as Vincent talks about reference today. Michaels is interested in the function of the materiality of the sign for reference, precisely as it relates to the distinction between affect and cognition. In other words, as he says: “to understand a text is one thing, to feel its force is another” (9). When Vincent says that it helps little to know how language works when the meaning ascribed to objects signify different things for different people, he suggests the same as Richard Rorty: “The world does not speak. Only we do” (On Contingency, 6). By the same token, language does not speak itself, only we do. Ultimately this is in fact precisely what explains the mistake that students at Roskilde U make when they believe that what they work on in their report, namely the original Lutheran works, has anything to do with Martin Luther King, whom they see as the originator of these works. The five minute talk ends with a speechless gesture that indicates mind boggling.
For Michaels, what is at stake in following the consequences of replacing ideological difference (based on belief in different things) with identitarian difference (based on our speaking different languages) is a process of ontologizing the argument. As it is a common given that, to begin with, professors and students speak different languages, and that in spite of their beliefs, referentiality works performatively only as a means of indulging, or as Rorty has it, as “redescription.” Thus we are able to better understand what Gottlob Frege means to say when he says this: “sometimes I seem to see a difficulty, but then again I don’t see it.”
And so it goes, ra-ra-ra-ra-ra. I signify here that there is more to say, but the less noise one makes at such hours the better.