Anyone who reads continental philosophy or the philosophical essayists will soon be impressed by the almost obsessive mooning over the concept of absence.
This has no parallel in Anglophone philosophy – absence is at most treated as a simple description of a physical phenomenon. Jack doesn’t show up for the exam – he is absent. There is nothing here for the analytics (or post-analytics) to get moony about, or so they say.
Nevertheless, there is something strange about the absence of absence in Anglophone philosophy. The unexamined master-trope of that philosophy is substitution. Surely it if were examined, understanding substitution should encourage us to look at absence more closely.
Substitution implies that a place is preserved – in logical or physical or social space – that is filled with one or another variable. In a sense, the presence of the variable isn’t total, since it isn’t identical to the place. One can find another variable to put in that place.
The latest metaphor in the analytic tradition to designate this is “candidate”. A candidate – whether as an explanation or as a particular – is always being considered as the solution to some problem. Whether it is materialist accounts of cognitive states, theories of the reduction of the biological to the physical, etc., etc., the papers I edit in philosophy are built upon comparing one ‘candidate’ with another.
Although analytic philosophers go about closely peering at language with the fervor of a myopic seamstress threading a needle, they are curiously indifferent to their own use of language – so I have not read any account of how suddenly the candidate metaphor appeared in all the right journals. It is easy to see, though, that it is a metaphor that tells us something about how absence is thought of here. The implication is that the “place” where substitution takes or can take place is like an office. It is a position created by a political system. The politics may only be bureaucratic – it may be a position in a firm, in which the candidates compete against each other without seeing each other, before a hiring person or board. Or it may be a political system in which they compete against each other consciously, before a voting constituency. The main thing is that the competition is about filling the position. The binary in place is between the filled place and the empty place – or potentially empty place. These are pre-eminently relative states – the dialectic between them is deflected onto the system which determines them, and which has the power to simply get rid of the place – or multiply it.
The metaphysics of substitution writ large would tell us a great deal about the anthropology of the capitalist era – or perhaps I should say industrialist era, by which I mean the era marked by the fact that the treadmill of production achieved a velocity that allowed societies to escape from the Malthusian trap. This was a perilous escape, indeed. If the notion of substitution – the notion that ultimately place is a placeholder, forever and ever – had not been so woven into the thought of the populace, it might never have happened. I believe that this weaving was achieved by literacy itself, or perhaps, a more modest claim, that the spread of literacy was the pre-condition to loosening the peasant grasp on the unique and the eternal – of the possession of land, of the relations between members of the family, of the relations between men in the polity, of the relation of the created to the creator. That chain of being, which was a chain indeed, the heaviest chain, was lifted, gradually, by the notion that all relations are between placeholders, rather than places. Place itself is nowhere. There’s no there, there, is the motto of capitalism, forever. Actually, I should say: it is the motto of all contenders for political-economic dominance in the modern era. Although, to appease the peasant spirit that inhabits all of us, this dissolution has been amply camouflaged.