Contemplation

The Perfect Crime: Community, Radical Thought, and Creativity

I would like to reiterate on the relationship between radical thought and impossibility. What makes something radical is the idea that it is “impossible”. When I speak of this impossibility, I am always relating it to the theme of infinitude—something from a future that exceeds all our expectations, laws, and conditions. A radical thought is controversial—it is a scandal, an event, or philosophy that radically changes how we see the world. Radical thought can appear at any moment. It can rupture from the events of George Floyd; it can occur from the encounter of someone you love, or when you are forgiven by someone you care about. The radical appears through the act of thinking and interpreting about something or someone. It is the recognition of an impossibility from interpreting the impossible which marks the finitude of being human (wrote about it here; important to read for this post).

While I spoke about the impossibility of unconditional forgiveness in my last post, I think these impossibilities happens at individual levels more than we think. It happens without recognition because we don’t think about them. Last time, I asked: Can the family member of the victim forgive the criminal who murdered their son? I recall a few years ago that this actually happened in the court as the family embraced the person who was convicted of crime (I remembered seeing it on the news). It was a courageous moment where law and power were dissolved by something much more sublime. —Beauty only happens once.

Today, I want us to think about this relationship between radical thought with our finitude and community. For those who are unfamiliar with my thinking style, I tend to move back and forth between expansive and intensive examinations of ideas. Hence, the first part of this post will seek to understand the community under a big picture where the second part will seek to understand this large scale thinking at an individual level.

I would like to begin by talking about the famous dialogue that went on between Maurice Blanchot, Giorgio Agamben, and Jean-Luc Nancy where they questioned whether a real community is possible when individuals are caught in the dilemma between “avowal”, which threatens “community” (i.e. to speak what they think is true), and the notion of “unavowal”. When they speak of “community”, they are not just talking about community in a practical sense, they are talking about the “communal” as in the possibility of “communism” (which I think brings up a lot of interesting thoughts in relationship with some of the ideas I brought up last time). This dialogue is famously found in books called, The Unavowable Community (1983), The Coming Community (1983), The Inoperative Community (1986), and The Disavowed Community (2014) [warning: they are very difficult to read].

Their dialogue began with Blanchot’s use of Georges Bataille’s notion of “negative community” which he defines as a “community without community” (and perhaps, if community should be thought under “communism”, one can think of Alain Badiou, who argued for the resurrection of the idea of communism; i.e. “communism without communism”). For Blanchot, the absence of community is not a failure of community because absence belongs to community. Taking part of a community is not as simple as people participating in communities in the pragmatic sense, but to recognize those who are absent from a community are also part of the community (otherwise, a community might be similar to tribalism—for example). What threatens community and force people to depart from it is the difference of thought. Yet, what grants a true community is also the recognition of differences in thought which may create a “community without community”. In relationship with this absence and the risk of losing friendship, Blanchot writes:

“It is in life itself that the absence of someone else has to be met. It is with that absence—its uncanny presence always under the prior threat of a disappearance—that friendship is brought into play and lost at each moment, a relation without relation or without relation other than the incommensurate. Such would be the friendship that discovers the unknown we ourselves are, and the meeting of our own solitude which, precisely, we cannot be alone to experience.” (25) (my emphasis)

Let us emphasize on the word “solitude” because of how it relates to the finitude of our existence that we experience everyday in our lives. Solitude signifies this recognition of impossibility with other people in the community (whether this is someone you talk to in the community or a complete stranger you walk past on the street). Blanchot later talks about how the experience of death is the true community. Death is the “impossible” commonality that we all have. Without a doubt, Blanchot is borrowing heavily from Martin Heidegger.

Perhaps one can think of the commonality of death in relationship with Heidegger’s notion of Dasein (being-there). For Heidegger, Dasein is the primary mode of existence which seeks to make sense of the world via our relationship with space and time (think, existentialism with phenomenology). The encounter of the world grants Dasein infinite possibilities of actions and interpretations. Hence, Dasein is always a being-in-the-world, or being-with (mitsein) [i.e. being-with community / other people]. The only thing that can stop the movement of Dasein and its throwness into the world is death (being-toward-death). Death is the destiny of all living beings. The future is always marked by death which serves as the commonality between all of us. It is the recognition of death where Dasein sees its own finitudeThis is why, for example, Derrida always speaks about the “future to come” in relationship with death. It is also why he was interested in the psychoanalytic concept of the death drive which has a similar function with the movement of time. Heideggerian themes like “destruktion” which Derrida translates as “deconstruction” also carries this theme of death. Nevertheless, it is our relationship with Dasein, of existing in the world, which allows us to recognize our own finitude.

One of the questions that this invites us to think about is whether or not a society can have a community of finite individuals without sacrificing their individuality and singular views of truth. Can there be a community without community? Once again, when I speak of community, I am not thinking about joining some book club or local community, I am thinking about community in the biggest picture which includes the stranger that you see on the street, or even your “enemy”. Such community includes people who are not part of the community. Our commonality of solitude (finitude) and death allows us to recognize that there is a community without community.

What I wish to draw our attention to is once again our finite relationship with the community—of other people around us in general. Can one speak what they believe is true while still belong to the community in face of the Other? In other words, can one express individualism in a community? Can we maintain individualism and speak the truth while being part of a community? I think this comes down to what “community” means (and that this meaning is the sharing of Being—as Nancy would say). Does a community involve specific individuals who signifies sameness (i.e. same ideologies and beliefs)? Is sameness always the same once we consider our own finitude of being human and the phenomena of communication? (a rhetorical question; I spoke about the problem of communication in many places; the most recent one was here). Or does a community always involve difference? I tend to favor the latter over the former. But if a community is constituted by difference, then will people disagree with each other and leave the community? If no one belongs to the community due to differences, could it still be considered as a community? Or are we establishing a community without community?

On second account (and to go off on a thought tangent), I would like to quickly reiterate what I said in my last post in regards to “political correctness” (PC) that I subtly contextualized as a form a censorship that occurs within “communities” (whatever this word can mean). While my stance holds firm that PC does more harm than good, I can see why it can be useful when dealing with sensitive issues (i.e. someone who experienced trauma). Yet at the same time, I think the fundamental idea of PC will take us no where. History has shown us that political correctness will often lead to totalitarianism through censoring other people’s words and ideas. Once there are words that you cannot say, there will soon be books that you cannot read which will eventually get banned from libraries. Then the next thing you know, books will get thrown into the fire. Starting with political correctness will lead us back to political correctness. All of this reminds me of the works of Jewish mathematician and philosopher Edmund Husserl where his followers prevented the Nazis from burning his books (Husserl invented phenomenology). I think it would be very hard to imagine 20th century European philosophy without Husserl, since nearly every continental philosopher of the time were influenced by him.

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Let us once again recall the theme of 20th century thought on the finitude of being human. It is the idea that we are always caught in our own finitude in relationship with the objective world. That we can never know anything in itself because we are never these objects or people that we seek to interpret (we must be cautious to not conceive of this as solipsism and ignore “objective truth”—objective truth still exists as a paradox within this “relation without relation”). In my last post, I had bluntly pointed out the logic of exclusion (ethnocentrism / logocentrism) and how radical inclusions of specific texts are—pragmatically speaking—a form of exclusion. What I wish to do is to not expand, but look closer at this act of exclusion / inclusion. The act of interpreting the Other (the foreign or marginalized) is the site of originary violence.

The “problem” is much more delicate than it appears. While I think it is very important for us to learn new ideas written by other cultures and individuals, the problem lies in our very own interpretation of such ideas. It is the question of whether or not we can completely understand the Other and whether we can do it in an ethical manner. Let us think of a human being who is interpreting another human being. It doesn’t matter if I am yellow and the person that I am interpreting is of another skin color—the problem remains the same. But let us, for the sake of argument, suppose that I am interpreting someone who is radically and racially different than me—someone who was raised from a radically different space and time than me. How should I interpret their language when I am always caught in my own finitude as I confront their language? I will provide a personal example momentarily. Now, suppose that I am reading a text written by someone who is from the same culture as me. What guarantees that my interpretation of their language is identical to what they are trying to say? Nothing. In fact, this is the main problem of interpretation and translation. For example, Chinese scholars have trouble translating legendary texts like Tao Te Ching from ancient Chinese into contemporary Chinese because the two languages are really different from each other (it is even harder when you translate it again into English); the same problem happens for Indian texts like the Upanishads. There is always a difference involved when one interprets and translates a work or the words of the Other (due to the problem of idioms and other things which are all cultural specific—a culture that changes over time; will get to this). Hence, an interpretation always consists of a truth that is always more than one. It is here where we recognize the mark of finitude and what I referred as the infinite interpretations to any language.

Last time, I mentioned how Fred Moten was the perfect example of a radical thinker. My first encounter of Fred Moten’s book, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition was similar to my first encounter of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. The only difference was that I have a lot more experience in reading these type of impenetrable texts. I realized that what I was really encountering in Moten’s work was a foreign language that was not my own (just as when I first read Derrida). I was encountering the impossible. How can I ethically interpret the Other (Moten) without imposing my own history onto his works? I was like the anthropologist who is trying to avoid ethnocentrism when they interpret another foreign culture or language (i.e. trying to avoid interpreting a foreign culture through our own cultural views). How can I inherit Moten’s thoughts as I did for Derrida?

In many ways, I think Moten is more radical than Derrida and all the other European thinkers that he talks about; even if I think that Moten’s ideas still falls into certain areas of Derridean thought, such as the notion of free play. But by claiming that Moten is associated with Derrida, am I not reading Moten through Derrida (i.e. through my own history and my inheritance of Derridean thought) and not through the Black tradition, say, jazz music and improvisation? Am I not committing an act of violence by categorizing him through my own history? And if Derrida is considered as an “European”, even if he was born in Algeria, would I be performing Eurocentrism? But if Derrida is Algerian, would Derrida’s interpretation of Saussure, Husserl, Heidegger, Marx, Rousseau, Warburton, etc. be “Algeriancentrism”? What would my own reading of Moten be called once you consider my history of being Chinese who goes on to inherit Derridean thought?

To interpret Moten’s difficult writing style is to recognize the impossibility of fully understanding his thoughts because I come from a radically different background. I will never have the same language as Moten even if I fully situate myself into his culture (and by doing so, the outside becomes the inside; will get to this). To interpret is to recognize my own finitude that is measured against Moten’s writing in infinitude—it is to recognize Moten as the Other. But does this mean that I should stop interpreting Moten’s black rhetoric? Absolutely not. It is as I had said, my duty to understand the Other, even if this effort is marked by the impossible.

Does inheriting and interpreting marginalized works allow us to challenge hegemonic Western systems? Absolutely. But by expanding marginalized cultural inheritance, one is still caught in their own inheritance of such cultures. Even those who ends up inheriting the meanings of such cultures from the future are never identical from the ones of the past. This is why culture is never static, but is always subject to change over time (whatever reasons and causes this might entail, i.e. cultural diffusion) [think about the problem of translating Tao Te Ching or Upanishads].

To borrow from Jean Baudrillard, this phenomenon of inheritance and interpretation is the perfect crime. To claim that the interpretation of the Other is the perfect crime is to say that we always unknowingly perform such crime and violence when we interpret the Other. We even do this when we are not giving justice, but are simply interpreting the words of another person in the cafe or on Facebook messenger. But one could also say that, in the opposite view, a marginalized individual interprets the West and European thought through their history. Is this not what Moten does which leads to the radical impossibility of his work for me? This act of interpretation of the Other, of giving justice to the Other, or of being inspired by the Other—but also as the violence conducted towards the Other, is where creativity begins.

To call interpretation as a crime is to acknowledge a form of originary violence that exists from the very beginning of pre-society (arche-violence). To call it a perfect crime is to not only acknowledge our nonrecognition of such crime, but the fact that it is an unsolvable crime because it is the perfect crime. Derrida highlights this in his reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who saw the radical transformation of nature into culture through the violence of interpretation. What we considered as unnatural becomes naturalized. The outside becomes the inside. Nature becomes culture. Speech becomes writing. Education becomes the supplement for Nature’s deficiencies (I spoke about all of this here).  Interpretation is the violence which becomes a daily task. It becomes normalized in our lives without our recognition. It lurks and haunts us in the background of all intellectual, cultural, and creative endeavors.  

The encounter of a foreign text is like the encounter of a culture or meeting a foreigner  that one will never completely know. For here lies the enigma of the impossible radical thought; of what psychoanalysts might refer as the impasse or deadlock. The Other triumphs over us. They elude us and escapes our own understanding of them. The ethics that is called to arms is to translate the Other, interpret the Other, without murdering, but always murdering, a destruktion and deconstruction, while opening for the Other (i.e. allowing the Other to respond from the future to come—which calls upon the question of faith because the Other may never respond; our relationship with the Other may remind us of our commonality via our finitude and death).

I would like to end our discussion today by thinking about interpretation as a form of violence and radical thought. It is easy to dismiss the impossibility of understanding Derrida’s writing as non-sense even when he is trying to get us to think about this radical supplementary structure of thought that we impose onto the Other (I have plans to do some page by page close reading of Of Grammatology in the future) [similarly, it is also easy to dismiss Moten’s Black rhetoric as non-sense, even when it isn’t]. Often times, I am tempted to explain Derrida to people who don’t “understand” him, correct them, mold them, but that would defeat the teachings of his thoughts. They do not recognize that they are—in a way—practicing deconstruction by interpreting (agreeing / disagreeing) with him. Just like everyone else, they are interpreting, dividing and supplementing; reproducing violence in the subtlest of all ways by creating new meanings and ideas. And that, most importantly, such proclamation is the violence that I impose onto the Other.

The violence of interpretation is where thinking begins. I still recall when one of my teachers taught me that many great philosophers of the past had thought about the relationship between finitude and infinitude (i.e. Buddhism and the concept of impermanence). If interpretation and translation is the beginning of all philosophies, inheritance, and cultural inventions, then the encounter of the Other is the raison d’être for philosophy and all forms of creative inquiries. And without ever wanting to glorify it further, interpretation is—in all senses of the word—the perfect crime.

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Contemplation

On Racial Politics, Systemic Injustice, and Human Nature

Someone recently asked me about my thoughts in regards to what is happening in America and around the world such as Hong Kong (I was born in Hong Kong). I think some of you who knows me very well may have anticipated this post. For I have spent a lot of time thinking about some of our current issues at hand because it is very complicated.

My last post on the finitude of being human was written with America and Hong Kong in mind. It was why I shared some of my knowledge and spoke about Derrida’s account on forgiveness—something that is nearly impossible to achieve today (Derrida compares forgiveness with something like a revolution). My thoughts and prayers with America and Hong Kong was also why I decided to share my seminar presentation on Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek. I tried to encourage people to share what they thought was true regardless of their race and political orientation. I even intentionally emphasized on Badiou’s notion on the distance between power and truth, where we can talk about the truth without any particularities. Yes, I still think that an “Idea” in itself has nothing to do with race and identity. What is more originary than both race and identity is the fact that we are all human beings (though I am certainly not saying that racism does not exist). Before I begin, I want to say that I am always on the side of justice no matter what I say. I am saying this now because people tend to misread me since I sometimes unintentionally piss people off.

I am a perceiver who prefers to understand everything from multiple perspectives before I start thinking about possible conclusions. While I might not always label myself, I always try to be fair and understand the underlying logic, structure, and causality of everything and everyone around me. Hence, people often misunderstand me for being unresponsive, slow to move, apolitical and even unsympathetic. But most of this is not true. I am sensitive to injustices. It’s just that most people never got to know me well enough to understand that I lost hope for humanity long time ago. I tend to not talk about political matters in public unless they are my close friends because they are more open to radical ideas. I sometimes feel like if I tell people that I am a centrist (though definitely still left leaning—but not in the contemporary liberal sense), I would be committing a mortal sin by some politically correct person who is obsessed with definitions. The 30 year old Bobby you see today is not the same 20 year old Bobby. In fact, Bobby is turning 30 today. And since it is my birthday, I want to take this opportunity to write about something that I think is important for us to think about. Forgive me for being incoherent, I wrote this under a few hours.

Philosophy had taught me how to be a better person. But there was one point in my life where it annihilated my world views and turned me into a bitter and depressed human being. To be honest, it is not a very good story. Maybe I will save it for another post where I may share such experiences (I am turning 30 after all). I regularly have political and intellectual debates with my father who I consider to be a formidable opponent. Although we have very different views on contemporary China, I still have infinite respect for him because he taught me that if I want others to respect my ideas, I should respect theirs as well. With this said, correcting someone’s speech without even trying to “understand” them is condescending. Do I immediately dismiss Fred Moten who challenges Derrida or Lacan’s ideas? No, I admire him because he showed that he put in effort to understand their works. The way he moves beyond their ideas in In the Break and Black and Blur is absolutely incredible. Moten is the perfect example of a radical thinker—I like that.

A few days ago, I was in a graduate meeting with many of my esteemed colleagues where we discussed institutional and structural racism. While I remained silent because I always need a lot of time to think about questions and ideas, there were several things that people said which caught my attention (it is funny because someone criticized those who chose to remain silent). I am going to list three points and spew them out randomly. I will be as discreet as possible because the discussion was supposed to be confidential. The points that I will make here are about the ideas, not the person.

First, philosophy is not theory. I have no idea why literature departments likes to call philosophy “theory”. It still amuses me till this day. If philosophy was theory, then there would not be the philosophy of science (i.e. the scientific method), the philosophy of mathematics, mind, language, etc. Without philosophy there would not be economics, psychology, linguistics, or any disciplines (though literature has an interesting place because philosophies can often be literary and vice versa). Without philosophy, there would not be Karl Marx or Adam Smith (Marx reversed Hegelian thought). In fact, nearly every discipline we have today in universities and beyond began with philosophy by conceiving of some form of new Idea. I am not surprised when Wikipedia pointed out how 97% of their pages eventually lead to philosophy. In general, philosophy is an attempt to understand the first principles of our subjective experiences with our objective world.

Second, I vaguely recall someone who questioned why universities had to teach Victorian literature and not works written by marginalized people. And that if a professor designed a course which taught why one should teach Victorian literature, they would take it. I understand that the person had good intentions to give voices to those who don’t have one. I got the sense that they thought they were being radical, even when I find this type of thinking to be dangerous(ly not radical). Why? Because this is what I refer as the logic of exclusion—it is the same type of logic that our current system uses to segregate marginal voices (also applicable to the way we interpret texts; i.e. logocentrism). Suppose that we grant this person their desire and all universities teaches marginalized texts and ignore the European or Western texts. Wouldn’t there be new marginalized works that should be taught (i.e. European and Western texts)? With this type of logic, history may very well repeat itself—like it always has. This is why I tend to disagree with the idea that one should cite only marginalized voices—even if I think it is of good intentions because our world privileges certain disciplines and people over others.

Third, someone spoke about how taking action on racism is not about “deferring meaning to the future” who was probably referring to Jacques Derrida. To be honest, this was a pretty naive take on Derrida, but maybe I misread their words (I pointed out this interpretation in this post). For example, when Derrida famously said things like “justice to come”, what he means is that the encounter of future contingencies will allow us to discover new injustices that occurred in the past (something that we did not anticipate). As a result, this allows us to give justice by challenging our current structure of laws. Following this logic, meaning and action are not just naively “deferred to the future”, the way we interpret past meanings and actions are influenced by the future becoming of space and time. It is like sharing our experiences of racism from the past in the future (i.e. the contemporary). This person in the meeting went on to talk about all the white philosophers they read and that those who does something similar should read other works. It almost felt like they were directing the message at me which was kinda funny. Obviously, this person knew nothing about me, but I think they have a great point because Eastern and African philosophies are equally great. In fact, I had spent a good year or two reading Eastern philosophies (Upanishads, Tao Te Ching, etc.).

You see, if I said what I really think, I will piss people off and “risk my future career in academia”, which I am pretty sure was nonexistent to begin with (I’m just being realistic, given the academic job market; but maybe I am wrong). For example, if I said the things in my second point to the “radical” person who was already overly aggressive and tried to correct other people’s ideas, I think we would get into an argument. I am not concerned about getting people to “join my cause” and forcing my thoughts onto them because most people don’t like my tendencies to point out inconvenient truths (and besides, I value difference). In general, I gave up convincing others because nobody listens.

* * *

Let us think about America and Hong Kong. First, I must say that their situations are really different, but similar in the sense that there is a form of hegemonic power that refuses to listen and is imposed upon the protesters. To simplify my thoughts, I would like to talk about two things: systematic injustice and human nature. When something goes bad, we tend to always like to blame the system because the system and environment that we are situated in cultivates our actions (Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek are quite famous for this). Just look at films like Parasite where the lower class ends up exploiting the upper class. What made them do such thing? In many ways, I agree with this perspective. The system breeds violence into human beings (both police and protesters). But I certainly wouldn’t go as far as some right wing commentators like Ben Shapiro who referred police brutality in the States as a case of “indecent human beings” and that all the protesters are “scumbags” (certainly, we cannot ignore the looters who don’t care about protesting and just wanted to steal a Nintendo Switch from Target). There is a very long history of violence and oppression of the people of color in not just America, but all around the world. This should not be surprising since practically every single form of civilization that existed on Earth were built upon slavery. But at the same time, Shapiro does have a point in regards to human indecency which I think, is related to a much bigger idea that I will talk about momentarily.

When we want social change, we must think big and really critically. Why? Because we need to consider whether or not our actions will actually produce real change even if it is just a small ripple (or are we going to be “radical” without actually being radical?). Does changing the structure change the way humans behave? I think to an extent, yes. But I think the problem isn’t only around systems and institutions. It is also about the question of human nature. Are humans inherently violent or peaceful? Are humans fundamentally selfish? There is in fact, a long debate which yes, comes from “white people”: Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. If anything, they are the most famous figures who were well known for founding contemporary political philosophy. Both Hobbes and Rousseau had different views on the “State of Nature”, which is another word for pre-society. For Hobbes, the state of nature is egoist and self-serving which requires the law (i.e. government) to regulate people and their instincts. Pure state of nature is pure state of war because people will just run around or join together to oppose other groups of people and steal, murder, rape, etc. On the other hand, Rousseau thought that people are naturally peaceful and distant individuals who joined together to form “social contracts” so to fight against Nature. Basically, Hobbes thought the state of nature sucks and requires government to regulate the human instincts. Rousseau thought that government sucks, but we are stuck with it and must find a form of government that would give us the most freedom (I also didn’t explain John Locke who invented liberalism and is quite important in political phil.).

Even Sigmund Freud saw something very similar in Civilization and its Discontents where he famously said “homo homini lupus” to describe how communism will never work because “a man is a wolf to another man”. The problem I wish to show is the double bind on whether human behavior is the product of nature or nurture (a classic debate). On one hand, humans wants to satisfy their unending desires. Yet on the other hand, humans produces laws to limit their desires to create “equality” so that one person won’t take everything for themselves (this obviously didn’t work out so well). One can implement a law, but they cannot force people to follow them. Hence, violence and riots will rupture through people’s discontents with the law because they seek to satisfy their own desires. It is almost like watching the movie, The Platform when the protagonist and his cellmate rides down the levels to reinforce the law and make people ration food for the lower levels who are starving. When helping one of the inmates from the lower levels, the inmate tells them that he will cut his cellmate’s stomach open and eat the food that the protagonist had fed them with. Why does he think like that? Is this phenomenon related to nature or nurture? Do animals do this? Do they fight for food to survive in the same way that humans do? What about all the inmates who excessively eat beyond their needs and not leaving enough for others? Is that an animal instinct or human behavior?

When I was in Hong Kong in 2014, I got a chance to physically experience what was at the time, a more peaceful protest—long before it transformed into riots later down the road. My family in Hong Kong is really big. Some of them supported the protests while others didn’t. One of my uncle was a detective who was extra sensitive and opinionated with the issue. This was because he had to join the riot police force to help out on the streets. It was interesting because I still remembered him telling me about it. He was very concerned about these young protesters in regards to their safety. As a police, he expressed similar concerns to the protesters in regards to democracy and freedom of speech, but condemned the protester’s way of handling the issue through violence (I agree with him in many ways; but another question is at stake here: Will China listen if people did not riot? And even when people are rioting, China is not really listening). Of course this is just my story of his account, and there are many more out there where police brutality actually happens. What I am trying to get at is that there is always two sides of the story. In fact, there is always more than two sides of the story. Always.

I recently spoke about the BLM protests with a good friend of mine who I think is incredibly smart (much smarter than me). He made a good point in regards to the question for social change. Does the apparently “bad” image of rioting outweigh the positive social change that might happen? Is rioting the only way to make social change happen? It is obvious that, when the Other does not listen, people will get violent. What I mean by the “Other” is two fold: on one hand, I am speaking in psychoanalytic language of the super-ego that imposes the law on the subject (what does the Other want? In this case, people’s violent responses to the government who is not listening are quite literally the symptom of repression). On the other hand, I am also speaking about Levinian ethics in regards to how one should treat another person face to face. Nevertheless, I am not sure if I have an immediate answer to my friend’s questions. Only the future can tell us whether or not the protester’s actions were radical enough to change anything.

Let me simply say that if humans were perfect in every sense of the word, communism would had worked on the first try. Even capitalism would work. But the truth is that none of us are perfect because we are so caught up in our own desires and egos. We are caught up in our desire for a truth that we seek to impose onto everyone else. As human beings, we are far from perfect and this is something that I think Marx had forgot about. It is as Badiou would had said: the idea of communism had always been perfect, but always failed in practice (remember that Marx reversed Hegelian Idealism). Why does Badiou, who is probably one of the most famous communist today, call for the resurrection of the idea of communism?

To give some form of verdict on BLM and Hong Kong. We need a different form of logic that is not the logic of exclusion. What we need most today is not just a revolution in the Marxist sense—of protesters attempting to change the structure. We also need the revolution of forgiveness and the revolution of love and infinite respect for the Other. All of this must be done without any particularities. Hence, I am not just talking about the protesters who should forgive the police, I am also talking about the police and the people in “power” and everyone to forgive everyone else. Only by doing this can we produce change. For me, this is what I consider as radical because such revolution is not only beyond the law, it is also impossible to achieve-–it is a madness of the impossible. Can you ask the family member of a victim to forgive the criminal who murdered their son? None of this will ever happen once you consider things like trauma (generational, etc.), human nature, and desire.

I still recall in Beast & the Sovereign, Derrida famously shared his vision of utopia where the world should never be an “eye for an eye”, but where everyone confessed. People often like to talk about Derrida through the lens of Husserl, Lacan, or Heidegger, even when he was incredibly influenced by two of Rousseau’s autobiographies called Confessions and the Reveries of the Solitary Walker—long before he wrote his masters thesis on Husserl’s phenomenology. Why can’t confessions and autobiographies be philosophy? Especially when the events that occurred in our lives influence the things that we do or not do in it?

I am an idea person. Some people might think that by talking about ideas, I am avoiding the question of race or identity or that I am trying to not “risk my future career in academia” (which I already said I couldn’t care less about; all institutions are problematic). What I am trying to get at is more originary than race and identity. I am trying to understand the fundamental roots of what allows a human being to say, “this is who I am”. What allows us to proclaim an identity is that we are first and foremost, human beings who exists in the world. To put this in another way (a Lockean way), we are all born into this world as a blank slate. I am trying to get at the root of how human beings conceive of the fabric of reality and produce truths, identity, cultural and racial differences. I think this is one of the things that most people don’t understand about me. This is not just a theory. It is the philosophy of philosophy.

At the end of the day, I want people to get along. And I want to spend my birthday to think about these issues and spread some love to everyone. In one of my undergraduate ethics class, my teacher taught me a lot about the structures that we inhabit which forces us to participate in structural violence (something as simple as buying groceries). What I learnt was that nobody is innocent. Nobody. Not even the people who are protesting on the streets, the people who are fighting for justice, or the people in power. Not me, not you. We also have no choice but to be thrown into this world. We don’t get to choose when or where we are born. We don’t get to choose the color of our skin. In our world today, it almost feels like we have forgotten what it means to be human; to confront our own finitude of being human and understand its singularity as we encounter other human beings who are just like us. It is as Jean-Paul Sartre had once said: everything has been figured out, except for how to live.

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Future Space, Future Time, and the Finitude of Being Human

Today, I would like to talk about one of the immutable conditions of human existence: space and time. The fact that human beings along with every object in this universe are always situated within spacetime is not only true in physics, it is also true in philosophy. You are always situated somewhere in the world in time because you live in a certain space in a certain time.

However, space and time should not be conceived as a synthetic concept that is taught. If I tell you to imagine a ball in your head, this ball might be floating in your head, or is sitting on a table. The ball in your mind is always already situated in a certain spacetime without any effort. This is what Immanuel Kant famously refer as “pure intuition”. To say that space and time are pure intuition is to argue that it is not something that is taught to us like other synthetic concepts such as language. Pure intuition is something that comes naturally to humans and animals who are always, in certain ways, aware of their spatial-temporal world around them.

In the history of philosophy, Kant’s notion of pure intuition was profoundly influential. But what Kant was also known for was the relationship between the subject’s experience of spacetime and the empirical appearances of objects around them. Near the end of his famous book called the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant points out how humans can never know any object “in itself”. He asserts that we can only experience the phenomena of the world, but never the noumenal object.

Kant’s idea stems from a very simple fact that the world can only be experienced from our own conscious perspective as spatial-temporal objects appears before our perceptions. As humans, we can only categorize our perceptions of these spatial-temporal objects through our own minds. This is simply because we are never other objects around us. I am never the cup on the table, or I am never your consciousness when I talk to you. For example, when I have a conversation with another human being, I can only communicate with them through language without ever taking the position of the other human being (to communicate is to indicate, to signify or produce words). I can certainly imagine what it is like to be in the other person’s shoes, but this is only possible because I am imagining this perspective through my own consciousness (empathy). It is by categorizing our perceptions of these things-in-themselves from the world where knowledge gets recognized (i.e. the appearance of the cup of water as H2O, etc.). We can even study our own consciousness by detaching ourselves away from it and look at it as an “object”. This new “secondary” consciousness that arises is famously known as “transcendental consciousness” or “transcendental ego”.

Counter-arguing against this Kantian insight of the in itself is not only difficult to achieve, it is also a very ambitious move. The moment one says that we can know an object in itself in the absolute sense, we are already caught in our own categorization of the in itself.

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While maintaining these Kantian insights, I would now like to digress into deconstruction. Many people tend to understand Jacques Derrida through “meaning effects” where the meaning of words are not completely stable (this is a popular American interpretation of Derrida—even renown French thinkers like Bruno Latour falls into this category). Certainly, I have introduced this idea many times throughout my previous posts by showing how the meaning of words depends on context and are always deferred through time. What I would like to add to this argument is the problem of communication and interpretation in relationship with spacetime that Derrida always emphasized on in numerous texts (I wrote about this here). As a reader, the encounter of language is the encounter of the in itself.

Derrida’s emphasizes on communication to point out a misalignment of communication between two people. Language functions like this Kantian in itself where our interpretations of words consists of this categorization of meaning through the play of difference. This is why there are infinite ways of reading a book or interpretation to any events. It is like how you are reading this text trying to understand what I am trying to say. Language is what humans have in common with each other. Yet, language is also the gap that functions as the communication between two people. For Derrida, the way we interpret any forms of language is profoundly influenced by the way the person experiences time (such as their own history).

The experience of time is the most important aspect of Derrida’s thoughts. Famous ideas like “Trace” and “Differance” are situated in relationship with time. This is because it is the differences in the movement of time that constitutes subjectivity and identity. To be is to be in time. But we must not mistake this with Giorgio Agamben’s concept of time (contemporary) where he privileges the subject who is capable of dividing time by recalling the unlivable past into the present. Derrida’s concept of time opposes to Agamben in the sense that it is not the subject who divides time, but time which divides the subject. In short, as a human being, we are always situated in time. It is as Heidegger would refer as a human being who is always thrown into the world—to a being-in-the-world (Dasein; “being-there”). It is our job as a human being to figure out our relationship with the world, such as our relationship with objects around us; the tools, technology, language, other people, etc. We cannot choose the time we are born in. We are simply thrown into the world within a certain time.

Time is strange in the sense that the present moment is always sliding into the past. The present is a gap in relationship between the past and future. The importance is to understand that past and future are not exclusive to each other. The past is influenced by the future becoming of time (the future changes how the past is perceived). It is “becoming” because the future remains contingent and beyond our own finite predictions. Future time is infinite and lies beyond our grasp. I won’t spend much time dwelling on this idea today because I have spoke about this in my other posts (they are in my popular post menu). What I wish to emphasize on is Derrida’s notion of the future—of what he refer as the unconditional encounter of future time which may come to radically change how we interpret the past. Derrida’s conception of past and future consists of a repetition of the same (iterability) that is never identical to each other. The present is never in the past nor the future. Yet it repeats as a form of retentional difference with the future and to infinity.

As Derrida himself had said in Of Grammatology, identity is about the “becoming time of space and the becoming space of time”. The emphasis should be placed on the word “becoming” because it alludes to the infinite future becoming of spacetime which influences the way we interpret language and objects. Many people tend to speak of space and time as if they are distinct from each other. But they are not. Space is in time, and time is in space.

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Let us maintain this Kantian insight that we can never know anything in itself and the Derridean idea that to interpret the in itself such as language, one inevitably categorizes meaning in their own unique ways through differential experiences of spacetime (because we all have different histories). Communication becomes a form of misalignment of meanings because we can never access the in itself (hence, Slavoj Zizek’s essay was called “Philosophy is not a Dialogue” in Philosophy in the Present). The question that I would like to postulate is whether we can understand the foreigner’s perspective as they express their “language” to us (we find examples of this in novels like Foe by Coetzee, where the protagonist attempts to interpret a black slave who cannot speak). On one hand, if colonizers attempts to understand the foreigner by interpreting them, we are making an attempt to categorize their language into our own systems without ever understanding them in the absolute sense. Yet, on the other hand, the only way to understand the foreigner is through our interpretation and categorizations of their language.

Hence, Levinas would invent an ethics right in between phenomenology and categorization (interpretation) of the other. In many ways, Levinas’ thoughts are paradoxical in the sense that his ethics asks human beings to avoid categorizing and interpreting the foreigner and focus on the phenomenological face to face ethics. Yet on the other hand, the face to face relation between humans consists of bodily acts which are a form of language that is subject to interpretation by the other (i.e. body language, micro expressions, etc.). Nevertheless, it is this interpretation of the other’s language that makes it impossible to understand the other. Thus for Levinas, one must rely on a phenomenological face to face ethical encounter of the other.

But is it possible to understand non-Western ideologies as a Western person? To understand the other (in itself) is to interpret. Interpretation always consists of a form of originary violence where the subject is forced into a temporally contingent and differential relationship with the foreigner’s language (when I say language, I am thinking about speech, writing and acts). This is one of the reasons why deconstruction is about “destruktion” (Heideggerian term)—a “shaking up” of the meaning of texts by the one who interprets the foreign language.

When one cites and makes an interpretation of foreign marginalized language, it is much more than just exposing their work to others and make their voices heard in a hierarchical system that privileges certain individuals over others. The act of interpretation of the other and citing them marks an act of violence because one is categorizing them through their own ontologies and histories. Interpretation is the necessary act of violence towards the other in an attempt to understand them. This is why interpretation (deconstruction) of the foreigner is inevitably tied to spacetime. How we interpret and categorize the object (i.e. the foreigner’s language) depends on how we are situated in space and time, such as our unique history.

Just as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s natural man interprets nature and uses unnatural ways to produce fire, humans have come to produce writing and technologies as a radical outside which supplements what Nature cannot offer us (wrote about this here). Interpretation is a primordial and originary violation of nature via the interpretative act of humans. It is an act that is forced upon the in itself. For example, if you read Of Grammatology, Derrida will talk about Claude Levi-Strauss and the act of violence that is produced when the anthropologist walks into the Amazon rain forest and interprets the Namibikwara tribe’s language (like how a scholar interprets another culture, for example). The most originary form of violence is found in this “third observer” (anthropologist) who interprets the tribe. By doing so, I am inevitably interpreting the other (foreigner; in itself) and categorizing them in my own way. This is the fundamental problem between humans and the object in itself. We are all mediators and translators (I recommend a book called Of Hospitality by Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle).

But does this mean that we should avoid understanding the other? Absolutely not. It is our ethical responsibility to understand them just as it is our responsibility to understand our own relation with the world—of being-in-the-world. But we must also recognize that our interpretation of the other is a necessary violence (of what Derrida calls, “arche-violence”). The conflicts of the world are born from our play in differences and our misaligned communication of the other—of interpreting the object in itself. This is what produces the discourse of politics, truth, and worldly issues. What I am trying to get at is that we should interpret the other in such a way that allows for the ethical opening of the other from the future—to allow for the other’s response from the future. Such opening up to the future is a risk that the subject takes. It is an open wound that allows for contingencies and possibilities to unfold. Hence, when Derrida was asked about world conflicts, he says:

“An opening up is something that is decided. One cannot force someone to speak or to listen; this is where the question of faith returns…Peace is only possible when one of the warring sides takes the first step, the hazardous initiative, the risk of opening up dialogue, and decides to make the gesture that will lead not only to an armistice but to peace.” [the opening up is decided because one is always situated and divided by the movement of time; we are always situated in spacetime].

* * *

If I have been making detours for so long, juxtaposing Kantian insight of the in itself with Derridean language and the Levinian ethics, what I have been trying to get us to think about is our finitude of being human. Much of 20th century French philosophy is marked by this finitude—this limit of knowledge and our experiences with the world, otherness, and the in itself (“the end of philosophy”). It is through our finite experience of the in itself where we recognize the contingency of the infinite. As human beings, we are very limited to what we are capable of understanding. We are literally dancing in our shackles. We are dancing in our own finitude and this is what produces the movement of life.

Truths are determined by our finite experiences of the world (i.e. interpreting the world). Truth becomes multiple. Truth is absolute in so far that it is finite, but also as singularity within everyone of us. But it is this very limit where we must recognize the infinite. Not only do we see this limit in Derrida and Levinas, we also see this in Alain Badiou and Jacques Lacan. For example, Lacan’s notion of the “Real” comes from Kant’s notion of the in itself. Much of Lacanian psychoanalysis is a relationship with the subject’s unconscious desires with society (i.e. language). Meanwhile, Badiou clearly sees the encounter of the radical in itself through the event—an event marked by infinite contingencies that ruptures out of the norm; like the infinite contingencies of the future that Derrida speaks. We even see this theme of contingency in Stephane Mallarme’s poem, “The Throw of the Dice Does Not Abolish Chance”. The moment I throw the dice and wish for it to land on a six, it actually lands on a four. The future becoming of time is otherly, contingent and infinite—something that the subject is always situated in.

Nevertheless, what I would like to highlight is this influence of Kantianism. To exist is to understand our limits as human beings in relationship with the world and other people. While famous philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche was a huge critic of Kant, he still agreed to Kant’s insight that we can never know anything in itself. Kant is central to many contemporary theoretical debates and to the understanding of many “continental philosophy” in 20th century (European philosophy).

Just look at contemporary movements like Speculative Realism where you see scholars like Jane Bennett, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux who attempts to reverse Kantian ideas. In fact, there is a reason why Meillassoux’s famous book is called After Finitude: an Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (Meillassoux was Badiou’s student). The book was written to challenge 250 years of Kantianism and the recognition of finitude that is found in continental philosophy. Can we know anything in itself? Or are we just finite beings who are always caught in our own consciousness while we create synthetic concepts to represent objects around us?

* * *

Let us conclude by understanding this opening of the future encounter of otherness through Derrida’s notion of forgiveness. If interpretation is an inevitable act of violence, then what can we say about the forgiveness of such violence? If I attempt to understand the other by interpreting them and always produce a misalignment of communication—of never understanding them completely (the Kantian in itself), how could we speak of forgiveness? What does it mean to know something about someone without ever becoming the other? Will the other respond to my words if I write to them? Will they reject my interpretation of their language? Will they consider my interpretation of their language to be violent? How would I know if we understood each other when we are each other’s other? Or will they destroy me through an act of evil? If the other decides to produce acts of violence upon me, can I ever forgive the other? What does it mean to forgive someone unconditionally?

For Derrida, unconditional forgiveness is not found in any finite concepts of amnesty or conditional laws. To forgive is to forgive the unforgivable. Forgiveness is not normal because it is exceptional, infinite, and impossible. True forgiveness is not related to political institutions and any forms of power. Unconditional forgiveness can only be thought through the infinite rupture of the future becoming of space and time. In the lecture, Derrida asks, when we forgive the other, are we forgiving someone, or are we forgiving something about someone? (in the same way that Derrida talks about love here). But unlike his famous argument that meanings are always deferred through differences of time which “never arrives at its destination”, Derrida suggests that unconditional forgiveness is one of the only things that arrives.

Unconditional forgiveness is a rupture from opening up to the future other. Just as one might unconditionally love someone regardless of who they might become in the future. To unconditionally forgive the other is to walk into the future blindfolded—without knowing what the future other will do to us; without ever knowing what the future holds because it is contingent. Thus, true forgiveness is the madness of the impossible.

“Must one not maintain that an act of forgiveness is worthy of its name, if there ever is such a thing, must forgive the unforgivable and without condition? And that such unconditionality is also inscribed, like its contrary, namely the condition of repentance, in ‘our’ heritage? Even if this radical purity can seem excessive, hyperbolic, mad? Because if I say, as I think, that forgiveness is mad, and that it must remain a madness of the impossible, this is certainly not to exclude or disqualify it. It is even perhaps the only thing that arrives, that surprises, like a revolution, the ordinary course of history, politics, and law. Because that means that it remains heterogeneous to the order of politics or of the juridical as they are ordinarily understood. […]

Yet, despite all the confusions which reduce forgiveness to amnesty or to amnesia, to acquittal or prescription of the work of mourning or some political therapy of reconciliation, in short to some historical ecology, it must never be forgotten, nevertheless, that all of that refers to a certain idea of pure and unconditional forgiveness, without which this discourse would not have the least meaning. What complicates the question of ‘meaning’ is again what I suggested a moment ago: pure and unconditional forgiveness, in order to have its own meaning, must have no ‘meaning’, no finality, even no intelligibility. It is a madness of the impossible. […]

Must we not accept that, in the heart or in reason, above all when it is a question of ‘forgiveness’, something arrives which exceeds all institution, all power, all juridico-political authority? We can imagine that someone, a victim of the worst, himself, a member of his family, in his generation of the preceding, demands that justice to be done, that the criminals appear before a court, be judged and condemned by a court—and yet in his heart, forgives.”

 

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek: Philosophy in the Present

Are all truth claims power plays? This post is based on a graduate seminar presentation that I gave. It is from a course called “Otherness and Truth”. Normally, I don’t share my academic work on here. But because I will never publish this anywhere else, I wish to share it with those who are interested. The seminar was on Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek’s Philosophy in the Present which talks about how truths and philosophies are produced through the encounter of events. While this seminar assumes that you have read the book, I think most people will be able to understand it without any background knowledge. Both Badiou and Zizek are very well known in and outside of academia. Badiou is one of the last intellectuals from the famous 20th century French philosophical circle who is still alive today. Zizek is well known for his philosophically infused political commentaries. Zizek studied psychoanalysis with Jacques-Alain Miller who is the son-in-law of Jacques Lacan. He is influenced by a lot Badiou’s ideas. 

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write now (!!)


I still remembered when I was first introduced to Badiou’s works by my mentor a few years ago. She was a teacher who I met in my undergraduate studies where she mentored me when I became intellectually aimless and suffered from personal problems after I graduated. I always thought of her as a woman of possibilities because she showed me how much I did not know and taught me to always keep my mind opened for new ideas. At the time, one of her PhD advisors was Alain Badiou at the European Graduate School, with the others being Catherine Malabou and Geoffrey Bennington (both Malabou and Bennington were students of Jacques Derrida). She told me that when Badiou agreed to supervise her work, she got really excited and engraved “write now” on the back of her watch (write now = write philosophy in the present). My mentor also told me about her experience on defending her PhD thesis at Anne Dufourmantelle’s house—a philosopher and psychoanalyst who died in 2017 from saving two children. She now does peer review for works on Badiou and Malabou in several philosophy and interdisciplinary journals across Canada. I am very proud of her! 

I must say that I had secretly admired Badiou ever since I encountered his works. I find his philosophy to be very all encompassing. His works addresses the problem of discourse and the messiness of our world that is created through different political views and truths. What I find most endearing is how he encourages us to talk about truth and ideas without labeling ourselves with any forms of cultural identity and doctrines (I will talk about this in the presentation). Maybe this is because I never liked labeling myself in anyway. I had held this view since my early 20s. It is very important for me to see things from multiple perspectives and why there are so many different ways of thinking.

Badiou’s philosophy is one of those grand “theory of everything” type of theories. But we also have to understand that Badiou’s philosophy came into existence at a time where many philosophers proclaimed “the end of philosophy”. Perhaps the most famous instance was Martin Heidegger’s essay, “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking”. In it, Heidegger calls for the end of Western philosophy (metaphysics) and wants philosophers to return to the task of thinking—something that Badiou does. Then there was also Jacques Lacan who was an anti-philosopher, and Jacques Derrida who developed a lot of his own thoughts under the context of Heidegger. We also see some of this in Ludwig Wittgenstein and his notion of “language game”. In short, philosophy became a discipline where truth was contextual, multiple, and divergent. The meaning of “truth” depends on how we situate it within different contexts. There is no longer a truth that we can agree on. This takes us to terms like “post-truth” which I personally find problematic. But this is another story.

Badiou’s philosophy wants us to return to the task of thinking and conceive of the conditions that produces thought. He wants to reinvent philosophy. To philosophize in the present is to have a dialogue about truth and engage with thinking. Before we look at any writer’s work, it is important to think about the conditions which motivates them. For me, my interests had always revolved around this question of condition. I became fascinated by this term when I first read the synopsis of Derrida’s book called, The Post Card. I eventually used parts of it at the end of my most popular blog post, “Writing Before the Letter: Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction” (here). In what condition is it possible for us to produce truth? I believe that many thinkers of the past had been occupied by this term. Today, we are going to take a look at what Badiou thinks in regards to the condition of thinking.

Note: this presentation is not the official version that I submitted for grades—which is more formal, shorter, less wordy, and less personal. This is the spoken version where I wrote it in the way that I speak. I share my personal experiences on my encounter of Derrida as an event. This blog version includes additional notes that I had removed from the original version.

 



Seminar Presentation: Philosophy in the Present

On Tuesday, we had many interesting questions in regards to the definition of otherness. Does the cynic function as the other? Is the cynic contemporary? Is the other someone or something? Today, instead of going through Philosophy in the Present section by section, I would like to dwell on the word “condition”. In what conditions allows a human being to encounter the other and establish a truth? Philosophy in the Present presents us a theory that speaks about this very condition—that is to say, for example, the condition of encountering philosophy as otherness. Most of us in this class are students of literature where philosophy functions as a form of otherly foreignness. Today, I would like us to think about the conditions which allows us to agree or disagree with these philosophical ideas.

In the essay “Thinking the Event”, Alain Badiou begins by talking about how philosophers are the inventors of problems who intervenes with the sphere of dominant modes of knowledge. This intervention is constituted by what he refers as “events” or “evental statements”. For Badiou, events are born from the contingencies that underlies our reality. These contingent events are related to the “universal” which creates the subject who thinks. For Badiou, thought is the medium of the universal, where all universals are situated in events. It is not the subject who produces thought, but rather, it is the universal or event which summons the subject as thought (27). Furthermore, the universal event is also related to truth which Badiou characterizes as unconscious. Ultimately, the universal as Badiou points out, originates from an event that is born from the contingency of reality. In a way, Badiou proposes the idea that truth, which at first functions unconsciously, is born and made aware through the encounter of the event. Thus, the event is the place where we encounter otherness. Here, otherness functions in two ways. On one hand, Badiou’s otherness via the event is alluding to Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis and the ways which the split subject encounters their unconscious thoughts (such as figuring out what the “big Other” wants). On the other hand, Badiou is situating the event of otherness beyond Lacanian psychoanalysis.

To understand Badiou, we must familiarize ourselves with some of Lacan’s psychoanalysis. Badiou’s notion of contingent event is related to what Lacan refer as a lack that is found at the heart of reality. For Lacan, reality is constituted by this unconscious void which causes desire and produces meaning and knowledge. This includes philosophy, ontology, literature, and basically everything in society. Simply put, our experiences as conscious subjects are constituted by the unconscious mind. For Badiou, the truth of the unconscious is made aware through contingent events which brings forth unconscious ideas into consciousness. While Badiou is heavily influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, he attempts to rethink the ontological problems that psychoanalysis had negated and torn apart. Due to the discovery of the unconscious mind, psychoanalysis broke down the relationship between the subject and the impossibility of constituting any forms of truth through our conscious thoughts. For psychoanalysts, conscious thoughts are the symptom of the unconscious—we create discourses like philosophy and literature because we are neurotic subjects. In Badiou’s famous book, Being and Event, he recalls Lacan’s Seminar XI where Jacques-Alain Miller—who is now the sole editor of Lacan’s seminars—asks Lacan, “What is your ontology?” (Badiou, Being and Event 4). In other words, “Lacan, what is your truth?”, how can there be truth when truth is the product of unconscious thoughts? Badiou’s philosophy began at this moment, where he sought to reconcile the subject with truth and thought—something that psychoanalysis had failed to achieve.

Once again, thought is the medium of the universal which is situated in events. For Badiou, an event consists of a truth that is discovered through the act of thinking. This is what he refers as “truth procedures” which consists of four categories: art, love, politics, and science. However, truth should not be confused with knowledge. Knowledge is produced by being faithful to the encounter of an event which exposes a truth. Simply put, an event is the recognition of radical otherness that appears out of place—something that both Badiou and Slavoj Zizek pointed out as the experience of foreignness. It is like the encounter of Michel Foucault’s notion of the cynic, or the encounter of something that is radically different or new. This otherness can also be recognized when Jacques Derrida emphasized on how he always situates himself in places where he “does not know where he is going” (Structuralist Controversy 267). Simply put, the other that is encountered through the event, does not belong within dominant modes of knowledge. The event is what grants our thoughts to “cut” through established knowledge (26). The event makes us recognize new knowledge and new ways of thinking which changes how we perceive the past. The other could be marginalized people, where their voices are left unheard by the majority until their presence are discovered through the event. Badiou gave many examples, one of them was how illegal workers went unnoticed until they demonstrated their existence at the St Bernard Church (43). For Badiou, philosophy is situated within this evental encounter of otherness. To encounter the other is to be untimely, like the random encounter of love, or the encounter of a new idea, such as the books that we are reading in this class. It is here where I believe that literature also functions as the encounter of otherness.

Now, we must be cautious here because the otherness that Badiou alludes to via the event is not only different to the Lacanian other, it is also different to the Derridean other, which is also different to Levinas’ other. While Badiou, Lacan, Derrida and Levinas emphasizes on the encounter of the other, all of them has different views on what conditions allows for otherness to occur. As Foucault might say, parrhesia does not only consist of telling the truth, it is also about investigating in what conditions allows for such truth or otherness to arise. In a way, I think this is what Badiou is doing. Hence, what Badiou attempts to capture in his philosophy, is this multiplicity of truths and universals that are discovered by encountering the event of the other. For Badiou, truth is founded on difference, not sameness. If everybody believed in the same truth, our world would be pretty boring. It is this play in the differences of thought which creates the universal and the encounters of otherness. Such as the encounter of different cultures, literature, languages, truths, and theories. This is why the universal remains open and incomplete. Thought is this medium of the universal which takes place in an event. Pure thought consists of creating new possibilities.

In the following essay, Zizek expands on Badiou’s notion of universal by addressing the problem of the Same. Zizek points out that virtual reality does not engage us with thought because all it really does is simulate reality. Zizek criticizes postmodernism, Frankfurt school, neo-Kantians and the Continental philosophy departments by alluding to how they are simulating old ways of thinking. He even hilariously criticizes Derrida, who made a list of world disasters in ten points and compares it to torturing dogs and killing spiders (66). The main problem that Zizek has with these disciplines is how they are not really engaging with the universal. This is to say, they are not making us think because they think for us—they are telling us how to think. They function like the contemporary book stores which are full of fast food philosophies that replicates and dilutes philosophical ideas. The point Zizek is trying to make is that, we are not engaged with thinking and confronting the universal. We are too safe. We are not taking the risk to engage with the other. For example, many people who are interested in Derrida would rather read commentaries of him than taking the risk to read him and experience the otherness in his work—they would prefer to not take the risk of getting frustrated by Derrida’s writing. Nevertheless, Zizek highlights that because many contemporary philosophical works are fixed on fast food commentaries and retaining a “symbolic boundary”, philosophy is not found in philosophy departments, but are discovered within literature and comparative literature departments. Zizek ends his remarks by agreeing with Badiou and says that philosophy begins at the point of foreignness; or otherness (70). Intellectuals should engage with this purity of thought which functions as the medium of the universal where anything is possible. We can be human without first identifying ourselves through “particularities” (or doctrines)—such as our nationalities, or defining ourselves as Lacanians, Derrideans, Nietzcheans, and neo-Kantians (72). As Badiou pointed out, in genuine philosophy we can talk about truth without making any power claims. In real philosophy, there is a distance between power and truth (23). In other words, while political particularities consist of a claim to power by asserting a certain truth over others (such as the political left over the political right, etc.), Badiou thinks that truth claims should not be power plays. This is because thought is the medium of the universal. Thought is a universal experience that every human being shares regardless of their economic class, political orientation, race, and so on.

Now, perhaps we have all encountered books that changed the way we see the world. A book that changed our ways of thinking through our unique encounters of them as events. Or perhaps we had fatally encountered the love of our life. For Badiou, it is these radical incalculable contingent ruptures of the norm where we confront the other and produce truths. This confrontation of the other reminds me of myself when I read Derrida’s Of Grammatology seven years ago as my very first Derridean text. At the time, not only did I considered this book as foreign because I knew absolutely nothing about philosophy, I also thought of it as nonsense. All of my ideologies and beliefs were radically challenged by Derrida. Yet this encounter was what allowed me to produce knowledge of Derrida by getting lost in his works, and write about them for years to come. In fact, I have written many embarrassingly bad essays on Derrida and submitted them as grad school sample essays. –Of course, I got rejected.

Thinking of Badiou, I always wondered what led famous figures to write their philosophies. How did Karl Marx write one of the most influential texts in history? Was there an event in his life that allowed him to create his works which he remained faithful to? How did Virginia Woolf write her incredible collection of literature? How did Cedric Robinson write his famous book called, Black Marxism? Was it because he encountered Marx as an event? Some of us might be aware that Derrida was Jewish who survived World War II. In a book called Circumfession, Derrida famously confessed of feeling excluded all his life due to his relationship with his family. No wonder that deconstruction “is”, in a way, all about exclusion and otherness. Coincidentally, Levinas was also Jewish and survived World War II as a war prisoner. While he was in prison, he associated his inmates as the other. Is this why he argues that all philosophies should begin as the ethics of the other? Here, I would like to open up to the class for us to consider our own encounters of otherness, event, and truth. Thus, let us once again ask, is the other someone, or something? In what condition makes our encounters of the other possible?

The end 😊



Notes:

1. When Zizek talks about virtual reality, I believe he is alluding to Jean Baudrillard’s criticism of modernism / postmodernism. Unlike what most people think, Jean Baudrillard was not a “postmodernist”. He was a critic of postmodernism.

2. When Zizek points out how philosophers upholds a “Symbolic boundary”, he is alluding to the Lacanian symbolic Other. Philosophers are trapped in their own symbolic Otherness that governs their philosophies.

3. Jacques-Alain Miller was Zizek’s psychoanalyst. If you wish to become a psychoanalyst, you must get psychoanalyzed.

4. The examples I chose at the end (Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf, and Cedric Robinson) were intentional. They were meant to connect with my classmates’s interests. I could had chosen anyone and it would work.

5. Despite that this book presents Badiou and Zizek as if they agree with each other, they actually disagree with each other’s ideas quite a bit. But they are apparently really good friends in real life (so I was told by my mentor).

6. The example I gave on people reading commentaries on Derrida instead of his work was meant to facilitate Zizek’s argument. While I do encourage people to read Derrida’s works, I think it is fine to look for help. The danger is that you might run into unreliable sources. There are many reliable secondary sources on Derrida (I certainly would not recommend myself Lol): Leonard Lawlor, Peggy Kamuf, Geoffrey Bennington, Alan Baas, Christopher Norris, and Martin Hagglund are all very good choices.

7. While Zizek was trained in psychoanalysis, he has become more of a Hegelian than Lacanian.

8. Near the end, I placed “is” in quotation because this has to do with the way which Derrida developed “deconstruction” under the context of Heidegger’s notion of “destruktion”. Deconstruction has to do with “shaking up” and “solicitation” of the text. Heidegger became interested in the word “is” because it is the third person indicative of the word “be”. I emphasize on the word “indicative” for a reason that is associated with Derrida’s reading of Edmund Husserl (found in a book called Voice and Phenomenon; I spoke about some of this here).

9. While Badiou indirectly covers some of the problems found in deconstruction, there is a fundamental difference in Derrida and Badiou’s concept of “present” which lies in their different takes in phenomenology. I tried to point this out in class once, but I don’t think anyone understood what I was trying to say. I would argue that for Derrida, there is no philosophy in the “present” because the present is always situated in the past which shares a paradoxical relationship with the future. There is no such thing as the present because the present is always divided by the spacing of time (past and future). The present is always “elsewhere” (other). In other words, Badiou emphasizes on the presentation of the present. Whereas Derrida emphasizes on the re-presentation of the present (I spoke about re-presentation here).


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Quick Thoughts on Critical Race Theory and Political Correctness

Some of you might know that I spent part of my winter semester studying critical race theory (CRT). Actually, this was my first time engaging with the sub-discipline, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts along with the issues of political correctness. I actually wrote most of this post several weeks ago and decided to share it because I don’t have any big posts coming up in the next few weeks. I apologize if this post seems like I am mad (I’m not), I just don’t have time to edit.

One of the essays that I wrote in the class was on Fred Moten and how he challenges European thinkers such as Jacques Derrida. Despite that the paper turned into a mess, I really enjoyed writing it because it helped me understand bits and pieces on what Moten’s ideas are all about (i.e. challenging existing hegemonic systems via Black rhetoric). I think Moten is a very interesting writer who applies his ideas back into his own writing, which is what makes him so hard to read (it is a resistance). Moten’s interpretation of Derrida and other European scholars consists of a form of free play by combining them together (i.e. “improvisation”, like jazz music). He achieves this through his own Black rhetorical tradition and produces some very interesting results.

I think one of the reasons why my essay turned into a mess was because I was restricting myself to cite as much as marginalized scholars and people of color as possible because it makes my prof happy (yeah, since when did Bobby become a people pleaser?—like uh, never). Of course, I ended up not complying. It was an event where I made a decision and I was ready to fail the class (Lol—I didn’t fail, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I did). I must confess that part of me leaned towards Moten’s ideas in the paper because of peer pressure for being “politically correct”. In fact, I was already called “Eurocentrtic” by citing Derrida in my essay; even if you know, Derrida was against Eurocentrism. I was told that my essay was “right wing”.

Before I continue, people really need to understand that I am only after one thing in my intellectual / academic endeavor: how do humans produce truths? It just so happened that along the way, I ran into Derrida and really liked what he wrote because I spent two years close reading Of Grammatology and four more years close reading his other works (Voice and Phenomenon, Margins of Philosophy, his lectures on Heidegger, etc.). Bottom line: I am an idea person. I acknowledge great ideas regardless of the person’s skin color, gender, etc. But I don’t like lying for the sake of being politically correct. Am I going to list the top 5 hockey players of all time and go like “Wayne Gretzky… oh wait, I can’t list white dudes”, and randomly list some marginalized person? In the same way, what if I went to list the top 5 basketball players and go like “oh hey, I can’t list black guys” and list a white guy? What is the difference between this and saying “I can’t cite great ideas in XYZ discipline because they are privileged European dudes, therefore I must cite ABC person”?

I understand that there are structural injustices in the system which prevents marginalized people from succeeding in society (and academia, etc.) [there could be other reasons on why they are not succeeding that they have not recognized]. I also understand that their voices, perspectives and ideas needs to be heard and recognized (and I think they should). Finally, I also understand that when we cite marginalized voices, we are trying to expose their ideas through our own works. But I also think we shouldn’t take this opportunity to downplay important ideas which had left a huge impact in our society. Why? Because ironically, a lot of CRT scholarship were inspired by deconstruction. I am generalizing quite a bit here, and I apologize for that.

With all this said, it is not my intention to offend anyone in this post because I know I can be quite honest, blunt and unyielding (I also don’t hold any grudges or hate anyone). You see, I am secretly practicing Michel Foucault’s “parrhesia” (to tell the truth regardless of consequences). I am just trying to assess whether or not citing “privileged” people in my paper makes any sense, and whether Ideas should be defined through “particularities” (thinking about Badiou). Following the same logic, can I make a reading of Black rhetorical tradition as a Chinese-Canadian? If I somehow publish this crappy essay, then does this mean that some other person in the world can’t cite me because I am a yellow dude interpreting Black rhetorical tradition? (in the same way that I can’t cite some white dude interpreting a black dude?).

Before people throw any political labels at me, I would like to say that I am very neutral in my “political spectrum”—even if I think Marx was right about the problems of capitalism; and that in a world where the political left and right are secretly right wingers in disguise (both are capitalists), we should take the risk to reconsider the Idea of communism (I am speaking in Badiou’s language here). I understand, once we factor in history and “human nature”, communism is quite difficult and risky to achieve (the Idea of communism is too perfect—even in my eyes), capitalism is probably the best thing we have for now (yet, it is actually far from the best—maybe if it was less “crony”). Regardless, this takes us into classic debates on human nature that I won’t get into here. For example, are we all super greedy, violent and exploitative ass hats without wanting to admit it? I mean, at least I admit I’m an asshole. I am pretty guilty of filling my car up with gas and polluting the air. I even unwillingly support the exploitation of workers when I buy things in the grocery store. As Zizek would say, if I was not myself, I would probably arrest myself.

I understand that CRT tries to show how laws undermine certain minority groups. I agree there are problems in the legal system and I definitely think that CRT does a really good job in highlighting a lot of these issues (i.e. race and gender inequality, indigenous rights, etc.). Many great authors writes stories to express these injustices and that is fine with me because exposing these issues and how others experiences these problems is a good thing. But whether this “truth” is communicated to the reader is another a very difficult story. If you follow my blog, you should know by now that one of the main problems Derrida talks about is the problem of communication. This is why there are infinite interpretations to any texts and events. You can find this idea come up in many 20th century discourses via different forms from Heidegger, Lacan, Deleuze, Badiou, all the way to Wittgenstein.

In general, I only found certain strands of CRT to be interesting. In fact, they are either very interesting or very uncritical. But to be fair, this is found in nearly all disciplines. I know for a fact that there are many great CRT works out there. For example, I think Fred Moten and Jodi Byrd both writes very interesting scholarship. It is unfortunate that while Byrd has some great ideas which builds and moves away from Judith Butler and Derrida, our seminar on her turned into some naive interpretation of her works. To be sure, I refer certain aspects of CRT to be uncritical because they are uncritical of their own interpretations and ideas. They are not asking what allows them to produce such “truth” (but maybe I am leveling this criticism because I am someone who chases after truth). While I think that their findings are often enlightening (i.e. relationship between law and minorities, immigrants, etc.). I also think that their lack of self-assessment can be quite dangerous, where one might end up going like “hey, my truth is the only truth, and if you don’t agree with me, then you are a XYZ!”. But once again, this can happen anywhere. Not just in academia or in CRT.

This is why, despite the fact that I disagree with Jordan Peterson’s naive readings of Derrida, he makes a very good point in regards to political correctness (a similar point Zizek makes). I also think that Peterson made a good point on how people turned Derrida’s “dichotomies” into some form of political weapon by talking about the “oppressor and oppressed”. I will admit, I was a bit too harsh on Peterson in my first few posts on him. While I don’t agree with him on many things, I think he offers some very interesting insights when he stops pretending to know anything about Derrida.

Anyone who studied Derrida long enough will know that his “dichotomies” or “binary oppositions” are hardly “oppositions” because one is melded into the other as paradoxes (i.e. the outside is the inside, nature is culture, speech is writing, signified is signifier, life is death, etc.). In other words, people turned Derrida’s ideas into some kind of political weapon by talking about the oppressor and the oppressed in some mutually exclusive way—even when they aren’t. This reading was something that I don’t think Derrida had intended in his works (he definitely never anticipated this from the future to come). For example, what happens at the end of The Hunger Games? The oppressed becomes the oppressor. The idea that people had turned Derrida into a political weapon was something that Jean Baudrillard and many Derridean scholars had pointed out.

Regardless, there are are other philosophical problems that I can see in CRT, such as essentialism. But I don’t have time to talk about this right now. I am in a spring course that is jam packed with readings. I am sure there are already scholars talking about this. Currently, my positions holds firm in the idea that time is one of the fundamental constitutions of subjectivity, identities, and truths. All in all, I don’t really have too much beef with CRT because the problems they have is also found everywhere. I just have a problem with political correctness. I guess what I am really trying to say is that we should be respectful of other’s ideas and maybe we will learn a thing or two. Otherness is the key to truth.

Ciao
(this is the only word I know in Spanish other than “Hola”).

 

 

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Lacanian Psychoanalysis and the Subversion of the Split Subject

Graph IV

Graph of Desire

Today, I would like to expand on my previous post on Lacanian psychoanalysis and the Wound of Split Subjectivity by understanding its relationship with the Graph of Desire. I am well aware that this is the graph that makes people who wish to learn psychoanalysis to run the other way. The Graph of Desire was presented in an essay called “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious” which consists of a lot of ideas that Lacan had developed over many years. It was also where Lacan attempts to situate the “scientific subject” as the “unconscious subject”. This post will provide my own interpretations of the graph because this is what happens when you leave Bobby in his room for 7 weeks. I won’t aim to extrapolate every detail of the graph because there are many ways to read it.

I strongly encourage you to read my previous post on Lacan before you start this one (hyperlinked again here). This is because it provides the foundations for everything that I will be talking about in this post. But in case you are lazy, I will summarize and refresh some of the ideas that I had introduced. This post is also significantly longer than average (around 6000 words). I tried my best to make it digestible.

In my last post, I introduced the fundamentals in the ways which the subject must “give up” on some of their desires in order to become a subject who is always wounded and incomplete. The subject begins from the mirror stage and moves from the ideal-ego to their ego-ideal as their experiences are mediated through symbolic laws which functions like a filter. I gave many pedagogical examples of how this symbolic filter works, such as the employee’s subjectivity and how they are represented by their company or institution (filter), yet their employee identity is not who they really are in their private lives. In the same way, the words we use to represent ourselves through language is not who we really are, but the becoming subjectivity that is never complete. The speaking subject who can only express themselves through language (i.e. “I am X”) is never “whole” and complete. Thus, subjectivity is always “split” because they are filtered through the symbolic laws that they must always conform to. Identity and subjectivity is a wound that can never be healed because one is always already a speaking subject who is divided by what they can and cannot desire. In turn, this produces the “split subject” who must always share a relationship with the filter of the symbolic “Other” (super ego / unconscious mind).

Today, I will focus on how language functions as the symbolic filter because this is what Lacanian psychoanalysis is about. The moment we speak or write a sentence, our language becomes the symptom of the symbolic Other (repression; or unrealized unconscious actions, etc.). The things we say offers us the clue to our unconscious mind and its thinking patterns. Since psychoanalysis studies the unconscious mind, its entire goal is to ask “What does the Other want?” (“Che Vuoi?”) by analyzing the things people say through free association. These associations can be random things, it can also be dream fragments and narratives that people tell others about, or stories that people identify as who they are as a human being.

Above all, this notion of filtering that passes through the symbolic Other (language) is what Lacan refer as “castration complex. Castration is a never ending process that happens all the time in our lives. As I had pointed out in my last post, you are being castrated the moment you read this text. Recall that the child begins with their imaginary “ideal-ego” who goes through the castration complex (filter) which produces the ego-ideal (this is important, we will return to this). It is through our relationship with language which develops the ego-ideal. For example, the speaking subject must always follow the rules of language in the same way that they must follow the rules of society which leads to unconscious desires. The subject’s relationship with language and other people is a relationship with their own Other (i.e. their unconscious desires). When the subject speaks, parts of who they are appears through language (the symptom), and the repressed desires goes missing (I will return to this later on). In the same way, the reader who is reading this text always gets filtered through language and symbolic laws.

This is why Lacan was famous for being called an “anti-philosopher”. What constitutes philosophy and its notions of truth has to do with the unconscious mind. Philosophy is the symptom of the unconscious. The subject must be mediated through language to produce philosophy. Hence, in order to speak about “Being”, one must subtract something from Being. Despite being influenced by Martin Heidegger, this is why Lacan will never be a Heideggarian. Heidegger had set out a task to retrieve fundamental being from the past. He was obsessed with a missing “Being” (lack) that is fundamental to all beings. There is always something missing in Being that makes us desire for Being.

Split subjectivity is central to psychoanalysis. Another example that Lacanians uses to describe the symbolic filtering is the train which moves through the train station. The train station does not move because it consists of symbolic language, laws and rules that are always in place (i.e. in language, we must follow the rules of grammar, etc. as we express who we are; just as a human being has to follow the written and unwritten rules of society). Meanwhile, it is the train / subject which moves through the station. The subject must invest energy to speak through language in order to express themselves. The train station (language; filter) is the site of differences and signifiers that the subject must pass through. As Lacan might say, the train station (Other) is the “treasure trove of signifiers [words]” which the subject must depend on in order to communicate and express themselves—even if this communication is directed to themselves (introspection). The subject is always mediated by symbolic language (signifier; “S”). We are split subjects because we are speaking animals.

Graph I

Graph I, “Elementary Cell”

In Graph I, we have two trajectories. The horizontal trajectory that flows from the left to right as S—>S’ implies the movement of signifiers such as this sentence which moves from the beginning to end (there are deeper implication to this such as the sliding of signifiers and the “anchoring point”). In order to understand the beginning of the sentence, we have to read what lies throughout the entire chain of significations towards the end of the sentence. It would make no sense for me to start a sentence and not finish it because that would not provide sufficient signifiers for me to understand its meaning.

Meanwhile, we have the vertical trajectory that is shaped like a horseshoe which loops over the horizontal trajectory backwards from right to left. The reason why Lacan loops it backwards is due to Freud’s ideas on “afterwardness” which suggests the ways which we analyze a sentence after we have articulated it (it also has to do with what Lacan calls the “quilting” of signifier and signified). The triangle represents the beginning of subjectivity, such as the subject as an animal, who crosses over the horizontal trajectory (symbolic language) twice and ends up producing the split subject ($) on the other end. What we see through this horseshoe trajectory is how split subjectivity is produced and mediated through language.

An example of this horizontal and vertical movement could be the mother who tells the child to clean up his room (horizontal trajectory). The child begins at the triangle who interprets the commands of their mother and produces the split subject who must give up certain desires to meet her mother’s command (perhaps they wanted to go outside to the playground). In the same way, since castration is never complete and occurs until we die, the graph could also represent the reader as the split subject who is currently interpreting this sentence as they get filtered through language.

By itself, the symbolic language is inanimate because it relies on the subject to give these words specific meanings. Thus, the vertical trajectory also represents intentionality. Here, we see something that is very interesting in regards to phenomenology (which studies intentionality), deconstruction and psychoanalysis because Lacan offers us a psychoanalytic way of interpreting intentionality that is not only influenced by inter-subjectivity, space, and time, but by our unconscious desires. This unconscious desire which motivates intentionality can only be experienced through the effects of the signifier. 

The horizontal trajectory could be the representation of the “other person” who speaks. Whereas the horseshoe trajectory represents the subject who interprets what the other person says. Remember how the split subject’s relationship with the other person is actually a relationship with their own Other (i.e. unconscious desires and repression). In my view, the two positions of the horizontal and horseshoe trajectories are interchangeable. The other person who speaks (horizontal) could also be the one who returns “afterwards” to interpret what they had said (horseshoe). I would like to consider two different perspectives between the one who speaks (horizontal) and the one who analyzes and interprets (horseshoe). I will focus more on the the horseshoe trajectory and touch on the horizontal one near the end of this post.

Before we proceed to Graph II, I would like to point out the two junction points where the horseshoe crosses through the horizontal trajectory. These two junctions are important because the first one represent the “filtering” where the subject is mediated through the “treasure trove of signifiers” (symbolic language; Other) to formulate meaning. The first junction is where the subject produces “split subjectivity” by being mediated through language. It is here, where we first encounter the symbolic Other and the “filter” (or train station). As we will see, the Other is represented as “A” (Autre in French) in Graph II:

Graph II

Graph II

The new bottom section of the graph is basically a visual representation of the mirror stage. “i(a)” is the image of the other person (alter ego) or the person that I share my experiences with when I have conversations with them (notice how it is a one way movement from right to left). Such experiences, as I had already mentioned, is a relationship with my own ego (m) that is actually a relationship with the Other who defines the laws and meanings [s(A)] that I must live by (because as a split subject, I must be mediated through language). The relationship with the other person is a relationship with the split subject’s ego-ideal, which is the ideality given by the Other (A).

Recall from my last post when I said that it is not enough to see myself as an ideal human being because I need the approval of the Other. For example, I need lots of likes and approval by others on social media and my narcissistic selfies because I need to live up to the Other’s expectations that I am a superstar hottie or pro nature photographer on Instagram. It is like looking at yourself in the mirror, but recognizing that there is also the other Other person who is unknowingly standing behind you and sees who you are in a certain way (parents, boss, girlfriend, boyfriend, strangers, government, police, social media, etc.). The symbolic ego-ideal is the recognition of an outside beyond who you are (m; ego) as you evaluate yourself (you judge yourself; recognize your insecurities because the Other sees you in certain ways since they are the one who represents the laws, etc.). This is why the image we uphold to ourselves is not who we really are. As split subjects, we are trying to satisfy the desires of the Other. In other words, we are upholding a certain narrative or image of what we imagine the Other sees in us (i.e. imagining what other people think of us). Later in Graph III, we will encounter this imagination as Lacan’s famous fantasy formula: $<>a.

Unlike Graph I, Graph II presents us with the response of the Other that is found through the matheme of s(A). Let us suppose that the horseshoe trajectory is a child who is responding to the demands of their (m)Other. Once the split subject gets filtered through the Other (A), they acquire the Other’s response of s(A). This leads to a complex relationship between subject’s demand and the Other’s response. Another way to put it is that s(A) is the meaning created by the other (Other) that the subject interprets from their response (their chain significations from the horizontal trajectory).

I think there are at least two ways of reading this movement from A [Other]—>s(A) [Other’s meaning] —> I(A) [ego-ideal]. The first consists of the relationship between the infant who demands their needs from the mother that takes position as the Other (only later in the infant’s life does the Other transform into the symbolic language and the laws of society). An example of this would be the infant who demands milk and love from the (m)Other by crying. The response that the (m)Other makes (horizontal trajectory) is to tell the child and offer them milk or her breast. However, as the infant grows older, they realize that the mother cannot offer the kind of (sexual) love that she offers to her father because the law prohibits incest (Lacan’s maternal and paternal figures, just like femininity and masculinity, are positions that the subject takes—they are not restricted to biology). As a result, the infant’s demand for love becomes an impossibility—it becomes the remainder which transforms into an unconscious desire that makes the child ask: what does the (m)Other want? Or simply, what do I need to do in order to receive love from her?

This is why, in the adult split subject, desire is not just about the object that the split subject desires (their romantic partners, etc.). Unconscious desire traces all the way back to the infant’s desire for the sexual love that the Other did not want and cannot give. Certainly, the split subject is not conscious of this fact, because they have already repressed such thought into their unconscious. Hence, desire is never about the object of desire because it is the relationship with what is missing that is causing the split subject to desire. I have provided an example of this in my last post about a man who desires a woman, but what is causing him to desire this woman is not the woman but the lack that he does not consciously recognize (object a).

The second interpretation comes from the idea that, since the split subject must always pass through the Other’s discourse and express their demands through language, their demands are never completely expressed and therefore, cannot be completely met. This leads to the same outcome of never figuring out what the Other wants because one has already gone through the Other’s discourse. Furthermore, the ways which the split subject interprets the Other’s response also involves castration (filtering) and are influenced by their unconscious desires that can never be satisfied. The way we read Lacan for example, always leaves us with something left to desire in his work. There is always more meaning to extrapolate from his texts. This is also true to say, our interpretation of literature and life events.

Desire is the surplus of demand. Desire is what remains when demand fails to be completely satisfied because the mother cannot offer the child the love she offers to her father. Desire is also found when the split subject fails to make their demands through language. Demand is related to our needs. Such as our need for food. Desire is what separates humans from animals. As humans, we don’t just demand to eat, we also desire for objects that has nothing to do with our biological needs.

Since desire is the surplus / remainder of demand, the enjoyment that comes from the satisfaction of desire is partial. Enjoyment is only experienced partially after the subject has been mediated through the symbolic law (after the subject has been filtered and mediated through language and what they are permitted to consciously desire). A classic example: since the first symbolic law states that I cannot copulate with my mother, father and siblings (for Freud, the first law is the prohibition of incest), I can only unknowingly sublimate theses desires to my future partner and other objects that I encounter in my life. The only real and impossible form of pleasure that can never be completely experienced is what Lacan famously calls “jouissance” which translates into “enjoyment” or “orgasm”. Through desire, we can only receive the remainder of jouissance (we will return to this later on once we get to the sex drive). The split subject cannot experience jouissance at its fullest potential because they are always filtered through the symbolic Other. This is why jouissance is related to the real (of what Lacan famously calls “lalangue” or the mother tongue). The symbolic is what paradoxically grants and prohibits jouissance.

Nevertheless, Graph II shows us that in many cases, the Other responds and offers meaning to the split subject as they pass through the horizontal trajectory through A and s(A), which produces the I(A). In this case, the subject recognizes the Other’s desires and tries to fulfill the ego-ideal image that the Other imposes upon the subject, such as trying to live up to the Other’s demands. Clean your room! Become a doctor! Become a rich capitalist! Live up to your own self image defined by your new Other as social media! Hence, as I mentioned last post, the subject’s desire is the Other’s desire. As I gaze through social media, it tells me what I should desire to become (to gather lots of likes from people, take mirror selfies, share memes, be cool, etc.) [now, think of this under the context of marketing, advertisement or political correctness].

The horseshoe trajectory (the arrow) in Graph II is a representation of our demand which gets filtered into desire when the child recognizes that the sexual love they seek from their parents is not possible. By passing through the Other (A), the split subject recognizes this, but still unconsciously desires for such occurance. Thus, they unknowingly seek for it through their interactions with other people (i.e. in their future romantic partners, friends, or objects that they buy, etc.). This is why you might notice how couples will often have partners who, in some ways, resemble people from their family. This can either be really obvious or not at all. This is because we are all unique individuals (split subjects) who makes different identifications with the Other which attracts and arouses us. It can be something as obscure as one of Freud’s patient who was obsessed with the shine on a woman’s nose. There are also instances where you might notice how couples look like each other. In this case, there is a chance that they are narcissists. Although I must point out that narcissism is actually part of human relationships because we relate to the image of the other (Other) with ourselves (this is what makes identical twins interesting). For example, I see similarities between myself and the other person when I have conversations with them, so we become friends. This is why I once said that our relationship with other people is actually a form of fantasy relation with ourselves. Everything functions like a mirror (recall in the mirror stage: “the other person in the mirror is me!”).

The transformation from demand to desire leaves us with an important question that all psychoanalysts seeks to answer: What does the Other want? In psychotherapy, it is about figuring out this conflict between the Other and the unconscious desire of the split subject. The difference lies between what the subject wants versus what the Other wants from him or her. What does the Other want to say? What if the Other never tells us who we are? What happens when the employee does not know what the boss demands? Or when the subject does not know what they want or who they are because the Other does not offer any response? What happens when what we want from the Other can never be acquired because our demands cannot be met?

But because there is no absolute answer to the Other’s desire that desire will endlessly re-manifest itself into different objects through our drives, such as our romantic partner, the new commodity we just bought. I can for example, desire to buy this new car because I unconsciously identify it with my mother. Yet, after buying this car, I stop desiring for it overtime because I realized that this is not what I actually desired because I unconsciously wanted my mother. Keep in mind that I am using the classic Freudian examples for my own amusement. In practice, our unconscious desires could be many other things.

We now have sufficient information to understand Graph III:

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Graph III

 

What we see in the new upper section of this graph is the introduction of “d” which represents desire as the remainder or “surplus” of demand after it passes through the Other. This new graph is relatively straight forward in the sense that it is trying to suggest what happens when the Other provides no response to the subject’s demand—which is basically all the time because we are castrated / filtered subjects who are mediated through language. Hence Lacan writes “Che vuoi?” meaning “What do you want?”—or, “What do I need to do to satisfy the desire of the Other?”

Furthermore, I believe the upper section of this graph also represents what occurs unconsciously. It takes place beyond the signifiers of the Other deep within the split subject’s mind. To put this in another way, the upper section takes place beyond the reader’s interpretation of this sentence as it happens unconsciously. We can see that there are actually two arrows that split from the Other (A). The outer arrow loops and points towards $ (split subject). The inner arrow points towards object a. Together they form $<>a which is the symbol for fantasy.

For the sake of simplicity, I will say that because the split subject does not know what the Other wants, they must imagine or fantasize the Other’s desire. Object appears in this fantasy formula because my desire as the split subject is the fantasy of what the Other desires for me (remember from last post, desire is produced through object a). Simply ask yourself, what do you fantasize about? My desire and fantasy comes from the Other’s desire. Yet, I always misunderstand the Other’s desire (i.e. my desires and fantasies) because I am always already a split subject. This is why our dreams offers us a way of understanding our unconscious mind because it is related to our primal fantasy and the Other’s desire. The analyst’s job is to help the analysand “traverse” this primal fantasy.

Let us move into the final form of the graph:

Graph IV

Graph of Desire (Completed)

In Graph of Desire, Lacan introduces the formula for drive as $<>D (D is for demand), and S(A) which implies the lack of symbolic meaning within the signifying chain (there is no Other of the Other). Remember that every time we speak, parts of who we are is revealed through language, and the repressed material goes missing. S(A) represents what is missing from the signifying language which makes the split subject ask “What does the Other want?”. From the reader’s perspective, it is the question of what your unconscious mind is trying to say as you are filtered (castrated) through these words (i.e. what does the meaning you extract from this text inform you about your Other?). Notice how after desire (horseshoe arrow) passes through the lack of symbolic meaning of the Other S(A), we get to fantasy $<>a which involves fantasizing what the Other wants. Because the Other lacks a signifier (i.e. I don’t know what the Other wants), I seek to fantasize what the Other wants. This fantasy moves down the graph and resurfaces as the Other’s response / meaning of s(A) [even when we do not know what the Other wants because we are split subjects].

In my last post, I explained Slavoj Zizek’s joke on “coffee without cream” and how the missing content of the coffee constitutes our perception of the coffee. I also explained Lacan’s interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story called “Purloined Letter” and how the stolen letter functions as a lack by which all other signifiers surrounds it like a vortex. Both coffee without cream and the empty content of the letter is represented by the signifier of the lack of signifier. In this case, S(A) is the signifier of the lack of signifier. This is where we encounter Lacan’s controversial “phallic signifier” (ф) which is related to the “name-of-the-father”, “paternal metaphor”, and the formation of sexual difference known as “sexuation” (found here, from Seminar XX on feminine sexuality). In fact, it would be naive for me to not elaborate on sexuation because a big chunk of psychoanalysis is about sexuality.

Basically, the phallic signifier (ф) shares a paradoxical relationship with the lack of the Other S(A)—the lack of the phallus—namely, the feminine. The signifier (ф) of the lack of signifier (-ф) is the phallic signifier (ф). This is why in the sexuation graph, Lacan crosses out the La as in “the woman” because feminine sexuality can exceed the limitations of the phallic signifier. This is known as the “Other jouissance” which characterizes “feminine writing” (Helene CixousThe Laugh of the Medusa is a good example of feminine writing; James Joyce’s Ulysses is another good example). There is however, a certain way of reading Lacan where it appears like he privileges the phallic signifier. This suggests that all symbolic languages that the subject mediates through are fundamentally phallic and masculine (patriarchal) which follows Freud’s phallocentrism. This interpretation situates Lacanian psychoanalysis into gender politics and it is part of what made him controversial. However, I would say that this is a misreading of Lacan. Slavoj Zizek is quite famous for addressing this misreading (here). For now, I will not go into the details of sexuation because it is another very difficult topic.

Regardless, let us return to the Graph of Desire. If we continue to follow the horseshoe trajectory, notice how this missing signifier of S(A) appears after it passes through the Other (the filter; A) and drive ($<>D). After desire is produced from the surplus of demand, it is recognized within $<>D, or the drives of the split subject. Basically, drive is another word for sex drive (libido) which shouldn’t always be thought under the context of copulation. This is because there are many things in life that offers “enjoyment” such as happiness, listening to music, reading, writing or speaking—basically anything that gives us pleasure.

For Lacan, all drives are partial which represents partial objects that attracts and arouses the split subject (common examples would be the breast, gaze, voice, etc.). In this sense, it is through these partial drives where we recognize our desires. But because conscious desire arises from being filtered through the symbolic, the drives can never reach its goal since it is not what the split subject unconsciously desires. Drives can only circulate around object a (i.e. the lack / unknown repressed material). Another reason that drives never reaches its goal is because its functions are a bit “mechanical”. The drive is like a circuit, or train tracks which involves having the libidinal energy push the train (subject) through the station / filter. It consists of—as we will later see—a form of repetition. It is like listening to your favorite song on repeat which offers you partial jouissance. You can never get enough of the partial enjoyment that it offers.

Finally, let us read the top horizontal trajectory which moves from Jouissance –> S(A) —>  $<>D —> Castration. This trajectory is important not only because it is the visual representation of castration from the perspective of the subject who speaks, it is important because it mimics the chain signification of the lower portion that moves from Signifier —> Voice. This upper unconscious trajectory points out how speaking and the creation of meaning which is the result of filtering, prohibition via symbolic, still allows for a certain level of enjoyment satisfaction.

This is why Lacan once famously said that speaking is like having sexual intercourse. We gain enjoyment and satisfaction from talking to other people which traces back to our relationship with the Other (Lacan’s statement also has to do with the concept of “sublimation” where we substitute one for the other). Furthermore, this top horizontal movement from jouissance to castration also emphasizes on what is missing [S(A)] is also paradoxically found within our drives $<>D as the symptom.

Once again, I pointed out that every time we speak, part of our subjectivity is found in language, and the unconscious desire goes missing. The things we say is the symptom of our unconscious desires. Hence, language consists of a negative (-1) and positive (+1) dimension. This formulation is represented through S(A) [lack] which consists of a -1, and $<>D [drive] that carries the +1 of the signifier. It is also recognized through sexuation of the -1 / the lack of phallic signifier, and the +1 of a phallic signifier. Simply put, the top horizontal trajectory emphasizes on the partial drives that motivates the split subject to speak (their desire to speak). It is through the signifiers of the Other—such as what is said through symbolic language by the split subject (the symptom)—where we recognize the effects of their unconscious mind.

What got Lacan banned from the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) comes from the way he attempts to make specific “cuts” through the analysand’s (patient) free association. Lacan achieves this by interrupting the double movement between the conscious Signifier —> Voice and the unconscious Jouissance —> Castration. Here, the cut is an attempt for the analyst to help the analysand produce new ways of thinking and restructure their unconscious patterns (new train tracks, new circuit). It must be noted that these interruptions and cuts that the analyst makes are not random. The analyst is aware of the analysand’s unconscious patterns via free association (i.e. the way they speak).

***

Essentially, Lacan is trying to formulate ways to address what lies beyond the symbolic signifying language. Humans are not only conscious talking animals, they are unconscious subjects who experiences enjoyment (jouissance). This is what separates humans from artificial intelligence. It makes films like Ex-Machina fascinating because it emphasizes on human attempts to assign sexuality to robots. Humans are sexual beings where sexual difference is inscribed at the heart of the split subject as a form of contradiction: between the -1 and +1 of signification (of what is signified through language and what is missing in it). All beings are sexual. This is why sexuation is such an important component to Lacanian psychoanalysis. There is no such thing as a being who is emptied of their sexuality.

All of this takes us to the dialogues between gender theorists and psychoanalysts. I won’t get too much into this today, but it can be seen in the famous debate between Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler that took place in the 90s. Their differences lies in their views on how subjects are related to the symbolic. Butler’s theory of gender performativity reduces the Lacanian symbolic into performative acts which challenges the privileged gendered acts that are enforced by history and social laws (gender as a social construct). By producing new performative acts through the symbolic, Butler thinks it could disrupt existing symbolic laws. For Zizek, Butler creates her arguments at the expense of forgetting that the performative acts which seeks to disrupt dominant symbolic acts are part of the symbolic Other. In other words, “liberating” performative acts is also the product of the symbolic Other who restricts such liberation. The performative subject who is supposed to challenge symbolic norms is found within the limitations of the Other and the split subject. Alenka Zupancic explains these differences very well in her book What is Sex? (2017) [p. 39-44].

With this aside, there are many concepts that I didn’t get to include in this post such as the concepts of sadism, masochism and fetishism / perversion. Enjoyment (jouissance) is not restricted to ideological norms such as happiness. It could be things that causes us pain and suffering. In fact, Lacan relates jouissance to a form of suffering. Jouissance is a big complicated concept that deserves specialized attention because it is related to Freud’s infamous concept of the “death drive” and “repetition compulsion” (from a book called, Beyond the Pleasure Principle). Jouissance is a form of repetition that can be experienced through the partial drives. Remember that the partial drives are “mechanical” because it constantly repeats—like replaying your favorite song or film. The reason you replay it is because you are always only partially satisfied.

While jouissance cannot be fully recognized, its presence can be experienced in bits and pieces through speech and writing. But because we are always castrated speaking subjects who are prohibited by the laws of the Symbolic Other, we can never fully experience jouissance. Jouissance is like the engine of desire that gets filtered through the symbolic and are found with our partial drives as it circulates the object cause of desire (a). The closer we are to object a (or pure jouissance), the more anxious we get because this is where we encounter our primal repression where no symbolic language can represent (this is what Lacan refer as the “real” in every sense of the word).

Perhaps some of you might ask whether or not Lacanian psychoanalysis actually works—or whether any forms of psychoanalysis works at all. The short answer is that it works, but it takes a lot of time. In general, it seems that psychoanalysis has been a discipline which existed “on the side”. It is definitely a lot more popular in France and other European countries (they teach it as mainstream psychology). In North America, the scientific methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are much more popular choices. There are also other things that makes clinical psychoanalysis not as popular as CBT and ACT. First, psychoanalysis is really intense because you have to meet with the analyst 2-3 times a week. This means that second, it gets really expensive and not many people can afford it. We also have to factor in compatibility because the analysand must feel comfortable with the analyst since they have to open up to them.

There are also many other psychoanalytic concepts that needs to be accounted for in a clinical setting, such as transference and counter-transference which becomes one of the key concepts to learn. In a clinical setting, it is the analysand who directs the sessions, not the analyst. The analyst sits behind the analysand to avoid transference.

The type of psychoanalysis that most scholars study are often referred as “theoretical psychoanalysis” which is a little different to “clinical psychoanalysis”. The obvious difference is that a clinical analyst won’t be like “hey, you actually want to sleep with your mother” (not very therapeutic). In reality, the clinical analyst’s job is to identify and restructure the analysand’s unconscious patterns, defense mechanisms, and help solve other problems that the analysand experiences (i.e. psychosis, trauma, etc). Ultimately, psychoanalysis holds the view that we are all neurotics because we can never figure out what the Other wants. It’s just that some of us are more neurotic than others. This leads to interesting questions such as whether or not if there is such thing as someone who is “mentally healthy”. Regardless, the psychoanalyst’s goal is to reduce your neurotic symptoms by studying your unconscious thought patterns, primal fantasy and engage with the dialectics of desire.

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Meaning as Soliloquy: Responding to Criticisms of Deconstruction

Recently, I encountered an old blog post that was written by David Auerbach who levels a series of criticism on Derrida straw manning Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. I decided to quickly respond because I just finished writing my last essay for class. I also started reading Martin Hagglund’s Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. I’ve been told that some of my interpretations of Derrida are similar to Hagglund’s.

David Auerbach’s blog post (hyperlinked above) critiques Derrida’s most important book, Voice and Phenomenon. Many late Derridean ideas are based on V&P—particularly when it comes to the constitution of consciousness through “tracing” the past and future; and other ideas such as life and death. Keep in mind that this post focus fires on specific passages from V&P and does not account for the entire scope of the book. Maybe one day, I will write a more elaborate reading of V&P because it is one of Derrida’s most sophisticated work.

In V&P, one of the things Derrida talks about is the German word “bedeutung” (and “bedeuten”) and its relationship with what Husserl calls “indication” and “expression”. Indication is what Husserl refers as a sign that “points”. A good example of indication is to think of how these external words on this blog post are always “pointing” to something in your mind. Whereas on the other hand, expression is the ideal meaning that these indications are pointing to. Indication and expression are signs that are experienced once we have performed phenomenological reduction which is also known as “bracketing” or transcendental / eidetic reduction. Phenomenological reduction is a concept which asks us to suspend our introspection, language, and knowledge in order to experience the world as pure phenomena from our own first person point of view (I introduced this in my last post).

For Derrida, expression consists of many different meanings because it depends on our intentionality and what each indicated words are pointing to. This is because expression (meaning) is also complicated by what Husserl calls “noema” or “noemata” (plural), a term that is responsible for producing our intentionality (noema is also known as “act-matter”). Whenever we read, speak or write, our consciousness always conscious of something which “points” to an “ideal object”. The noema are the objects that are given to my conscious experiences.

Furthermore, indication / expression is also entangled with Ferdinand de Saussure’s signifier and signified. This is because indication also means “acoustic image” which is similar to Saussure’s concept of the signifier: something that he calls “sound image” (I have explained this here). Derrida provides readings of signifier / signified in relationship with indication / expression in both Voice and Phenomenon and Of Grammatology. Indication is also related to how you are silently talking to yourself in your head as you read this sentence. This phenomenon is known as “auto-affection” or “hearing your self speak” (commonly known as internal monologue). “Silent reading” is never silent because we are always talking to ourselves in our minds when we read (and when we write; or in deep thought).

Now, the clever move Derrida makes in V&P lies in how he intentionally avoids translating the word “bedeutung” until later in the book. Without knowing what this German word means, the reader would ask “What does bedeutung point to?” (i.e. what does bedeutung mean?). Instead of translating “bedeutung” into “meaning” (expression), Derrida translates bedeutung into “want-to-say”. As a reader who probably does not know what “bedeutung” means, the word points to the expressive meaning of “wanting to say something about something”. Here, bedeutung becomes the prime example of showcasing the function of indication through the reader’s mind as they read Derrida’s book. It also highlights the “ideality of sense” that is found within the phenomenological experience of such word.

We now have sufficient information to understand some of Auerbach’s arguments who  says, “Husserl believes that within the realm of thought and phenomenology, indication does not have a role to play, and so phenomenology only needs to deal with expression.” Auerbach is correct that Husserl is primarily concerned with expressions (meanings). This is because once we suspend introspection via phenomenological reduction, only external indication and internal expression exists. Without introspection, language, or any knowledge, everything around us function as “things” (noema) that points to something in our minds.

But Auerbach continues and writes, “For me, the meaning is prior to the words, and so I don’t need to worry about what my words indicate.” First, we must understand that words are indications. What these indicative words point to are its expression (meaning). In this case, “meaning” as an indication consists of more indications that points to the meaning of “meaning”. It doesn’t matter if meanings (expressions) are prior to indication. All expressive meanings consists of indications that are used to describe the said meaning. Thus on one hand, we have a never ending chain of indications (words) pointing to all sorts of possible meanings depending on its grammar and syntax. On the other hand, we also have a never ending chain of “meanings” which points to certain indications or words that are used to describe it. If you search the indicative word “meaning” in the dictionary, you will find out that its definition also consists of more indicative words which points to other meanings.

Let us look at the quote Auerbach cites. He begins his blog post by citing a passage from V&P in the chapter called, “The Voice that Keeps Silent”. I think Auerbach is reading the first translation by David B. Allison, and I have the newer translation by Leonard Lawlor from 2011. I will use the translation that Auerbach uses:

“The ideal form of a written signifier, for example, is not in the world, and the distinction between the grapheme and the empirical body of the corresponding graphic sign separates an inside from an outside, phenomenological consciousness from the world. And this is true for every visual or spatial signifier. And yet every non-phonic signifier involves a spatial reference in its very “phenomenon,” in the phenomenological (nonworldly) sphere of experience in which it is given. The sense of being “outside,” “in the world,” is an essential component of its phenomenon. Apparently there is nothing like this in the phenomenon of speech. In phenomenological interiority, hearing oneself and seeing oneself are two radically different orders of self-relation. Even before a description of this difference is sketched out, we can understand why the hypothesis of the “monologue” could have sanctioned the distinction between indication and expression only by presupposing an essential tie between expression and phone. Between the phonic element (in the phenomenological sense and not that of a real sound) and expression, taken as the logical character of a signifier that is animated in view of the ideal presence of a Bedeutung (itself related to an object), there must be a necessary bond. Husserl is unable to bracket what in glossematics is called the “substance of expression” without menacing his whole enterprise. The appeal to this substance thus plays a major philosophical role.”

(For those who has Lawlor’s translation, this is on p. 65-66).

Allow me to unpack this dense and convoluted paragraph for you. Derrida points out how the ideal form of the written signifier is not in the external world because it is in our head. Thus, the internal mental image we have in our head when we read (the ideal form), which is different to the empirical body of writing that appears on this page, creates the distinction between inside and outside. For example, the image of a tree in my mind is different to the graphic form of the word “tree” in this sentence because I am imagining a specific image / meaning of a tree in mind. While the indicative words you are reading in this sentence are external to your mind and body (because they are on your computer or phone screen), its ideal meanings (expression) reveals itself inside your mind. Thus, phenomenology consists of a separation between “an inside from an outside”. 

Derrida continues and talks about a “phenomenological interiority” that is associated with “hearing yourself speak” and points out how it is different from looking at yourself in the mirror. Such interiority and the possibility of hearing yourself speak as you read this text is different to hearing a “real sound” made in the external world. Derrida ends the paragraph by saying that “expression” (meaning) is produced by an indication (bedeutung), such as the indicative word “expression” that you had just read in your head. Finally, Derrida points out that Husserl fails to phenomenologically reduce glossematics known as “substance of expression”. 

To understand the last sentence, we must recognize how Louis Hjelmslev (a famous linguist) respectively re-conceptualizes Saussure’s signifier and signified into “expression plane” and “content plane”. If Husserl’s indication is equivalent to Saussure’s signifier, then the meaning (expression) of “indication” can also point to the “expression plane” within Hjelmslev’s discourse. For Derrida, Husserl fails to phenomenologically reduce the expression plane that his concept of indication also points to. Here, we begin to see how the indication of the word “indication” functions as a bedeutung that points to all sorts of meanings within different discourses.

Let us read what Derrida writes just slightly before the passage Auerbach cited:

The voice hears itself. Phonic signs (“acoustics images” in Saussure’s sense, the phenomenological voice) are “heard” by the subject who utters them in the absolute proximity of their present. The subject does not have to pass outside of himself in order to be immediately affected by its activity of expression. My words are “alive” because they seem not to leave me, seem not to fall outside of me, outside of my breath, into a visible distance; they do not stop belonging to me, to be at my disposal, “without anything accessory.” In any case in this way, the phenomenon of the voice, the phenomenological voice is given. […] Nevertheless every non-phonetic signifier [i.e. writing] involves, right within its “phenomenon” within the phenomenological sphere of experience in which it is given, a spatial reference; the sense of “outside”, “in the world” is an essential component of its phenomenon. In appearance, there is nothing like that in the phenomenon of the voice. (Lawlor’s translation, p. 65) [Derrida’s italics]

Here, Derrida is trying to deny Husserl’s “phenomenological reduction” (Derrida also denies identity as something that exists in the present moment). Where Husserl thinks we can temporarily suspend introspection to experience the phenomena of the world through our senses and pure consciousness, Derrida thinks it is not completely possible. This is not only because Husserl fails to reduce Hjelmslev’s glossematics, it is also because introspection still exists as a form of indication or bedeutung that is given to us in our mind. Even after we “suspend” our own introspection so to experience the world “as such”, we still have a bunch of indications / bedeutung left which makes us ask: “what do these indications want to say?” in our mind. In a way, it is this very question which produces the discourse of phenomenology. Husserl fails to phenomenologically reduce introspection such as our ability to communicate with ourselves.

Introspection consists of indications which appears internally as we hear ourselves speak (to ourselves). When we study our own consciousness and internal monologue (i.e. phenomenology, or even psychoanalysis), we are communicating with ourselves by trying to extract what these indicative words that are buzzing through our conscious thoughts can mean (express) and vice versa. These are the fundamentals of thinking (about thinking). Internal monologue is a never ending chain of indications and expressions—it consists of a never ending chain of signifiers which are just words that passes from something to something else. This is because for Husserl, consciousness is always conscious of something, a chair, table, these words, etc.

In many ways, Auerbach summarizes what I had said:

“Derrida starts by discussing how, since the mind uses signs that have an indicative role, indication and expression cannot be separated. This is not a new point (Wittgenstein, amongst others, had spent much time here). But he then says, in passages such as the above [Derrida’s quote], that in fact, expression is dependent on indication and in fact expression is nothing more than indication. (The arguments here are fairly arcane and I will not go into them because I’m prepared to grant this point for the sake of my greater argument.) We now have a problem, because indication is incomplete: a sign points to something else, rather than containing any sort of meaning in itself. In other words, all mental relations must also be ones of indication and not of any other type. And since indication can only point to something else rather than contain innate meaning, that meaning is endlessly deferred.”

As we can see, Auerbach understood Derrida for the most part. Yet, he somehow misses Derrida’s point which ironically, is Derrida’s point (will get to this). Once again, expressions (meaning) are indicative because meanings consists of indications (words) that describes the said expressions. However, I would like to add that Derrida never argues how deferred meanings (differance) suggests that there are no meanings. But rather, meanings are never stable because they depend on our pluralities of intentionality which is influenced by time. It is not that indicative signs are incomplete. But rather, indication can point to more than one meaning (expression) depending on who reads it, how and when they read it (the time period), and in what context they situate such indications / expressions in.

To understand Derrida’s emphasis on expression as being “dependent” on indication, we must return to the term “bedeutung” (indication) and its relationship with communication. If the reader does not know where bedeutung points to, it passes as a word that “wants to say something about something”. Essentially, indication points to how we interpret words like “bedeutung”—especially when we do not know its expressive meaning. How we interpret bedeutung—or any word for that matter—depends on where it points to. For example, does the word “bedeutung” (indication) point to Saussure’s “signifier” or Hjelmslev’s “substance of expression”? Does the word “life” point to the life of Western or Eastern cultures?

Above all else, if I want to express something to you, I can only do so by indicating it via the words on this page, I could also write you a letter, send you a text message, or speak to you in real person. In order to communicate to you, I must have these words pass through the physical side (real world). On the other hand, I can also communicate to myself by talking to myself via speaking in my head (auto-affection), speak out loud, or by writing in my journal. In the latter case, communicating to myself would not involve my passing through the physical side (this phenomenon is very complex, I over simplified it here).

Regardless of whether I am communicating to you or to myself. To communicate is to indicate (which therefore consists of expressions of various “ideal senses”, meanings, etc.). As Derrida writes, “All discourse, insofar as it is engaged in a communication and in so far as it manifests lived-experience, operates as indication” (32). Communication involves the conscious intentional act of pointing towards a noematic object or idea that you have in mind via intuition (your intentionality). This pointing is what animates your words (indications) as you speak or write. This is where the problem of communication and interpretation arises: when the author’s words points to a noematic content that is different from the reader. Simply put, indication can point to an infinite number of expressive meanings. For Derrida, it always points to an “elsewhere” that the original author did not intend (due to a number of reasons such a temporality, context, etc.). In fact, I have already shown many examples of this in my previous post on Lacan with the philosophers. I have also shown certain aspects of this in my other post, where I said that the author loses control of what her reader will think of their work the moment they share or publish it.

Perhaps one of the comments from Auerbach’s post, which cites Derrida’s essay “Signature Event Context” (from Margins of Philosophy) could give us some insight on this matter:

“Is it certain that there corresponds to the word communication a unique, univocal concept, a concept that can be rigorously grasped and transmitted: a communicable concept? Following a strange figure of discourse, one first must ask whether the word or signifier “communication” communicates a determined content, an identifiable meaning, a describable value. But in order to articulate and to propose this question, I already had to anticipate the meaning of the word communication: I have had to predetermine communication as the vehicle, transport, or site of passage of a meaning, and of a meaning that is one. If communication had several meanings, and if this plurality could not be reduced, then from the outset it would not be justified to define communication itself as the transmission of a meaning, assuming that we are capable of understanding one another as concerns each of these words (transmission, meaning, etc.).”

In this passage Derrida literally “points” (indicates) that one must ask whether the signifier / indication of the word “communication” can communicate (indicate) a determined or fixed meaning. In order for Derrida to make such statement, he already has an internal meaning (expression) of communication in mind. But if communication has more than one meaning, if it points or indicates to more than one expression—and if this plurality of multiple expressions cannot be reduced, then one cannot simply define communication as “the transmission of meaning”. The reader will always relate to such indications via different expressions and noematic contents, context, etc. Thus, to communicate is to always “misunderstand” the other person in certain ways (or as Kant would say, we can never know anything “in-itself”, including indicated words).

Misunderstanding becomes a form of understanding. The question is whether such misunderstanding is actually a “misunderstanding”. Here, we enter the discourse of not only deconstruction and phenomenology, but ontology: the study of being (existence). How does your interpretations of a novel, movie or event, reveal who you are as a human being? How does it inform your own existence? What does a text want to say to you? In what conditions is it possible? The letter never arrives at its destination. Meaning never arrives as intended.

Until next time,
B.

 

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Deconstruction and the Resistances of Psychoanalysis

 

“…the dreams of a bad night are given to us as philosophy. You will say I too am a dreamer; I admit it, but I do what others fail to do, I give my dreams as dreams, and leave the reader to discover whether there is anything in them which may prove useful to those who are awake.” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I intentionally cited Rousseau in my last post to open up the dialogue between deconstruction and psychoanalysis. This is the first post on my blog that talks about some of Derrida’s views on psychoanalysis. It requires you to have read my previous post on Derrida to understand (found here). Since there are too much materials to cover, I will split my discussion into several posts.

Introduction to Psychoanalytical Difference: Conscious / Unconscious

It is not by chance that Derrida chose this Rousseau quote to end his magnum opus, Of Grammatology. What kind of “philosophy” might be given to us from the dreams of a bad night? PsychoanalysisIt is the psychoanalyst and analysand (patient) who analyzes their dreams while they are awake. Derrida had a very long and complicated relationship with Lacanian psychoanalysis which—in my view—consists of many similarities, yet disagreements with Lacan’s ideas. This is because both deconstruction and psychoanalysis are about “analysis” (interpretation). In this post, I will offer you an introduction to some of their essential differences—as in, not only their differences in a theoretical sense, but what a psychoanalyst say, and what they do not say.

As we have learnt from my previous post, deconstruction is situated in the play between differences: between what a text says, with what it does not say. Derrida refers to this “not said” as an “impurity” which contaminates and produces the privileged center of what is said. I’ve shown many examples of this form of privileged “logocentrism” in my last few posts. Such as how Rousseau privileged speech over writing, yet writing haunts Rousseau’s speech through the invention of technique. We will eventually encounter more logocentrisms that Derrida will contest, such as Freud’s “phallogocentrism”: the privilege of the male phallus—something that can only be understood in conjunction with Lacanian views on sexual difference.

As I had also went over in my post on psychoanalysis and split subjectivity, psychoanalysis attempts to study unconscious desires through our own consciousness. The unconscious exists because we are conscious subjects. Hence, we are always “split subjects”. This is where we find the fundamental difference which produces psychoanalysis: between what our consciousness says, and what it does not say.

This also relates to what our consciousness can remember and not remember. In the essay “Screened Memories”, Freud talks about how our mind’s defensive mechanisms distorts our conscious memories in order to protect us from repressed traumas in the unconscious. In the same way that Derrida is interested in what is said and not said in a text, Freud was also interested in what is said and not said in our consciousness. For Freud, what the conscious subject does not say is their desire to sleep with their mother. For Derrida, what is not said might not always be their desire for their mother, but something entirely different (if you are interested, this was mentioned by Geoffrey Bennington here).

Readers of Derrida may notice that he does not deny the existence of the unconscious. In fact, he takes advantage of it in many places of his work. For example, in Archive Fever, Derrida braids the relationship between archiving, phenomenology, ontology, with Freudian psychoanalytic views of technology and memory. In such text, Derrida takes an interest in psychoanalysis because it functions as an “apparatus of perception” (Archive Fever, p. 15). This is where we start seeing the difference between psychoanalysis and deconstruction.

Phenomenology, Time Consciousness, and Intentionality

Allow me to recite the first line of Rousseau, “the dreams of a bad night are given to us as philosophy”. In this short passage, Derrida offers a hint to the distinction between psychoanalysis and deconstruction: phenomenology. For the inexperienced reader, it is easy to overlook the word “given”—especially if you have never encountered phenomenology (this is the same when Derrida uses words like “‘as such”; it is also easy to confuse the “Other” under the context of phenomenology and the “Other” in psychoanalysis). The term “given” is frequently studied along with the concepts of intuition, time consciousness and intentionality. It is used among many  phenomenologists, such as Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology attempts to study the phenomena that surrounds everyday human experiences. In order to understand it, we have to imagine that we are living in limbo where introspection, language and knowledge are temporarily suspended (this is known as “bracketing” or “phenomenological reduction”). Under such suspension, only our perception and senses remain (one can even say that this suspension also withholds the ego).

Imagine that you are sitting on the beach as you gaze upon the ocean in front of you. As you are looking at the ocean via your senses, your intuition tells you that while what is given to you remains “as such” (i.e. the way the ocean appears to your senses as phenomenon), you are also intuitively aware of the ocean’s unfathomable depth. It is like looking at the cup that is sitting on your table while intuitively knowing that it is round on the other side. The word “given” is associated with the phenomenon of our sensory experiences in the world that is offered to our intuition.

Phenomenology concerns itself with the relationship between how phenomena yields to the development of all forms of structures and knowledge. For many phenomenologists, this includes psychoanalysis. Phenomenology was a discipline that Derrida had a very complicated engagement with early in his career. Before Derrida published his famous books such as Of Grammatology, Voice and Phenomenon and Writing and Difference, he translated an essay by Husserl called The Origins of Geometry which included a long introductory essay by Derrida. One can suspect why Husserl wrote this essay, since physicists uses complex geometry and mathematics to represent the world.

There is a reason why phenomenology is often considered as the origins of human experiences that is more originary than language, epistemology, or mathematics. To exist in the world, the human being is always already situated within phenomena (known as “lifeworld”), where everyday objects and inscriptions (i.e. writing) are given to us through our senses. How can a scientist make descriptive observations under the microscope without first experiencing the phenomena that happens around her? How can a physicist question why the Earth rotates around the Sun without first experiencing the phenomena of sunset and sunrise through what is given to them via their perceptions? How can you read this text without first experiencing it through phenomena?

Like Husserl, Derrida was also a thinker of origins: How did phenomenology come into being in the first place? For Derrida, at the heart of our experience of time consciousness lies the experience of difference. That is, a paradoxical division in the way which the world is experienced in our daily phenomena between past and future. The reason why I refer difference as a “paradoxical division” is because this division between past and future is also a non-division since it is “an outside becoming an inside” (refer to my Rousseau example from previous post). Within phenomenology, this paradoxical difference is what Derrida calls “re-presentation”: the difference between past and future (See, Voice and Phenomenon).

Every individual instance that appear in the present moment are actually recalled from the past. Think about films like Interstellar when Cooper falls into the tesseract and he sees individual instances of time of Murph’s room that repeats to infinity.  Think about the present words you had just read and how you are recalling it back to your consciousness. The present moment can only be retained by recalling it from the past (I have explained this here). The reason for this is simple: because time is always moving forward through a series of repetition. We are always aging and dying every moment of our lives. This is why Derrida quotes Shakespeare that “time is out of joint”. If we pay attention to our present experiences, we will notice how this present moment is never quite on time. The moment I try to capture the present, it slips into the past as the next future moment becomes the present, which also becomes the past.

One can think about this through what Husserl calls “chasing the comet’s tail”. Imagine that you are observing a meteor fly across the sky. Our phenomenological experience of the present moment is always caught at retaining the “tail” of the comet, but not the actual space rock as it moves across the sky. In other words, we can’t retain the present moment because time is always moving forward—i.e. the comet is always moving from one end of the sky to the other. The present is constituted by the movement between past and future. The future trajectory of the comet creates its past, just like how you are reading this sentence from left to right. The present moment becomes a re-presentation that is recalled from what had just passed.

Putting some of these temporal fidelities aside. Intentionality (the way we read a text or event), is constituted by focusing in a specific past—a privileged past which acts as the “center”. This center as Derrida saw, cannot help but at once be constituted by an “impurity” at the heart of the past’s differences, such as the future. Every time we recall the past, we fix onto a central point which constitutes our intentions of how we perceive the present moment in reality. However, this central point changes as the future unfolds. It is easy for us to say that “the occurrence of X in the past constitutes who I am today”. We can make this claim because we are already at such point in our life from the future.

The present is viewed differently the moment we refocus the central point elsewhere from the past. Perhaps one year from now, it is no longer the occurance of X that constitutes who I am today, but Z. This is why looking back at our own lives can sometimes appear like “it was my destiny to become who I am today, where no chance was involved”, even when the unfolding of the future is always subject to various forms of contingencies. This contingent unfolding of time from the future is what Derrida refer as the “future anterior” (we will return to this term).

The future changes how the past is perceived in the same way that the past changes how the future is perceived. Intentionality is produced through the difference between how each individual experiences their past and future. “Difference” or “Differance” (an intentional spelling mistake) is related to Derrida’s readings of time consciousness. Meaning is “deferred” because time is always moving every moment of our lives until we die. This is why stable meaning never arrives until the moment you die (Derrida talks about this in one of his documentaries here).

An example I always use is the relationship between Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. We know that Newton was one of the first to theorize about gravity whose ideas were usurped by Einstein’s theory of general relativity two hundred years later from the future. At the time, would Newton had thought that someone from the future would prove his theories wrong? (though the Newtonian model is not completely wrong). In the same way, when Einstein wrote his theories, would he had thought that in the future, his ideas might get falsified by other theories? To give these guys the benefit of doubt, I will say, “probably not”. The question that arises is the problem of the future which changes how the past is perceived. Einstein changed how we perceived Newton.

In the same way, it is easy for us to see that certain forms of capitalism had existed before Adam Smith. But it is only after we read Smith, where we look into the past from the future and see how capitalism had already manifested itself in early societies before Smith. Certainly, it is also easy for us to see the problems of capitalism after we had read Karl Marx, etc. But perhaps, it is also the past which changes how the future is perceived, such as those who still believes that the Earth is flat. Such individuals are fixed onto a particular point in time which establishes how they read the present moment.

Finally, let us reconsider Rousseau’s “Nature denature itself” that I analyzed last post. The quote suggests that it is nature’s telos (end goal) to denature itself, even when nature has no specific goals, but pure contingency. On one hand, culture moves away from nature by supplementing what nature cannot provide (i.e. warmth in the winter). On the other hand, nature reappears in our contemporary culture, even when we are living in a time where much of our culture has moved “away” from nature. Hence, we have nature established before culture. Yet, it is easy for Rousseau to say that “Nature denatures itself” when he was already living in a denatured world from the future of a past Nature.

No matter how far culture has moved away from nature, nature’s goal is a destination that is always unfolding from the future to come. Thus, what appears to be nature’s telos is actually a form of pure contingency—i.e. it is by accident that we developed culture and education from Nature by supplementing what it cannot offer humans. Nature “never arrives at its destination” because it is always in the process of “denaturing” (supplementing) itself as time continues to unfold. This denaturing is, once again, related to “archi-violence”. But it is also related to how the future changes how we perceive nature. The future of nature which we today refer as culture, is produced out of a certain form of improvisation and contingency (this is also because we are “human animals”).

For the Love of Lacan: “What will Lacan not have said!”

What I had just presented are the fundamental problems of time which challenges our knowledge. This is what Derrida attempts to address in his essay, “For the Love of Lacan”. In it, Derrida repeatedly says, “What will Lacan not have said!” as he attempts to predict what people will say about Lacan from the future after he dies. Derrida writes:

“What will Lacan not have said! What wouldn’t he have said! What was it with Lacan with the philosophers? To approach this question, it would be necessary to shed light not only on what “with” can mean in this case, but on what Lacan said, did not say, will have or will not have said, caused to be said, or let be said—in the future anterior or in the conditional. To deal with this enigma of the future anterior and the conditional, which is what I will be particularly interested in today, is to deal with the problem of archivization, of what remains or does not remain.” (Resistances of Psychoanalysis, p. 39-40) [my italics and underlining]

By now, most of us already know the general direction of what Derrida is trying to get at in this passage. Lacan was incredibly influenced by Freud who founded psychoanalysis. Hence, through historical chronology, we have Freud before Lacan. It is easy to see Freud as the destination of Lacanian thought when Lacan establishes his school by proclaiming his telos as a “Return to Freud”.

For Derrida, Lacan’s destination is always deferred and contingent through the trace of a historical past from the future. The reader is led to believe how Freud is Lacan’s only telos, even when Lacan’s returning towards a Freudian history consists of detours around other exigencies such as Hegelian and Heideggerian philosophy. In fact, Lacan was once part of a small class taught by the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojeve. While Kojeve’s class was small, it consisted of many future French super star intellectuals, one of them being Lacan, the others being Georges Bataille, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (who was another phenomenologist influenced by Husserl). Furthermore, Lacan was also friends with Heidegger who had translated some of his works into French.

Not only does Derrida see Freud in Lacan, he also sees Lacan “with philosophers” such as Hegel and Heidegger—something that Lacan does not say. This is because Lacan reinterprets Freud from the future (remember that the future changes how the past is perceived). As a result, Lacan’s destination that point towards Freud disseminates into other historical forces as Derrida reads him. All of this comes down to the idea that Derrida never arrives at the destination of Freud when he reads Lacan “Returning to Freud”. Lacan’s ideas always arrive at an elsewhere into other philosophical discourses. This is where we begin to see one of the resistances of psychoanalysis along with what the psychoanalyst say, and what they do not say.

Simply put, while psychoanalysis focuses on the study of desire and the unconscious mind, phenomenology attempts to study phenomena, intentionality, and time consciousness. For Derrida, Lacanian psychoanalysis resists the phenomenology of time consciousness and the infinite ways of establishing our intentionality. Time affects how we perceive and interpret the present moment that is always moving into the future (what does it mean when a psychoanalyst interprets their patients?). After all, psychoanalysis is about “analysis”, it would be a mistake to exclude phenomenology. While both deconstruction and psychoanalysis are about interpretation, one of their main differences are their incompatibilities found in phenomenology.

Are the two disciplines completely irreconcilable? I think not, and I will show you some of the reasons why in future posts. Perhaps one of the reasons is because “deconstruction” practices a certain form of quasi-Husserlian phenomenology that is not exactly Husserlian. This is a bold claim because it suggests that there is an inherent method in deconstruction that is phenomenological, yet isn’t really phenomenological (but neither can we refer deconstruction as meta-phenomenology). If there is a “method” in deconstruction, it would be the method of free play between differences which implies that there are no methods. Nevertheless, this quasi-phenomenology that I have presented to you in this post is what makes Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon such an important text to read.

The contemporary reader is the future anterior of Lacan and Derrida because we are living in their future who are now part of the past. Perhaps as a future reader who reads both of their works, not only should I say, “What will Lacan not have said!”, but also, “What will Derrida have said!”

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Contemplation

Is Deconstruction Part of the Canon?

Recently, one of my professors laid claim that deconstruction is part of the canon. While this might appear to be undeniably true, I wish for us to rethink the conditions of its possibilities. Anybody who knows me will understand that everything is always up for questioning and analysis. Even the ideas that I privilege and believe are true deserves to be questioned (in fact, this is how I got into theory and philosophy). I do not put any ideas on the pedestal. As long as the arguments and ideas has passed through rigorous  analysis and considerations, I will have great respect for them, even if they are against my views (Fred Moten, Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Lacan are all very good examples). Neither will I ever be “politically correct” and become silenced by it. Only those who knows will understand why I am mentioning this in the first paragraph (it is a response to certain individuals). I wrote this post in 2 hours. So forgive my writing.

If we assume that deconstruction consists of a reproducible method, then I certainly think it is part of the canon—that is, deconstructive methodology suggests its canonical status because its reproducibility is accepted as part of mainstream history. However, if deconstruction is what Derrida refer as the lack of any methods, but is a destruktion and analysis, a “de-building” (to take apart and put back together); then we must spend the necessary time on defining “deconstruction”—an impossible task that requires some serious contemplation. Today, I would like to rethink whether or not deconstruction is part of the “canon”. But before we do such thing, I wish for us to quickly understand the word “canon” under the context of “genre”.

To say that deconstruction is part of the canon is to say that it belongs to the canon. The “canon” consists of a set of epistemological parameters or knowledge which helps us define what texts belongs to it and are deemed “canonical”. That is, canonicity stems from categorizations of texts that had been accepted as part of a certain history. Now, a precaution we must take: it is easy for us to think of the canon as some social construction created by hegemonic structures which takes us into politics. Let us for now, think of the bare bones of the canon as a concept that is similar to the concept of genre.

What appears in my mind when I think of the word “canon” is the epistemological structure of “genre”—that is, I am thinking about Derrida’s “Laws of Genre”, where he points out how individual texts participates in genre instead of belonging to it.  Derrida begins his difficult essay with a rather simple sentence: “genres are not to be mixed”. He continues and says, “I do not mix genres…as soon as the word ‘genre’ is sound, as soon as it is heard, as soon as one attempts to conceive it, a limit is drawn.”. This limit that Derrida speaks, is the way which genre functions as a conceptual limit when we read any texts. In other words, the concept of genre consists of a certain set of parameters and categorizations which sets itself up as the norm where texts participates within it. Derrida writes, “As soon as genre announces itself, one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly, or monstrosity.” (my italics). In this passage, Derrida is alluding to a certain form of logocentrism and metaphysics of presence where the privileging of the norm established by the concept of genre and canonical knowledge is haunted by an “impurity”: the law of genre.

What then, is the “law” of genre which governs its epistemology? This law should not be thought simply as the knowledge which governs what texts belongs to the genre or canon. Rather, this impurity of law is what Derrida refer as the “law of the law”: temporality (time). I am not going to put too much effort into explaining temporal consciousness, for I have already done so many times else where and here. I will simply summarize that: the future changes how the past is perceived—something which I will return to next post when I talk about deconstruction and psychoanalysis. Without going through other unnecessary concepts such as iterability (repetition), I will say that the future contaminates our epistemology (knowledge) of genre and canon. Norms that are defined by genre and canon are constantly challenged by future time, the future becoming of time as we age and acquire new experiences; and as new knowledge unfolds through contingency and improvisation.

Before we move onto the question of deconstruction, let us consider the relationship between canon /  genre, and its epistemology which are in relevance to our time. A similar question can be found in Derrida’s essay, “What is Relevant Translation?”. It is not surprising that epistemological (knowledge) structures changes over long periods of time. What was once considered as the norm in the 18th century is no longer the case from its future (i.e. today). I will talk more about this in my next post because this is where the problem between epistemology and temporality lies. Nevertheless, language too, functions similarly. The way we use words are different to the way people used it in the past. A word that might be offensive today, might not be the case in the past. The cultural significance of certain words also changes through time. For example, what we might consider as X today might be considered as Y back in the day, etc. What is defined as sexist today might not be the case 400 years ago, etc.

The point I wish to make is: what allows for a text to be relevant to the epistemological structures of genre and canon when its concepts changes over time? This question is difficult to answer because it depends on how each individual categorizes the concepts of genre and canon and the ways they allow the text they read to participate within such concepts. This is why, some people might think that X book belongs to Y genre, and someone else might say X is actually a Z genre and not Y. This is also why, instead of having literature and texts belonging to genres and canonical structures, it is literature which participates within certain epistemological frameworks of genre and canon within our time. This participation of the text depends on the ways which it engages the reader’s knowledge of genre and canon. Yet at the same time, the concept of genre / canon morphs over time, changing how we interpret literature and the way it fits into genre / canon categorizations. Genre and canon which are “not to be mixed”, are at last, mixed through the impure contamination of a radical future which challenges its episteme (i.e. established knowledge). This is the first problem.

The second problem is the question on deconstruction. In John D. Caputo’s introduction to deconstruction, a book called Deconstruction in a Nutshell, he points out how deconstruction is the nutshell. This claim shouldn’t be that surprising because I often point out how deconstruction is interpretation. Deconstruction is the nutshell because it is interpretation. Or as I mentioned at the beginning: deconstruction is a “de-building” (from Peggy Kamuf): where we take apart a text and put it back together. Is this not what we do when we read literature and decide what genre it participates in, or whether it belongs to the canon? Also, is this not what I am doing right now with terms like “canon” and “genre”?

This goes against the grain of many contemporary scholars, including say, my supervisor who thinks that deconstruction consists of a method, and that Derrideans such as Spivak, Bennington, or de Man, are pretending that deconstruction is without method. The mainstream definition of deconstruction is something as follows (to put it simply): deconstruction is an attempt to make close readings of a text by looking at its “binaries” and discover that the author is actually not saying what they think they are saying.

What I wish to add onto this overly simplified interpretation of “deconstruction” (basically, an interpretation of interpretation) is that it largely ignores some of its ontological and phenomenological implications. Interpretation also consists of the problem of intentionality that is challenged by time and the question of existence as a human being. I won’t have time to go over these problems today. What I wish to highlight is the contradiction between “deconstruction” and “canon”.

A paradoxical gesture. To call deconstruction (interpretation) as something which participates within the canon, we are saying that the act of interpretation is participating in the concept of genre and canon. But if this is the case, then shouldn’t all texts be part of the canon, since they all require interpretation? This would depend on how one categorizes the text through their own episteme (knowledge). There are other problems to this, such as the idea that only certain ways of interpreting a text would allow it to participate into certain canon / genres. On the other hand, by claiming deconstruction as canonical, we are also saying that the act of interpreting “deconstruction” or any text, is participating in the production of the concept of canon which gets challenged by future time.

For now, this is one of the only ways which I can accept deconstruction as being part of the canon. I certainly think that I have only scratched the surface where I might change my mind in the “future to come” (pun intended). But I got other things to do. I will leave my somewhat inconclusive conclusion for you to ruminate about.

Until next time,
B.

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