[…] this act of naming: a date and nothing more. […] The index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also marks something else. Namely, the fact that we perhaps have no concept and no meaning available to us to name in any other way this ‘thing’ that has just happened […] But this very thing […] remains ineffable, like an intuition without concept, like a unicity with no generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about.” —Jacques Derrida, on 9/11.
Who and What?
Am I writing about someone, or something?
Today, I would like to speak of a topic which relies on common sense. In fact, what I am about to say pertains so much to common sense that most of us had never thought about it. Thus, it is for this reason that I must speak of such matter. Let us look at how we experience time with the ghosts who secretly haunts us within our deepest thoughts. This will also give me a chance to briefly analyze one of my favorite Sci-Fi film: Interstellar (2014) by Christopher Nolan.
For the sake of simplicity, allow me to begin with an example between the famous physicists, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. We know that Newton was the first to theorize about gravity whose ideas were usurped by Einstein’s theory of general relativity two hundred years later. At the time, would Newton have thought that someone from the future would prove his theories wrong? In the same way, when Einstein wrote his theories, would he had thought that in the future, his ideas would get falsified by other theories? To give these guys the benefit of doubt, I will say, “probably not”. Regardless, the problem I wish to highlight are the contingencies of the future, which are unpredictable no matter how hard we try to predict it. Yet, this future continues to unfold within every moment of our lives (i.e. what you are about to read). Certainly, there are many things that are relatively “predictable”, such as the weather, or sunrise in the morning, but we cannot predict whether or not I will get hit by a car tomorrow or die from an exotic disease. Nevertheless, this idea of contingency has many philosophical implications, such as the problem to what determines the certainty of knowledge and the conceptions of causality. But not only are these problems about the future, it is also about a past which provides the foundations for the present.
Trace: The Past and Future
As human beings, we are always moving forward in time as we look backwards into the past, which can be anything from the words you had just read in this sentence, all the way to your childhood memories. Every present moment which repeats itself before our eyes constantly slips into the past. Every time I try to hold onto this present moment which comes from the future, it has already become the past (i.e. the words you had just read as you anticipate my next words). The past is unique because in your perspective, I am not simply implying the words you had just read, but a vast variety of historical referents. In other words, the past is not a simple referent to the meaning of words I had just said because they can be referents which points to all sorts of memories. It is like reading a book that suddenly reminds you of something that is completely unrelated to its story, or encountering someone who reminds you of someone else from your past. Nevertheless, this future / past relation constitutes the “present moment” which consists of our “intentionality”. Indeed, the present moment is the product of our relationship between the past and future—the latter which is contingent, speculative and radically external to ourselves. It is related to the notions of “promise” which I will get to later.
Every time we look into 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 time continues to move forward. For example, it is easy for us to say that “the occurrence of X in the past constitutes who I am today”. We can only make this claim because we are already at such point in our life from the future. Who I am today is due to my focus on this specific past occurance which is always subject to change as we move forward in time. The decentering of this past through the contingent events of the future changes the way we perceive present reality. The moment we refocus the central point elsewhere in the past, the present will be viewed differently. Perhaps one year from now, it is no longer the occurance of X that constitutes who I am, but Y. Or perhaps in five years, the reason why I loved you will change which might make me not love you anymore (I will return to this later on). Nevertheless, this is why looking back at our lives can sometimes appear like “it was my destiny to become who I am today, where no chance was involved”, even when this unfolding of the future is always “secretly” subject to contingency. This contingent unfolding of time from the future is what Derrida calls “future anterior”.
Let us use another example: a 30-year-old can look back at their 20-year-old selves and say “I should have done this instead of that” because they are already living in the future selves as a 30-year-old, who realized what their actions had led to through the contingencies of the future. Yet, at the moment when the 20-year-old self conducted whatever actions, they would not have “known” that such action would yield to X results 10 years later because it is something only their future selves would know; someone who the 20-year-old has not yet become. As the future other, the 30-year-old self “haunts” their younger-selves and vice versa. In this case, the present self is constituted by recalling a specific past self (a point in history, life experiences, a specific person, etc.) which is no longer present before them (absent), but appears as a ghostly presence who haunts the present as they move towards the contingent future. This movement is what Derrida calls “trace”: the unity between past and future. Trace is a famous idea which has huge motifs and many other implications (existential, psychoanalytical, etc.), especially in the way we live and perceive reality.
There is another level of complexity that I will briefly talk about. As we constantly move forward in time, we are aging every moment of our lives. One moves, even if they do not move. We are dying as we live. Life is always associated with death. To learn to live is to also learn to die. This is why I always like to jokingly say, “don’t live a little, die a little”. The point I wish to make is the paradoxical movement between the past which implies a relation with birth and life; and the future which relates to our inevitable death.
Writing With the Other and the Promise for the Future
What pertains to our problem of time is this relationship between the referential past and a contingent future. If we look at historical writers, there is always a past “other” who constitutes the intentionality of their works. Just as there is a past other that we relate to when we read their works. Look at Derrida for example, a Jew who survived the horrors of World War II and had been excluded for much of his life. Then look at his works which often includes themes of exclusion, the privilege of presence (writer) over the absent other, etc. Derrida even famously called his autobiography, Circumfession (circumcision and confession), where he attempts to expose his past “other” who has been central to all his ideas (i.e. his relationship with his mother and brothers). This is the reason why Derrida expressed interest in seeing the private lives of famous philosophers like G.W.F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger. For Derrida, confession and autobiography holds a valuable place in our lives because this past other sits behind all the things we think about and do in our lives. In Derrida’s famous lectures on the death penalty, he talks about his vision of an Utopian society where everyone confesses and forgives.
Think of this as listening to your favorite song that reminds you of some distant past other. The composer might have wrote the song for someone important from their past which constitutes the song as such. But the person who listens to the song will relate to it through their own other who is different to the other that the composer was referring to. Whether you are the writer or the reader, there is always the other. What constitutes the written work or any forms of interpretation, whether it be a song, the most important philosophical text in history, or written fragments, relies on this past other.
Thus, one can say that the author never writes, because they are always taken hostage by the other who unknowingly writes for them. Our intention is the other’s intention. This is where we arrive at the question, of “who” and “what”? In this text, am I writing about the other? Or am I writing about time? As we enter the territory where confessions and autobiography functions as the movement of thought, we must keep in mind that this other is not only from the past, but also from the future self. What does it mean to write ethically from the past of this future self who I have now become as time continues to unfold?
In order to write, one must not exclude otherness because they are the truth who constitutes this text. It is like how the future self can see the actions of their 20 year old other who created their future; or how the world’s most famous song was possible through the death of the other from the past. The writer as pure presence can never completely write themselves in language because they are always haunted by the other from the past, and threatened by the contingencies of the future which would shift these relations. Just as a 20 year old will see the world differently when compared to their future selves, the contingencies of the future will change how we see the past—like how Einstein changes the way we see Newton. It can even be how our life experience changes the way we see younger ourselves, which makes us go, “What was I thinking back then?”.
The point is not to say that Newton was wrong; nor is it to say that the past other was foolish, because this is the unavoidable experience of time. To write ethically is to care for the other from the past that the present demands. But it is also to promise the other for the future to come because it is this other who will constitute you in the future (i.e. your future self as you look back at this very moment, as you wrote with the other). To write ethically is to tell the deepest truth. It is to make a promise for the future and retain the other within one’s writing.
This “promise” is an incredibly powerful gesture once we understand that it is not simply a promise that is recalled from the past, but as a promise which opens up the future. To make a promise is to confront the singularity of the future: to accept whoever the other might become as the future contingently unfolds. The promise is an absolute singularity, in the same way that the declaration of love functions as singularity. As Derrida says, how can I say “I love you”, if I know the “love” is you? That the word “love” either as a verb or noun, would be destroyed in front of you. Here, the importance is to recognize our proximity with the other who takes the guise of “you” as we make the promise. Indeed, “I love you” is the most common form of confession which can sometimes function as a promise. To faithfully declare love is to make a promise for the future: whatever happens in the future and how this future may threaten the way I see my relation with the past other (you) which shapes my present, I will always love you. To put this even more simply: I love you no matter who you will become in the future.
We see this in the film Interstellar. Recall in the beginning of the film when Cooper held onto Murph and promised her that he loves her forever. This promise is later recognized as the most powerful singular force from the future when he confronts his past, literally, inside the singularity of the black hole. Meanwhile, we also have Murph who was on the other side of space and time, discovering that the ghost who haunted her all along was Cooper. Both Murph and Cooper were each other’s otherness. But what we discover in this film is remarkable. Cooper was the one who thought the bookshelf was gravity, and not a person. Whereas on the other hand, Murph always thought of the bookshelf as a person, and not gravity. At the heart of the film, we discover the question of “who” and “what”: is the bookshelf someone, or something? Does not the bookshelf function similar to writing, where it has been taken hostage by the other? Nevertheless, it was Amelia Brand who was correct: that the gravity of love transcends space and time through its relationship with the other, where her distance with Wolf Edmunds were abolished. She saw love as the absolute singularity which propelled towards the infinite. While there are other possible interpretations, what we see in the film is the other who returns to haunt the past of the future as an infinite repetition. This movement of infinity is what we see when Cooper was thrown into the tesseract inside the black hole. Every fragment of time is infinite. Every moment is forever.
Who and What
Let us briefly return to one of my previous post, a series of written fragments I wrote throughout the span of several years. Is Renee someone, or something? Is she a person, or the movement of time? While I do not intend to answer this question, I often find myself caught within this difference.
Now, I wish to quickly return to the theme of life and death as marginal thought. To write with the other as the future unfolds is to paradoxically confront the other’s death through the acknowledgement of their absence. Yet, the other survives as she is recalled to the present. To live as a human being is to survive the death of the other. To survive through this death is to affirm life. Survival should not be seen as some depressing remainder after the death of the other. For Derrida, survival is what gives the most intense life possible. To survive is to exist within the most powerful force of life.
Let us together, recognize the other in this text, where its space has collapsed, and its distance abolished. You are reading what I am about to say from a future which has not yet come; of how to say, and to whom I address at the edges of my writing. This edge is the frontier of time which unfolds unto death. It is like walking down an unpaved path without knowing where you are going and who you will encounter. The other lives and dies all at once. She is reborn, she vanishes into the past. Yet, she is imminent. To inscribe the other is to not only care for her with my utmost love, forgiveness, and hospitality, but as a promise for the future to come. It is to write faithfully with the other as she dance across these pages with my hand, without interruption, without holding anything back.
While each of us carries a different discourse, the other not only haunts the one who writes, but the one who reads. What does this text want to say to you? Where does your other come from? Here, I leave you with my signature that is countersigned by the other. In this post, I elaborated on “what” it is that I was writing about. I even explained “how” and “why” I wrote. The only question that remains is, who?
For more on Jacques Derrida in relationship with speech, writing and time, please see my other post, Writing Before the Letter: Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction.