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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