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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.”

 

Standard
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. 

IMG_1554

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).


Standard
Commentaries, Contemplation, Popular Posts

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:

1678-5177-pusp-30-e180068-gf8

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.

Standard
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.

 

Standard
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!”

Standard
Commentaries, Contemplation

How to Read Jacques Derrida When He is All About How You Read Him?

“The right understanding of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other.” – Franz Kafka

Recently, I had the pleasure to reread Derrida’s “Structure Sign and Play” and a few sections from Of Grammatology. In this post I will show you an easier way to understand Derrida’s concept of “difference”, “otherness”, and “supplement” without any phenomenology and ontology. I will show you how Derrida thinks meanings are generated between differences via the discourse of communication and other famous practical examples that Derrida uses (i.e. nature / culture, public / private).

Most of my blog posts are sounding boards for my bigger projects. I am not sure if this will become a staple / extension to my other Derridean post, which focused on Part I in Of Grammatology (the most difficult section of the book). This post focuses on some of the contents from Part IIparticularly on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the incestuous relationship between nature, culture, and writing.


What is Derrida trying to say to his readers when all he ever does is close read other people’s works in abstruse language? What does it mean to be a Derridean? Similar to Jacques Lacan, Derrida’s difficulty comes from the way he applies his ideas into his own writing in order to make you experience what he is trying to say. As Alain Badiou once said: “Philosophy privileges no language, not even the one that it is written in”.

To understand Derrida’s concept of difference, which actually comes from Ferdinand de Saussure, we must become familiar with the function of meaning in relationship with its context that it is placed in. We need to understand that “meaning” varies depending on context. In this sense, context is the way which words differentiates within a system of other words that defines what the former word could mean within its structure. The word “life” can have various meanings depending on who you ask through the contextual structure of words it is placed in (i.e. different cultures, traditions, etc.). Thus, meaning can constantly change as it gets compared to different contextual words. Is the author saying X or Y? Or perhaps she is saying V because X is different to G since now there is a T?

Most importantly, how words are interpreted depends on not only the context it is situated in, but the specific spatial-temporal context that you—the readeroffer to it with your own knowledge, history, past experiences, personal values, etc. Thus, when we communicate to other people, one might sometimes realize that what they are expressing cannot be completely felt by the other person in the same way that they are experiencing it (this also has to do with the representational aspects of language; another reason is because you are not the other person). In other words, we are always in some ways “misunderstood”. And it is through this “misunderstanding” via the play of differences between author / reader which creates a mutual “understanding”. This is applicable even when an author speaks to themselves (See Voice and Phenomenon, “Meaning as Soliloquy”).

This “misunderstanding” is crucial because it is through communicative exchange between the author and reader that produces meaning. Instead of interpreting words, Derrida is saying that meanings can only be produced in relationship with the reader who creates meaning from the author’s words through their own play of differential structures / contexts (similar to Roland Barthes’ “Death of the author”, but not quite). Meanings can only be produced through “other meanings”, such as the context and discourse that the reader situates the author’s words in.

In The Post Card, Derrida presents fragments of burnt love letters. In it, he famously states that “the letter never arrives at its destination” which opposes to Lacan who famously said, “the letter always arrives at its destination”. For Derrida, love letters functions like a post card—like meaning—where there is always a possibility that it arrives in the wrong place, like the postman, or a stranger who will open the letter and misread its writing via their own supplementary context. The letter never arrives at its “destination” because its “destiny” depends on context, error, and contingency. Anyone can open The Post Card (or any book; or a stranger’s love letters) and read it via their own supplementary differences which creates various meanings (this writer is romantic, a creep, stupid, etc.).

We create meanings out of the author’s words by supplementing their structure of differences with our own system of differences. Instead of saying “this author is saying X”, one should be looking at what the author is not saying which constitutes what they are trying to say. What the author’s words are not saying reveals who the author is—especially when you compare what they are not saying in one book with what they are saying in another. Most importantly, what the author is not saying also reveals who you are as a reader because it is through this supplemental structure of your “other” words which makes the author’s meanings possible. Meanings are produced through the glimmers between what some refer as “binary oppositions”: word / context (signifier / signified), author / reader, speech / writing, life / death, feminine / masculine, man / woman, past / future, public / private, outside / inside, absence / presence, reason / passion, who / what, etc.

In Derrida’s documentary, he asks why Martin Heidegger and G.W.F. Hegel presents themselves asexually in their work (to be sure, we are not making a porno film). He also wonders why they never talk about their private lives. Clearly, Derrida was interested in what both Heidegger and Hegel are not saying in their works which constitutes their work as such. Even if we look beyond Derrida, most of us are aware that a writer or a philosopher’s life affects the work they produce. This is also part of the reason why Derrida thinks that, with specific precautions, autobiographies can become a powerful form of writing. This is not only because autobiographies are often confessional, but because the difference between what is said and not said produces meanings about the author via self-reflection.

However, Derrida also thinks that people tend to privilege one side of the binary over the other. In Of Grammatology (1967), Rousseau becomes Derrida’s center of attention. Like Saussure and Socrates, Rousseau thought speech was more natural than writing because it represents a more naturalistic form of expression that directly comes from our thoughts; whereas writing is a representation of speech that is secondary. This led Derrida to “deconstruct” (interpret) Rousseau by asking why he privileged speech over writing, yet felt the need to write down his thoughts in order to express himself in his famous autobiography called, The Confessions. Rousseau later revealed that speech, while being more natural, was partly “deficient” in the sense that it cannot travel over long distances and won’t last through the test of time. Hence, writing was required in order to supplement speech. It is the difference between speech / writing where Rousseau’s confessions are produced. Let us read a short passage by Derrida:

“When Nature, as self proximity comes to be forbidden or interrupted, when speech fails to protect presence, writing becomes necessary. It must be added to the word urgently.[…] [Writing] is the addition of a technique, a sort of artificial and artful ruse to make speech present when it is actually absent. It is a violence done to the natural destiny of language.[…] But the supplement supplements. It adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it fills a void.[…] Compensatory and vicarious, the supplement is an adjunct, a subaltern instance which takes-(the)-place. As substitute, it is not simply added to the positivity of a presence, it produces no relief, its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness.” [my italics] (OG, p. 144-145; 1997 edition).

This is where Rousseau famously asserts, “Nature denatures itself”, which suggests that what is most natural—such as speech—always had the space for supplementation by the unnatural. In this sense, writing functions like an instrument, a technology, or an unnatural method. Derrida traces this thought to Rousseau’s famous text called, “Essay on the Origins of Languages”. In it, Rousseau speaks of how people from early history used unnatural methods to produce fire in order to supplement the natural warmth of the sun during the winter. People discovered unnatural ways to survive the winter due to the deficiency of Nature. People manipulate Nature by building dams, etc. and supplement what Nature cannot consistently provide. Elsewhere, Rousseau talks about the natural deficiency of a child where they require supplementation and nurturing by culture and education. Derrida writes:

“Like Nature’s love, ‘there is no substitute for a mother’s love’ says Emile [Rousseau]. It is in no way supplemented, that is to say it does not have to be supplemented, it suffices and is self-sufficient; but that also means that it is irreplaceable; what one would substitute for it would not equal it, would be only a mediocre makeshift. Finally it means that Nature does not supplement itself at all; Nature’s supplement does not proceed from Nature, it is not only inferior to but other than Nature.

Yet all education, the keystone of Rousseauist thought, will be described or presented as a system of substitution destined to reconstitute Nature’s edifice in the most natural way possible. The first chapter of Emile announces the function of this pedagogy. Although there is no substitute for a mother’s love, ‘it is better that the child should suck the breast of a healthy nurse rather than a petted mother, if he has any further evil to fear from her who has given him birth’. It is indeed culture or cultivation that must supplement a deficient nature, a deficiency that cannot by definition be anything but an accident and a deviation from Nature.” [my italics and underline] (OG, p. 145-146).

In this case, culture is what we are referring as unnatural. Here, we recognize the binary opposition between natural and unnatural where nature supplements itself by denaturing itself. Where is the evil when the violence of the unnatural is part of Nature? For example, think about sciences and technologies that are used to genetically engineer food, or the machines that produce and reduce CO2 emissions. Are they “natural”? Make no mistake, Derrida is not saying that we should destroy Nature. Rather, he is trying to show us how the otherness of Nature (the unnatural) is produced through Nature and contingency as an “accident” that unfolds before the human subject from a “future to come”. In other words, the movement between Nature and culture consists of improvisation, play (bricolage), and differences.

This leads to Derrida’s famous line, “there is no outside text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte). The outside is the inside. What belonged outside of Nature becomes the inside through supplementary differences. This supplementation is what Derrida refer as “archi-violence”—the most originary form of violence that occurs through pure contingency of the Other (will get to this later). Thus, Rousseau’s apparently “inauthentic” and “incestuous” written representation of his speech becomes authentic, even if it is an unnatural invention that originates from outside of Nature. What we recognize here is that Derrida’s “binary oppositions” are not really “oppositions” but are places where one incestuously becomes the other (this is why I don’t use the word, “binary opposition” much).

Finally, think about my last post on black slavery that I wrote in my underwear: “Can a person of color proclaim their liberation through the language of their colonizers?”. Think about the violence of external powers colonizing a territory; or the colonizer’s language that usurps the colonized subject. It is not a coincidence that the theme of archi-violence (“the outside is the inside”) was found in many post-colonial theories shortly after Derrida published Of Grammatology in 1967 (Spivak, Said, Bhabha, etc.). As we can see, some serious ethical questions arises. On one hand, if the outside (i.e. English language) is the inside of the colonized subject, then one can argue that the person of color can proclaim their liberation through the language of their colonizers (in the same way that Rousseau’s inauthentic writing becomes authentic). Yet, on the other hand, this proclamation also acknowledges the internalization of external forces which highlights the origins of archi-violence that is found in the incestuous relationship between nature and culture. Nature denatures itself as the outside becomes its other without boundaries. If the latter is the case, then where is the evil found within its movement? How can we achieve “decolonization”? I will let you answer these questions because they get even more complicated once we consider other disciplines (i.e. etymology and ontology). 

* * *

Regardless of how provocative these differences might be, let us return to the concept of difference that occurs between a word and its context. Language is a gigantic system of words that creates meaning through differences of other words. The meaning of “life” varies depending on how you compare the word within your own context. An author who thinks they have excellent command of the meaning of “life” is annulled by the reader who unexpectedly reinterprets “life” through their own supplementary differences—of what the author is not saying. Whenever we read a text, our interpretation will always miss the differential structure that the original author implied. This is due to the near infinite ways we can piece together words which is influenced by our own personal experiences, values, etc. We are constantly re-contextualizing words as we acquire new knowledge. As a result, this textual motion sets out contingent outcomes of meanings. As readers, you can already see the allusions that I am making to Rousseau’s “dangerous supplement” between natural / unnatural. Only that I am presenting it under a different context.

Now, as we read Derrida’s Of Grammatology for example, we tend to immediately situate Derrida’s words into specific context in order to give it meaning. Only that Derrida speaks through multi-contextual layers of words that plays and compares with other systems of words from other texts which makes it difficult to produce stable meanings. This is what Derrida calls “archi-writing”: an originary form of writing that is written through differences. Derrida is intentionally doing this to force you (the reader) to play within differences and “understand” what he is trying to say through your own supplementary differences. We know that when we read Derrida, we are reading him read other author’s works. Derrida’s writings often talks about what the authors are not saying in their works by comparing it with their other works (this is why Derrideans are often found in comparative literature). In turn, this produces the meanings of what the author is saying through Derrida’s own supplementary differences (which in secret, are the reader’s differences—as in the readers who are reading Derrida read the author’s works).

This leads us to our question: How do we read Derrida when he is all about how you read him? This includes the post you are currently reading because you are interpreting Bobby interpreting Derrida interpret X. To tell you the truth, I never had the intention to answer this question. Perhaps the question that we should be asking is: when we read Derrida’s words, is it “I” the reader, who produces the meaning that Derrida is trying to make? Or is it through what Derrida’s words are not via my own supplementary differences / contexts that makes me read Derrida the way I did? We already know the answer: it is the “Other” words that I supplement which produces meaning out of Derrida’s text. It is the differential “Other” who wins and defines what Derrida is saying. Thus, the final form of our question: what is the significance of this “Other” and what does she/he want to say to me and who I am as a person as I interpret texts (literature, novels, etc.)? In this sense, self-reflection becomes crucial if I want to discover who I am as a person (yet, there is also a division within self-reflection between the difference of past / future).

Derrida shows us that our identities and meanings are produced through differences that are underwritten by contingency. This makes Derrida subject to being accused for nihilism (i.e. Jordan Peterson and Stephen Hicks). We must understand that Derrida does not ignore facts. Neither does he reject science or tolerate solipsism. What he really questions is whether anyone can guarantee the meanings that an individual up holds for themselves (i.e. their identity, values, ethics, world view, philosophies, etc.) will remain exactly the same over long periods of time. This is because Derrida saw how events changes our contextual and epistemological frameworks, which influences our perceptions of our present space. Events such as: the confrontation of death, falling in / out of love, war, climate change, trauma, reading a novel, acquiring new knowledge, etc. In the same way, one cannot guarantee that, upon the second and third readings of the same novel, the reader will discover something new that they had not previously recognized. This is due to the infinite ways the reader plays with their supplementary differences through time which produces different outcomes of meanings. The contingency of the Other underlies all our interpretations.

Supplement, difference, and trace, are fundamental to reading and writing. It is essential to all human experiences. We never notice it because we take interpretation for granted in our daily lives (we listen to others talk, we write to them on social media, we listen to music, we read books, we look at art, etc.). Despite all the complicated moves Derrida makes, his message is simple once we consider the first word of our question and understand that the “how” functions as the play of differences: between what is said and what is not said. How you interpret nature, people, events, novels, or films; how you interpret life, death, love, space, and time; or how you interpret anything, tells you about who and what you are as a human being. What is it that you are not telling others that makes you do the things you do in your life? This is what Derrida wants you to think about—to self-reflect; to deconstruct differences. —Thus, let us once again ask: What does it mean to be a Derridean?

“…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

Standard
Commentaries, Contemplation

Recalling Lost Memories: Deconstruction, Decolonization and Black Slavery

Last night, I woke up at 2:30am where I was reminded of an event that occurred three years ago, when I was unofficially auditing university courses (2016-2017ish). At the time, I was a ghost, a specter, who lived inside the classrooms of my local university. Of course, nobody knew I wasn’t an official student categorized by the institution. In fact, I fit in quite well. Nobody knew I was a ghost, but that was the point. However, I will admit that my feelings of exclusion still remains till this day at a certain level. This is probably due to my strange set of specialized knowledge that not many people understand. It is a set of knowledge that I live by in practice because I consider myself a Derridean in certain ways. But what does being a Derridean even mean? I have a new post on Derrida that I will share in a few days / next week. It will talk about communication and differences in relationship with nature, culture, and writing (you can find it here).

At my local university, I sat in many philosophy classes that spoke about a diverse range of subjects. I read G.W.F. Hegel, Barbara Cassin, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Simone de Beauvoir, and many more. I also attended film theory courses and learnt how the movie theater is basically a replication of Plato’s cave. The professor for this film theory class was very kind to me. She bought me coffee and made me felt like I belonged somewhere. She was a Heideggerian film scholar and we spoke a lot about one of my favorite authors: Roland Barthes.

Out of all these classes, I audited a big two-semester length 300 level course on literary theory with a professor who is now my supervisor for my Master’s research project. I was surprised that he was so supportive of me and my personal intellectual endeavors in doing my masters. But he was also surprised at how much I knew about Derrida when I let him read some of my writings on him. This writing became my sample essay for grad applications.

I remembered during one of our lectures on post-colonialism, a TA (Teaching Assistant; PhD student) did a presentation on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I remembered a line where he confidently said:

“Deconstruction leads to decolonization.”

No offense, the first thing that popped up in my mind was whether he read enough of Derrida because the claim was bold and in my humble opinion, not “entirely” possible (will get to this). His statement made me wonder if he really understood deconstruction because he spoke of deconstruction as if it was a method, even when it isn’t. He also spoke of deconstruction as if it had a specific telos (end goal; i.e. to decolonize), which is not true at all since it utilizes “free play”. Strangely enough, this notion of free play does have decolonizing motifs because it is related to Claude Levis-Strauss’ book, The Savage Mind and his concept of “bricolage”.

I guess maybe he wasn’t expecting that a Derridean super nerd would be sitting among one hundred students in the lecture theater, silently judging him on his readings on one of the most esoteric thinkers of 20th century (Lol). To be sure, I’ve met many people who misread Derrida—including myself and other professors. In fact, I would say that Derrida is one of the most loved, hated, and misunderstood intellectual figures of 20th century. This leads to a question that I will talk about in my next post: “What is misunderstanding?”.

Regardless, this bold claim made by the TA relates to my current graduate seminar that I am enrolled in which talks about marginalized people. Earlier in the semester, we read a book called The Hanging of Angelique by Afua Cooper where she spoke about a story of a real Canadian black slave woman named Angelique. At the end of the book, Cooper talks about black liberation and how they were able to get proper education and share their slave narratives through (phonetic) writing.

Perhaps one can already see where the problem lies: Can a marginalized person of color proclaim their liberation by speaking through the language of their colonizers? 

I’m pretty sure those who are familiar with my numerous readings of Derrida that I’ve done on this blog could predict that I was going to ask this question. In fact, it was Spivak who first proposed this problem in her famous essay: “Can the Subalterns Speak?”. In it, she recognizes this very problem where in order for the voices of marginalized people to be heard, they must speak through the language of their colonizers. Of course, this is not always the case—especially when colonizers learn the marginalized language and attempts to understand their identities, cultures and traditions. But it certainly feels like the latter is less likely than the former in our increasingly globalized world.

Spivak’s claims are assuming that language influences the way we see the world. Thus in order to answer this question, one must consider whether language changes how we experience time (or how we think in general). Let us for the moment, take a look at one of the most famous linguistic theories known as Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Those who had watched the film Arrival would know what the theory is about. The hypothesis suggests that language influences the way humans experience time. This theory began by studying the Hopi language (Google, “Hopi controversy”) and was later proven to be false by other linguists. Recently however, there had been linguists who suggests that language does influence how we perceive time, but not in the way Sapir and Whorf had thought.

But there is a more cultural and historical dimension to language that we must consider. This is the idea that the words within language consists of many historical implications which establishes its meaning as such. I am thinking in particular to the etymologies of words. Language carries specific strands of histories within it. As we speak the language, we are also in a way, practicing its culture, its play between words, etc.

Another consideration is through the complicated psychoanalytic dimensions. For those who read my Lacanian post on the wound of split subjectivity, speaking and writing requires the subject to “give up” or “repress” their desires in order to fit into the laws of whatever language that they are articulating. Thus, the so called “liberated” subject is in fact, filtered through the Symbolic Other. In this sense, slave narratives are deeply related to repression and the unconscious mind.

There is also another area that we should consider: the act of interpretation and how meanings are formed through differences within contextual structures. Obviously, this consideration is referencing Derrida, which takes us back to alluding Spivak (there are other great thinkers in this field such as Homi Bhabha and Edward Said that I won’t talk about here). For Derrida, meanings are produced in between words. This is why people often talk about deconstruction through “binary oppositions” because it is in between author / reader, speech / writing, etc. which produces meaning. I will talk more about this in my next post. But if we look at slave narratives from a Derridean perspective, the problem is that on one hand, the English language functions as their medium for liberation because they are able to express their stories (to be sure, this is certainly a good thing—at least on a practical level). But on the other hand, the English language usurps the subject by forcing them to practice a linguistic culture that is not their own. And is it strange that I am writing this post in English, even when I am Chinese? I have lots to say about this, but I don’t have time right now.

Last but not least, we should consider my current topic of interest / research: critical race theory. Especially the works by Fred Moten who I am currently obsessed with because I think he is an incredible thinker—particularly on sound theory. In Black and Blur (2017), Moten’s first chapter is titled “Not in Between” and the first sentence began with “Remembering the Present”. I smirked when I first read these because I was able to predict what he was going to say in regards to Derrida and people like Hegel. For your information, “Remembering the Present” means to remember the “present (past)” from “the future” (to come)—a Derridean allusion that Moten later indirectly addresses. In this book (and also in In the Break that I am currently reading), Moten makes an incredibly bold move in an attempt to shift beyond Derridean differences by pointing out what he calls “nonhesitation” or “improvisation” in between written sounds (words) [this improvisation is most prominently found in Jazz music which comes from African culture]. As mentioned, for Derrida, meaning is produced in between words. For Moten, the “African Voice” is produced “not-in-between” differences, but as a (radical) radical alterity beyond differences via the grammatical ruptures of written sounds and the spacings between them. Here, I enjoy the way he uses the word “spacing” because I don’t see many scholars utilize its importance, despite it being a prominent Derridean theme found in Of Grammatology.

As we can see, there are many theoretical problems that one must overcome in order to answer the (post)colonial question that I proposed. I spoke about some of these problems to my MA supervisor and he giggled at me saying that I won’t solve them in a graduate seminar due to its sheer difficulty. He was right. I am still in the middle of a lot of these ideas. But there is a very high chance that I will be writing about Fred Moten and his  relationship with literature and slave narratives for my final research paper in this class.

Anyways, I should get back to work.

Ciao.

Standard
Commentaries, Contemplation

Destruktion, Deconstruction, and the End of History

This is my on-going close reading on some of Jacques Derrida’s most important seminars on Martin Heidegger between 1964-1965. It is within these seminars where Derrida first uses the word “deconstruction”. The post will introduce some of the basic goals of Heidegger’s philosophy and his famous notion of “the end of [Western] history”. This is a repost of an older one that I made last year. I reworked this post so much that it deserves to be recognized as new (because I got smarter—sort of). The reason for the rework is because I am currently rethinking the relationship between Heidegger, Derrida, and post-colonialism.

Regardless, much of Derrida’s deconstruction came from his readings on Heidegger’s unfinished work Sein und Zeit where he challenged its English translation as “Being and Time”. Derrida’s reading on this book happened when it was not completely translated into French, which made him use many of his own translations. In it, Derrida famously argues that Heidegger changed his intentions sixteen years later after publishing Sein und Zeit—which is known as “the turn”. Derrida’s entire project on “deconstruction” is an extension of Heidegger’s thoughts on the “destruktion” of history.

What Comes Before the Question?

Ontology is the study of “being” (human existence). The easiest way to understand Heidegger is to consider the question any theoretical physicist would ask: “What comes before the universe?” For Heidegger, it isn’t so much the answer than it is about the question itself. Heidegger is interested in what allows us to formulate this question in the first place. For Heidegger, asking a question always involves a certain form of being who precedes the question. To ask a question is to know what the question is—that there exists a question where one already knows parts of the answer to because it is guided by some form of being (later on, this “being” will be known as “Being”). In order for us to inquire about the universe, there is always already a being in the universe. It is because we first exist as a human being in the universe which allows us to question it (a question that is guided by the intentionality of being). In order for us to interrogate this being, one must already “know” something about it and exist within it.

It is not surprising that “What is being?” has been the most foundational question in history—particularly in philosophy. While this originary question can take many other forms (i.e. “What is the meaning of life?”), the importance is that a certain form of being had always been the main object of inquiry in human existence. To ask “What is love?”, one must already have some sense of the love being (i.e. to have the experienced it in some way, either sensually or emotionally). To ask “What is physics?”, one is already aware of their physical being. We always have some sense of being before one ventures out into some non-being by interrogating the very being that one has pre-comprehended through the question. There are many different beings who has different preferences on how they should “be” in this world. For example, scientific beings, mathematical beings, physical beings, biological beings, philosophical beings, literary being, sexual beings, psychological beings, etc.

The Problem on the History of Ontology 

If the being that we pre-comprehend is what establishes the question as such, what then, is “being”? This originary question marks the beginning of thought because it seeks for the most authentic form of being which precedes this question. But for Heidegger, one of the things that complicates and contaminates this question (i.e. the ways it is asked and answered) is the hegemony of Western history. For Heidegger, we have lost touch with being through the historical dominance of various cultural traditions, values and philosophical methods. It is thus, impossible to question being without answering it with some preconceived historical concept of being. One can even say that we have a prejudice and discrimination towards being due to the privilege of Western history (i.e. Eurocentrism).

This idea, which was first conceived in the early 20th century, influenced a discipline known as “post-colonialism” (in 1970s) which address the problems of colonialism and the dominance of colonist ideologies over marginalized people. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (who is a Derridean) was well known for transforming this Derridean reading of Heidegger into colonial theory. For Spivak, the “subalterns cannot speak” not only because they are victim to oppressive ideologies which they are not aware of (thus, prevents them from speaking), but because when we try to understand these marginalized people, we can only do so through our dominant Western historical tradition (i.e. we filter the things they say via our own privileged history). This problem is quite complex once we factor in Derridean / Heideggarian views on Dasein, temporality and Derrida’s lengthy engagements with Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalysis and the unconscious mind. Certainly, Spivak is also not an easy read due to her taking on Derrida’s project on deconstruction by attempting to “write against writing”.

A good example to showcase this colonial problem can be witnessed during Derrida’s later career (2001), where he points out that the Chinese “has no philosophy, but only thought”. While most people would probably get offended by this statement, Derrida was actually complimenting the Chinese by alluding to Heidegger’s project of retrieving fundamental Being and the difficulties of escaping hegemonic Western histories which dominates philosophy. Thus, to say that the Chinese, or other great thoughts such as Indian, as “philosophy” is to colonize and depreciate its uniqueness by centering through Eurocentrism.

Nevertheless, one of the question that is addressed in post-colonial theory is parallel to the Heideggerian question of history: can “being” escape from the hegemonic traditions of Western history in order to retrieve originary “being”? For Heidegger, the originary question of being is contaminated by dominant historical methods that consistently overlapped each other over time. The moment one asks the question of being, they are already associating it with all forms of hegemonic forms of traditional, cultural and philosophical methods (i.e. Hegelian, Kantian, Cartesian, etc.).

In order to overcome this problem, we must think of another history that is radically other to Western history. We must therefore, distinguish the difference between “being” and “Being” (with a capital B). This Being is the most original being which constitutes and always already guides the question of being along with the answers we have in response to it. For Heidegger, this Being is carried out by a mode which he calls “Dasein” (“being-there”)—something that we have lost touch with because philosophers had always avoided to solve it. In order for us to retrieve Dasein and a “fundamental ontology”, we have to “destroy” the dominant history of ontology and its methods which obscures our ability of conceiving it. For Derrida however, Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) only revealed “the historicity of Dasein, but not Being”—or to quote without translation “…of Dasein but not Sein.” (for the sake of length, I won’t explain  what this “historicity of Dasein” entails). This is because the word “ontology” in its etymological sense, is also contaminated by its own history that traces all the way back to Aristotle. Even if one destroys the history of ontology, the etymology of “ontology” can only designate a discourse about being which would only privilege Western history of being, but never Being itself. Where Heidegger once thought that “ontology can escape the history of metaphysics, he now thinks ontology is historically metaphysical”. Heidegger no longer wanted to only destroy the history of ontology, he wanted to destroy ontology itself.

To answer the question of Being through “What is being?”, one must avoid answering it by defining being through ontic-metaphysical history because by doing so only marks a closed loop of the meaning of being within itself (i.e. being caught within ideology or a certain hegemonic tradition). As Derrida points out, “Ontology only concerns the on and not the einai [essence]” (my parenthesis). Yet, it is Being that is buried in history which still has an effect on the question of being in its hegemonic ontology and history (because Being is related with time; hence Heidegger’s book is called Being and Time). What comes before the question of (onto-metaphysical-historical) being is a Being who pre-comprehends herself even when its meaning has been obscured through the privilege of various ontic history (i.e. I privilege scientific being and therefore, I will answer the question of being through the historical context of science). Hence, one always have some sense of Being before asking the question of being because it is in the very form of the question which opens up this originary question of Being.

For example, in the question “What is being?”, the word “is” implies that there is always already a Being who allows one to say that being is like this or like that (being is scientific, sexual, etc.). To put it in Derrida’s own words, “what is the being of the is which allows one to say that being is like this or like that?” Here, it is crucial we understand that “is” is the third person singular of the verb beThus, “Being” is the third term that avoids all ontic historical discourses even within the question of “What is being?”. This is one of the reasons why Heidegger writes Being under erasure, a philosophical gesture that he started doing several years after publishing Being and Time. One cannot retrieve Being by simply interpreting and investigating its etymology because the meaning of the word remains obscured and full of preconceived historical methods. This is why “Being” is such an obscure term that, even Jacques Lacan took an interest. For Lacan, it is because there is a lack in being (i.e. a Being that is missing from the hegemonic history of beings) where philosophers would ask “What is being?” (I wrote an intro on psychoanalysis, here). Finally, I must also add, this is one of the reasons why I believe Derrida crosses out is in Of Grammatology (1967).

In Voice and Phenomenon (I wrote an essay about it here), Derrida translates Husserl’s use of the German word “Bedeutung” as “want-to-say” instead of its usual translation as “signification”. One can already guess who it is that “want-to-say” (wants to signify) which is that of Being whose intentionality is always contaminated by a phenomenology of “the past of the future” (I explained some of Derrida’s views on temporality and “differance”, here). Recall earlier, when I spoke about how the question about the universe is always carried through by an intention that is guided by Being which one pre-comprehends. Derrida is interested in the pure morphology of Bedeutung and the ways it could be translated and interpreted. Bedeutung’s polymorphic qualities are similar to the word “is” where we have some idea of what “is” means, but never in the absolute sense because its meaning changes depending on how we use it, implying that the meaning of Being shifts as a pure morphology through the experience of time.

The Destruction of Hegelianism, History and Ontology

For G.W.F Hegel, the study of the history of philosophy is the same as the study of philosophy—particularly the logical aspects of it. One can make the same claim in regards to the history of ontology and (fundamental) ontology. Let us follow Derrida’s thoughts and separate the difference between Heidegger’s “destruktion” (of history and ontology) and Hegel’s notion of refutation. As Derrida points out, destruktion is not a criticism, annihilation, a denial of historical ideas or a Hegelian refutation. Heidegger destroys history and ontology, but he never refutes in the Hegelian sense. Yet, not only is destruction and refutation are distinguished by a mere nothing—the destruction of history and ontology is what Derrida famously refer as deconstruction (although, Derrida sometimes rejects this word). To understand this, let us look into Hegel’s idea of refutation.

For Hegel, every century of philosophies in history are marked by its “highest idea” making it “the last philosophy” of the time. For example, in 18th century we have Immanuel Kant. In early 19th century we have Hegel and later on Friedrich Nietzsche followed closely by Sigmund Freud and Edmund Husserl (along with all the phenomenologists). Overtime, the highest idea steps down and yields to another highest idea. Refutation is this demotion of the highest idea which brings out a new highest idea. A metaphorical example of refutation Hegel uses is to think of how tree leaves are refuted by the blossom in which the blossom is refuted by the fruit. The importance is to understand how Hegel thinks each highest idea is related to the previous one—only that its relative position changes within the new highest idea while dividing into something different. Whereas for Heidegger (according to Derrida), each highest idea does not preserve what precedes it because the highest idea is a refutation of the previous one through division. This new highest idea via refutation is an inferior formThe blossom is the inferior form of the leaf and the fruit is the inferior form of the blossom. Each highest idea or ontological inquiry is the inferior form of the previous. In other words, the blossom is not present in the fruit. Both the blossom and the fruit are not the true existence (Being) of the tree. Yet, all three of these (leaf, blossom and fruit) and their individual processes remains in unity within themselves and appears as if they are authentic being on its own. 

We can already see why refutation is similar, yet different to the destruction of ontology and history. On one hand, new ontological, cultural and philosophical methods are the refutation of other historical, philosophical and ontological inquiries which are “inferior” to such form. These new methods appears as a unity which obscures our ability to reach Being due to its predetermined privilege of history. On the other hand, this last philosophy is no longer capable of refuting anything since the essence of “refutation” has been lost through history, where the concept and historical predetermination of refutation ends up refuting its own essence. Therefore, to speak of Being is to speak of eschatology (i.e. death) because to retrieve Being is to destroy its history that is defined by other beings. Once again, this is not to say that Being is some empty concept beyond language and its history. The contradiction lies in the notion that Being is within language and history because “language is the house of being” (also because being is related to temporality). What one discovers in language is the aporia of Being through the obscurantism of ontic history and the metaphor of language. Beyond this ontic history of “telling stories” (i.e. myths, literature, philosophical novels, ontology, highest ideas) which is incredibly difficult (impossible?) to escape, there lies the historicity of Being within language and the question of being that is always already guided by Being (the “always” as a priori which modifies the “already”). Nevertheless, Hegel conceals the meaning of being within history, trapping himself into the historical tradition by recomprehending Plato and Aristotle. As a result, Heidegger’s destruction of history and ontology includes the destruction of Hegelianism.

Unlike Hegel, where the highest idea is created by refuting the previous, Heidegger destroys the highest ideas of history and ontology then surrounds it with an ontological silence—a nothingness (i.e. thought?). For Derrida, contrary to the popular interpretations through our beloved Heideggarians, Heidegger does not go on to invent the highest idea known as “fundamental ontology”. Heidegger goes silent and does not propose any alternative ontology or philosophy. The destruction of history and ontology is the “shaking up”, the deconstruction of the history of ontology and ontology itself; to de-structure which brings out the structure of Being only to recognize that Being is radically other to the historical-ontological inquiry that is neither outside nor within language. Since it is impossible to address the question of being without the concept of being and its historical predetermination, one must from the very beginning, work within privileged metaphysical-ontological historical concepts of being and language in order to reveal “the historicity of Being”. After all, there is no history without language, and no language without a history.

Standard
Commentaries, Contemplation

On Quentin Meillassoux: Speculative Realism and the Necessity of Contingency

Today, I would like to talk about Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude (2008) and the contemporary philosophical movement known as “Speculative Realism” (SR). SR is very alive today which has already influenced a wide variety of disciplines such as epistemology, ontology, literary theory, eco-criticism, post-humanism and many more. In addition to Quentin Meillassoux, there are many others who are doing serious theoretical work in this field: Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, Steven Shaviro, Martin Hagglund, and Adrian Johnston. A good introductory book to SR is The Speculative Turn which features many essays by these scholars along with a few others like Slavoj Zizek. Another good book is The Universe of Things (2014) by Steven Shaviro. And for those who are more literary minded, in 2011, Meillassoux published an interpretation of Stephane Mallarme’s famous poem, “The Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance” .

Although Meillassoux is a pretty good writer (even in English translation), the ambitious ideas that he presents are not easy to understand. I strongly suggest you to read After Finitude on your own. If not, here is a chewed up version casually written by me (I have also written about Meillassoux in the past). In order to understand the contemporary debates around what it means to “speculate reality”, one must understand some of the classical debates in philosophy and the problems in the ways which humans engages with the Cosmos.

For those who are new, one could think of philosophy as a discipline that attempts to explain “common sense”. Philosophers are similar to physicists who explain things that are already apparent (i.e. a physicist seeks to explain space-time which are experiences humans already inhabit). The difference is that, while a physicist seeks to understand the defining laws of Nature and Cosmos, the philosopher will investigate the conditions which allows for the physicist to experience these laws and achieve various degrees of knowledge (i.e. a physicist can make these claims because of their own consciousness as they engage with the appearances of things they see). We will gradually get a better understanding of this as we move along.

Rationalism and Empiricism

Perhaps the two biggest names that surrounds rational and empirical philosophy is Rene Descartes and John Locke, who both had opposing views on how humans achieve knowledge. Descartes was a rationalist who used the famous wax argument to show that knowledge achieved through reason is the most certain. Through his sensory experience (sight, smell, touch, etc.), Descartes observes how a piece of solid wax melts as he places it in front of fire. Our sensory experience of the wax shifts as it melts. Yet, through deductive reasoning, we are aware that the liquid wax comes from its solid form before it melted. Descartes realized that his senses of the world can deceive him, like how the piece of wax revealed to him that it was a solid object until it melted into liquid. In the same way, my observation tells me that there is a puddle of water in front of the road as I drive my car in the hot weather, even when there is nothing as I approach it. Descartes concluded that his rational mind was foundational to establishing a knowledge that was absolutely certain. This rational knowledge is what he calls, “a priori”. For Descartes, mathematics is an excellent example of a priori knowledge.

Furthermore, Descartes also established the “Casual Adequacy Principle” which asserts that the causes of an object is as real as the object itself. A classic Cartesian example is: a stone, which previously did not exist, cannot begin to exist unless it is produced by something which contains, either formally or eminently everything to be found in the stone. Without going into detail of the logical games, Descartes uses this argument to justify the preconception of God within humans.

On the other hand, Locke argued against Descartes by saying that we are not born with the preconception of God, but as a blank slate (famously known as the “tabula rasa”). Locke asserts that it is through sensory experience where we first learn to be rational, i.e. our observation that the solid wax could melt into liquid through heat. In opposition to Descartes, Locke thinks that all knowledge and ideas are based on our sensory experiences known as “a posteriori”; a form of knowledge that can only be acquired through our sensory experiences. If I want to find out whether a rabbit is a mammal or not, I will have to go and catch one to determine the conclusions through my senses. The popular dispute between Descartes (rationalist) and Locke (empiricist) is a debate between how humans achieves certainty of knowledge about the Nature of our Cosmos.

David Hume’s Problem on Induction and Causality

David Hume was an atheist renown for his skepticism on induction and causation. Summarized by Quentin Meillassoux, Hume’s principle question is: “Can one establish that in identical circumstances, future successions of phenomena will always be identical to previous successions?” (After Finitude Ch. 4). Hume’s answer to this question is that, causality is reduced to the subject’s inductive relationship with their past experiences. The easiest way to understand this is to look at the issues with inductive logic:

The deductive formula of Modus Ponens (MP) states: “A—>B, A therefore B”. In this formula, we can substitute anything with the letters and it would always make logical sense. A simple example might be, A: “It is raining” —> B: “the roads are wet”; “it is raining therefore the roads are wet” (A therefore B). Inversely, inductive reasoning reverses MP: “A—>B, B therefore A”. In this scenario, we come to a different conclusion: “the roads are wet therefore it is raining” (B therefore A). Here, we infer the causation based on past experiences that rain causes wet roads. Thus, every time it rains, the roads will be wet. The problem with induction is that, just because the roads are wet does not always mean it is raining (someone could be cleaning the roads, etc.).

An inductive argument is based on probability. If one can observe that the road is wet every time it rains, it must be a universal law that the wet road is always caused by rain. This type of logic is commonly seen in “scientific surveys” (or even scientific theories): if 20 000 people shows that Y is true, then it must merit the certainty of knowledge. But just because X amount of people shows that Y is true does not mean that it is true for everyone, nor can it be used to predict the future (see, replication crisis). The issues found within induction is the problem of predicting the future. Just because past experience tells us that we get an egg yolk out of every egg we break does not mean that the next egg will not consist of two or three yolks.

To situate this into an even bigger picture, just because something consistently happens in the same way throughout the Cosmos does not mean it will continue to do so in the future. And what causes something to occur in one instance may not be the cause of it in another. On one hand, no matter how I deduce the egg via a priori and predict whether it consists of one or two yolks, I would never be able to predict its outcome unless I physically crack the egg and observe it via a posteriori. But on the other hand, no matter how much I rely on my past a posteriori experience of egg breaking, I would not be able to predict whether the next egg consists of one or more yolks. These are the basics of the famous “Hume’s problem”.

Immanuel Kant’s Transcendental Philosophy and the Copernicus Revolution

“Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this pre-supposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get further with the problem of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition, which would agree better with the requested possibility of an a priori cognition of them, which is to establish something about objects before they are given to us.” (Critique of Pure Reason, Preface)

Kant famously regarded Hume as the one who woke him up from his “dogmatic slumber”, and ends up taking up a lot of his ideas while trying to salvage the necessity of causality. Basically, Kant revisited Descartes and Locke where he saw that they are only half correct. Descartes went overboard by focusing solely on logical a priori systems and ignoring observations. One can make mathematical arguments that has nothing to do with our observed empirical world. Locke did the same by focusing on observational a posteriori systems. While simple sensory observations can explain simple math, it cannot explain why one drop of water plus one drop of water only makes one drop of water.

Kant was a half rationalist and half empiricist who caused a “Copernicus revolution” in philosophy. Many philosophers before Kant thought that knowledge was centered around the universe and its objects, which allowed humans to understand its “natural laws” (something Hume thought was problematic). For Kant, instead of placing the universe at the center of knowledge, he places the conscious mind. It is our minds which creates a synthetic structure of knowledge that allows us to see the necessary laws of the universe. For Kant, our thoughts on the necessity of causality is not the knowledge about things in itself, but of how things appear to us through our cognitive faculties (phenomena). In other words, the causality that Hume is critical of is experienced by the subject through the appearances of stable phenomena found in Nature and Cosmos.

Kant’s view holds that, humans as conscious subjects can only experience the phenomena of reality as they appear before us through our perceptions, but never the actual properties and the objects in itself (noumena). We can only experience the universe from a first person point of view, and we can never know the “thing in itself” within objects (the absolute properties of an object; i.e. the Cosmos “as such”). I can never know any object in itself because I am never the chair, the table, I am never your consciousness, etc. I can understand the object in itself by creating complex synthetic concepts such as the notions of causality. But I can only do so through my mind in relationship with these appearances of objects that exists in reality. As a result, this leaves a “gap” in our knowledge between what we can know about the universe as a subject, and the universe in itself as object, which can never be completely known. By saying that X object consist of Y properties via synthetic concepts, one is idealizing the universe. This gesture is famously known as transcendental idealism. A good example of transcendental idealism is mathematics, where we idealize the object in itself (i.e. universe) as math.

The point I wish to make is to show how enlightenment philosophy of Kant suggests the idea that human subjectivity cannot know anything in itself. This correlation between human and synthetic concepts that are used to represent the world and Cosmos has been the dominant mode of thinking ever since. The most common form of synthetic concept humans use to represent the world is language, which had been the subject of study throughout most of 20th century—it is often known as, “the linguistic turn” .

Quentin Meillassoux: The Necessity of Contingency, “Chaosmos”, and Ptolemy’s Revenge

This relationship between human and Cosmos, is what Meillassoux refers as “correlationism”. Humans can only establish a correlation with the world through representational structures, but never can they access the in itself. But if one can only experience the world from their own perspective and understand it through synthetic categories via languages, then what is reality “as such”? This is part of what a speculative realist attempts to answer. It is also here, as what pertains to this “real”, where Meillassoux intervenes the discourses of Descartes, Hume, Kant, and 20th century philosophers like Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas. Meillassoux does so by asking the question: what if human thought does not require any justification of causality as necessity?

Kant attempts to save the necessity of causality (and thereby saving the causality of “thought” and consciousness) by justifying that it depends on the stability of phenomena as humans experiences them through their perceptions. For example, the consistent occurrence of the phenomena of sunrise and sunset reinforces the idea that there is something which causes these experiences (that the Earth spins and rotates around the Sun). For Kant, our cognitive perceptions of Nature (i.e. sunrise and sunset) not only shows us that there are stable principles which governs these experiences, they are also necessary in order for Nature to function (i.e. life on Earth; or Earth’s rotation around the sun is governed by the laws of physics, etc.).

Meillassoux intervenes this correlationist argument by saying that Kant is only concerned with human thought and its reason for the necessity of causality, i.e. it is necessary to explain the cause of sunrise and sunset because it is important for science, humanity, etc., even when there are no reasons that can explain the first principles of our perceptions of causality that we observe in Nature. This non-reason is what Kant refers as “facticity”, and what Meillassoux radicalizes into the “principle of factiality” which denotes the idea that everything is other than what it already is via the lack of reason. For Meillassoux, a physicist can understand the principles which explains our stable experiences of space-time and the laws of our Cosmos, but they cannot explain the reason for their necessity because these occurrences are purely contingent. Instead of saying, “everything in the Cosmos happens for a reason” (because they are governed by necessary laws), Meillassoux attempts to say, “everything in the Cosmos happens by chance”. Or as Sigmund Freud would say, it is by “accident” that there is intelligent life on Earth.

The point (I think) Meillassoux wishes to show is that, when a correlationist denies of knowing anything in itself, they must have already accepted the fact that it is possible that the in itself can be anything other than the synthetic concepts they are conceiving of. In other words, the correlationist must have already accepted the necessity of contingency, which is the gist of Meillassoux’s argument. To say something is not something is to suggest the possibility of it being something else. The thought of the necessity of contingency is independent of correlationism because if possibility did not already exist, then the correlationist thought of “X is not Y” would not have occurred in the first place. While one can never know whether the in itself is identical to the synthetic structures that humans create to represent it, what a correlationist knows is that there is a possibility this might happen through their own thought.

For Meillassoux, thought does not require the necessity of causality, the latter which allows us to study the causes of thought and consciousness (and in turn, grants us the ability to establish a science, philosophy, phenomenology, psychology, etc.). Instead, thought allows us to think of the possibilities that correlationists believe are necessary, such as causality. It may appear difficult to conceive of what Meillassoux is trying to say because we are always caught within correlationism that he is arguing against (this is why he introduces a term called “ancestrality”—something that I decided to leave out in this post). The thought of possibility is to engage with the absolute real which allows for necessity of causality “as such”. What is possible isn’t something that happens in correlation between humans and reality vis-a-vis Kant. Possibility expresses the lack of reason that is inherent within thought and the things in it self. This is why Meillassoux argues that it had always been possible for humans to conceive of the in it self which is independent of the Kantian human correlation with the world. The reasons being first, the Cosmos consists of pure contingency; and second, contingency and non-reason (the principle of factiality) allows the correlationist to think beyond their own correlationism.

This contingent movement of the Cosmos is what Meillassoux refer as “Chaos”, or “Chaosmos” which suggests the idea that laws within the Cosmos can change without any reason. Meillassoux’s doctrine highlights a paradoxical question: how can the laws of the Cosmos / Nature be contingent while appearing to be consistent and stable? No doubt, science relies on the consistencies of these phenomena to establish its discourse—even Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution relies on the consistency of Nature (yet it also relies on chance and the phenomena of gene mutation). Nevertheless, Meillassoux foresaw how the frequentialists would argue that the Cosmos is stable and not contingent. Thus, he goes into great detail by counter-arguing them through Georg Cantor’s set theory and suggests that contingency occurs outside of mathematical probability—something that I will leave for another time.

What Meillassoux appears to be suggesting is to not only challenge Kant’s attempts at salvaging the necessity for causality by claiming it as mere fiction, but to reverse his “Copernicus revolution” by metaphorically referring back to Claudius Ptolemy in his final chapter titled, “Ptolemy’s Revenge” (Ch. 5). Ptolemy is the astronomer who claimed that the Earth was the center of the universe until Nicolaus Copernicus’s heliocentrism. Certainly, After Finitude is only the beginning of Meillassoux’s thoughts, for we must also wait for his next book called, L’ Inexistence Divine, which is his unpublished PhD dissertation (unless you can read French, then you might have to wait longer for English translation). Regardless, where Kant thinks one can never know anything in itself, Meillassoux thinks that humans always had the capacity to think of the absolute in itself which functions as the necessity of contingency. Meillassoux ends his book by writing:

“No doubt the question remains obscure in the formulation. But our goal here was not to take this resolution as such. Our only aim has been to try to convince the reader not only that it is possible to rediscover thought’s absolutizing scope, but that it is urgent that we do so, given the extent to which the divorce between science’s Copernicanism and philosophy’s Ptolemaism has become abyssal, regardless of all those denials that serve only to perpetuate this schism. If Hume’s problem woke Kant from his dogmatic slumber, we can only hope that the problem of ancestrality succeeds in waking us from our correlationist slumber, by enjoining us to reconcile thought and absolute.

Standard