Commentaries, Contemplation

Lacanian Psychoanalysis: The Mirror Stage and the Wound of Split Subjectivity

“I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because there’s no way to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail. Yet it is through this very impossibility that the truth holds onto the real.”
— Jacques Lacan

Psychoanalysis attempts to study the way we perceive reality by engaging with the structure of the unconscious “Other” (super-ego), which influences our consciousness. Psychoanalysis also studies the fundamentals of our desires that has been repressed into the unconscious. The tricky part is to understand the way the study of desire is closely associated with language, such as the desire to write this text. The most difficult aspect in understanding Lacan’s psychoanalytical writings is that the text does not privilege itself. In other words, Lacan applies his psychoanalytical ideas into his own writing as he tries to explain them. Since the reader is a human being with an unconscious mind, he wants to make you experience the psychoanalytical discourse as you interpret the structure of the symbolic language.

As such, the reader (you), who begins to recognize their desire is, in reality, their (your) desire for the recognition of desire as such. Without desire, one would not be able to recognize desire which grants the possibility of psychoanalysis, or any forms of discourse (i.e. science, philosophy and the desire for “truth”). Therefore, we can say that to psychoanalyze is to “desire desire desire”: to desire the intricacies of desire and how it desires an object. The act of speaking and writing is a form of desire (i.e. to communicate, pass on knowledge and relate to “others”). The paradox that we will see is how the desire to speak and write—the desire to articulate the symbolic language—is a repression of desire, and therefore, the symptom of the unconscious mind.

Today, I will use everyday examples to talk about split subjectivity and some of the relationships between the “Ideal-Ego” that is established in Lacan’s “mirror stage” in conjunction with the “Ego-Ideal”, which is born from the symbolic structure of language and society. I will also introduce Lacan’s famous “Schema L” diagram and discuss some of its contents as this post progresses. Although I tried to tailor this post towards the general audience, I feel like it might be more difficult than some of my other writings. For those who are new, it might be better to start with my post on love and psychoanalysis, which is overall an easier read, despite it being more vague.

 


 

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The Borromean Knot

When the baby is born, the first thing they encounter is the “Real” which consists of chaotic fragments that surrounds them. The mother is the first figure who takes position of the “Other” (super-ego), where the child tries to figure out what it is that she wants with all the gestures that the mother makes (“what does the (m)Other want?”). When they reach 18 months, they begin to not only recognize themselves in the mirror as “me”, but as the “other” person (“that other person in the mirror is me!”). During this time, the infant develops the “Imaginary” through the recognition of themselves in the mirror which constitutes the “Ideal-Ego” (ego = “I”)But as the child gets older, not only do they establish themselves in relation with their imaginary Ideal-Ego (this image I see in the mirror is who I am—as ideality), but in relationship with other people—namely, his/her relation with their parents. This “Symbolic” relation with others consists of the dimensions of the social, law, and language, is what constitutes the “Ego-Ideal”.

It is through the child’s relationship with others where they develop the symbolic Ego-Ideal. As they establish their relationship with others, they begin to learn what they can and cannot do (i.e. the parents will say they cannot eat this or that, they must follow house rules, etc.). The child must give up certain parts of what they had conceived as their imaginary Ideal-Ego in order to enter the symbolic, which revolves around relationships with other people. This “giving up” of self is what Lacan calls the “split subject” (or “barred subject”, often represented as “S” with a line crossed through it). It is like starting a new job and learning all the policies of the company where the subject is forced into certain structural relations with others (co-workers, boss, etc.) whilst repressing their unfulfilled desires into the unconscious (i.e. to establish work etiquette; they cannot do this or that while working, etc.). Another example might be to think of a time where we desired to say something that would offend another person, but we ended up not saying it because of the disapproval by social etiquette.

The symbolic is like a filter where the ideal-ego must pass through to create the split subject. This filter gets to “choose” and pick what part of the subject is acceptable when they engage with other people in society. In fact, the symbolic, as we will later see, is what constitutes subjectivity. In order to establish social relationship with other people, the infant is forced to give up on certain pleasures that they always had, such as certain relationships with their mother (i.e. sucking on mother’s breast, etc.). By “giving up” on such relations, they are repressing these thoughts into their unconscious. This is why the Other is always a woman, since the desire for the Mother is the first thing that gets repressed into the unconscious. The subject’s symbolic relations with other people is a relationship with their own Other (repressed unconscious desires) which—if one traces far enough—goes all the way back to the mother. As the child gets older, they move from the Ideal-ego towards the Ego-Ideal (as “I”), who gives up parts of themselves to enter the symbolic which shapes the split subject (i.e. they enter and participate in the laws of society). This occurance sets out the movement from the imaginary Ideal-Ego: my ideal self that I see in the mirror as perfection; to the symbolic Ego-Ideal: once I consider my relationship with others, I am not the ideal human being that I imagined myself to be, since such ideal can only be determined through the agreement with others. 

We can recognize the split subject in Lacan’s “Seminar on the Purloined Letter” where he famously analyzes Edgar Allen Poe’s detective short story called, “The Purloined Letter”. In the narrative, a secret letter is stolen from the Queen by the Minister, which in turn is stolen by the detective. The letter which was stolen twice goes through three characters who had already established their relationship with each other and developed their split subjectivity. This letter gets stolen when the Other (person) is not looking. While the Queen turns her back, the Minister steals it, and as the Minister turns his back, the detective purloins it. The point is to emphasize on the way the subjects / characters are constituted through their relationship with others as they avoid the symbolic Other from seeing them steal the letter. We will return to this later on.

Taking all of these pedagogical examples in mind, we now understand the fundamentals of split subjectivity. Just like our relationship with other people, the structure of language also consists of rules and laws (i.e. grammar, syntax, lexicon, etc.) where the subject is forced into its system to create the ego-ideal. Instead of social structures or relations with others, we also have the system of language which also functions like a filter. Therefore, since certain aspects of the subject’s ideal-ego are given up as they articulate language, what is given up on becomes the “lack” within language. It is through the split of the subject where language forms. Thus, where there is language, there is also the lack of language—i.e. a “negative” side to language, a “-1”. There is something in language that is missing / given up on from splitting the subject. When the subject speaks, parts of their ego appears as language, and the repressed material goes missing. All of this happens unconsciously without the subject’s awareness. In other words, the ego which can be recognized through language is the symptom of the split subject because it is a filter of the Ideal-ego into the ego as such. In this sense, one can think of how our entire society functions as the symptom. Civilization is created through the splitting of the subject. One can say that the biggest symptom is society itself (we are basically, a bunch of talking animals).

This filtering or “giving up” that we have been discussing is formally known as “castration complex” (or in Freudian terms as the “Oedipus Complex”—there are significant differences between Lacan and Freud’s version of castration). It is also this relationship between the split subject and the unconscious ways they interact with their lack which constitutes the experience of anxiety. For Lacan, castration is the symbolic lack of the imaginary signifier. To be sure, the mirror stage does not only occur during childhood, but continues until death. Hence, castration is never complete. The splitting of the subject always takes place every time they engage with symbolic language or society—which is pretty much all the time in our daily lives. The symbolic language becomes the symptom of castration because it takes the place of what lacks / repressed. Language is the symptom of the Other’s desire—of what we really desire by concealing this lack within its own system (i.e. speech / writing). And of course, if we ask Freud what the split subject really desires, he would tell us that we unconsciously desire our mother. Within the Freudian discourse, the prohibition of incest is the first symbolic law that is imposed on us.

Lacan says, “it is not man who constitutes language, but language that constitutes man”. It is through what has been repressed / given up on within language which not only marks the field of the Other (unconscious), but determines how the split subject interprets and situates themselves within the language before them—such as how you are reading this text. Lacan points out, “I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it like an object”. In other words, the relationship with our own lack / repressed desires influences the way we interpret speech and written objects—just like the objects and people around us in reality. The split subject (you) are forced into this text (discourse) as you read it (you are filtered and split through this text). What gets repressed in the unconscious will unknowingly reveal itself through language which functions as the symptom of repression (i.e. the meaning you extract from this text). When we speak / write, one is speaking about their own repressions. Lack is what constitutes the split subject altogether—namely, subjectivity (or ego).

The most confusing part is that, once the subject gets split and filtered through the symbolic, their relationship with their own lack and repressed desires can only be imagined and recognized through the ego, which is witnessed as a language after the subject had already split. This is why Lacan famously said that “the unconscious is structured like a language”. The ego (i.e. subjectivity) is the symptom of the unconscious which reveals itself through language. The desires which had been repressed into the unconscious Other can only be imagined, but never accessed through consciousness (it is called “unconscious” simply because we are never aware of it). As seen in Lacan’s “Schema L” diagram, the subject’s relations (S) with “other” people (remember: “the other person is me!”) is in close relation with their own imaginary ego (“me!”; “I”) which has been split and influenced by the Other (the lack / repressed desires). A simple example is to think of how we relate to “others” when we have a conversation with them. If I wish to connect with someone, I must find ways to relate to their experiences with my own. This relationship that the subject establishes with the other is actually a relationship with their own imaginary ego (i.e. their own experiences) which functions as a symptom that is associated with the Other.

Schema-L

Schema L

Since it is lack which constitutes subjectivity, one of the main goals of Lacanian psychoanalysis is to figure out this missing part through the subject’s relationship with the symbolic. We can see this with the popular example from Slavoj Zizek’s joke about a guy who walks into a restaurant and asks: “Coffee without cream please.”, the waiter responds: “I am sorry sir, we are out of cream, could it be without milk?”. The gist of the joke is to emphasize on the word, “without”. Here, we have the symbolic signifier, “without” (as you read it), which symbolically signifies an imaginary ‘without’ that is missing from its signification. What is missing (milk or cream) in the coffee constitutes the coffee and changes how the subject perceives it. On one hand, to articulate the word “without” is to refer to something missing. On the other hand, the moment the word “without” gets articulated, it is no longer ‘without’, since it becomes the symbolic signifier that represents something that is ‘without’. The word “without” functions like a metonymy for another missing signifier. This is why in Alenka Zupancic’s book, What is Sex?, she refers “without” as “with-without”: the coffee without cream / milk will always include a ‘without’—namely, a lack which constitutes it.

In the same way, the split subject and their articulation of speech always includes a lack which constitutes them. This unconscious lack (repressed desires, sublimation, etc.) structures the “other side” of the split subject and is famously associated with what Lacan calls, “objet petit a”, the “object cause of desire”, insofar that the subject desires such lack, whatever it might be (i.e. when the subject desires what they have repressed in their unconscious). Object “a” is not the object of desire, but an elusive phantom object that unconsciously causes the conscious subject to desire for the object. For example, a man is dating a woman who functions as his object of desire, even when what is unconsciously causing him to desire this woman is due to how he is unconsciously in love with himself and he is unknowingly associating various signs of her with himself (narcissism) [or, we can use the classic Freudian example where we all unconsciously desire our mother]. The point is that the split subject’s desire is the Other’s desire—it is the unconscious super ego’s desire. This is one of the reasons why the psychoanalyst sits behind or out of sight of the patient during a therapy session. The analyst functions as object as the patient free associates and desires (a) to figure out their ego which appears as their symptom (in Schema L, notice how the ego is placed in brackets beside object a).

Nevertheless. it is this lack which allows for the possibility of Rene Descartes’ famous passage: “I think therefore I am”. But since the symbolic paradoxically conceals the subject’s repressed desires by splitting the subject, Lacan famously says the opposite:

“I am thinking where I am not, therefore I am where I am not thinking . . . I am not, where I am the plaything of my thought; I think about what I am where I do not think I am thinking.” (Ecrits, 430).

The symbolic language filters the subject’s ideal-ego by forcing it to split while governing its subjectivity (i.e. what is allowed to pass through language and the law). Therefore, the subject who appears through symbolic language is not who the subject really is. Instead, it is through what is missing within language (repressed desires in unconscious, or desires that had been sublimated / diverted) which constitutes the subject. Once you become familiar with all the policies at your new job, you are defined by the company or institution (symbolic) that you work for—which we all know is not who you really are. Or, when the job interviewer requests you to, “Tell me about yourself”, you respond with, “I am XYZ and I think this contributes to the current job position that I am seeking”. Many of us are aware of how “fake” these interviews are because we basically filter our language and say things in certain ways in order to get the job. Only that in our psychic lives, we unknowingly do this all the time through our relationship with the symbolic. In the same way, your subjectivity is represented by the structure of language as who you are (“I am Y”)—which isn’t who you really are. Yet paradoxically, language is the only way to articulate who you are. This is why, in The Title of the Letter, Lacan’s split subject is what Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe famously refer as, “the impossible subject”. The subject is forced into the symbolic within the field and desires of the Other. On one hand, to articulate language is to produce subjectivity and set out a communicative discourse and relation with other people (i.e. to tell people who you are, obey laws like everyone else, etc.). On the other hand, the subjectivity / ego produced through language becomes the symptom of repressed desires: who you are via the articulation of symbolic language is not who you really are, but the product of a becoming subjectivity that is “not-whole”. Ironically, we can even see this when the subject goes to see a psychologist who begins to categorize them via tests, etc. and prescribe XYZ medication for you because they fit into the criteria of A, B or C. By doing this, they are forcing the subject into various symbolic structures.

This concealment of the lack in language can be seen in Poe’s “Purloined Letter”, where the contents of the stolen letter were never revealed. The entire narrative (such as its written, signifying words) circulates around the missing information of the letter—namely, its lack. The stolen letter functions as the signifier of the lack of signifier (just like “coffee without cream”). For Lacan, the reader’s experience as the split subject is exemplified by reading Poe’s story. I highly recommend you to read and experience it yourself (i.e. notice how as you read the story, your consciousness of the narrative circulates around this letter as the empty signifier like a vortex). In fact, Lacan’s “Seminar on the Purloined Letter” is so important that it was placed out of chronological order as the first essay in his one and only published book titled, Ecrits (“writings”). Consequently, this out of chronological placement lead to a sharp response by Jacques Derrida in a famous essay / lecture called “For the Love of Lacan!”, which was published in Resistances of Psychoanalysis (also see Derrida’s, “The Purveyor of Truth”).

As we now know, the ideal-ego gives up parts of itself to establish social relationship with others and repress their unfulfilled desires, which becomes the symptom that is revealed through the language we speakThis is one of the reasons why desire can never be satisfied. The “thing” (“das Ding”; lack) we desire will always be missing because it is repressed and concealed by symbolic language and/or within any objects that takes position as the subject’s unconscious desire. This missing thing (lack) which functions as the “objet petit a”, traces back to the desire for the (m)Other who must be given up to enter the symbolic (like what Freud would say). Language which takes the place of the phantom object a, becomes the symptom of this lack. We can see this through the articulation of every word in this sentence. In Seminar XX: On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, Lacan multiplies his borromean knot into “the ring of string” to show how the moment lack (i.e. repressed desires, sublimations, etc.) reveals itself within a signifying word, another signifier would immediately conceal it by articulating the next word in the sentence. As a result, this makes the former lack no longer lacking. Every “positive” signifying word is carried out by a “negative” lack (-1) that is linked to another “positive” word from the beginning to the end of every sentence. This is where Lacan deviates from the traditional approach to clinical psychoanalytical methods, which had always revolved around the patient who lies on the couch to free associate their thoughts via speech for 50 minutes. Lacan infamously invented the “variable sessions” where he would sometimes abruptly end his patient’s sessions in an attempt to make the “cut” and interrupt their signifying chain as a method for diagnosis. If I remember correctly, this is one of the main reasons why Lacan was infamously “excommunicated” (banned) from the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA).

With everything considered, we now understand the reason why Lacan was against ego psychology where it focused on reinforcing an ego that is “not-whole” (I purposely used the term “not-whole” to allude to Lacan’s later ideas on sexual difference that is inscribed into the way the subject interacts with language; how the subject gets unconsciously split / castrated determines sexual difference). The more ego-psychologists enforces the (split) ego which has been alienated from the Other’s desires, the stronger this alienation becomes. The ego is the wound / symptom that is created through its relationship with the symbolic Other (i.e. a relationship with what the subject had given up on). It is through this wound where we recognize the unconscious mind and our subjectivity of existence. You cannot heal this wound.

“…Desire, a function central to all human experience, is the desire for nothing nameable. And at the same time this desire lies at the origin of every variety of animation. If being were only what it is, there wouldn’t even be room to talk about it. Being comes into existence as an exact function of this lack.” —Jacques Lacan

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Commentaries, Contemplation, Uncategorized

On Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson: Nature, Culture, and the Displacement of Time

Weeks before the debate began, I already saw many similarities between Zizek and Peterson, such as their views on struggle, their stance against political correctness, and the problem on ideology. Then once you factor in the notion that much of Marxism is actually situated within capitalism, there wasn’t much left to debate other than the problems of capitalism and their differences within it. I also anticipated how Peterson would not understand Zizek’s Hegelian / Lacanian moves on Marx.

But some may wonder, who won the debate? I don’t think either won, but Peterson definitely learnt a few things from Zizek despite the latter, who appeared to be quite passive in the debate (Zizek wasn’t as argumentative as usual). Before we get critical about Peterson—someone who made great insights regardless of his mediocre readings of Marx (like his poor readings of Derrida), we should respect him for his expertise in his own field, open-mindedness, interest towards Zizek, and his responsibility on trying to solve worldly issues.

The reason why I think the debate went well was because of a purely psychoanalytic perspective. Many people complained about Zizek’s passivity on not tearing apart Peterson’s readings of Marx (i.e. his ten points against Marx—someone already did this here). For me, Zizek’s entire gesture of passivityintentional or not, has to do with situating himself within Lacan’s psychoanalytic concepts known as the Hysterics Discourse in relationship with the University Discourse. But I will not talk about Lacan today. Instead, I would like to share some of my thoughts on the overall debate and discuss nature, culture and time, which will take us away from Zizek and Peterson. If you are interested in the four discourses of psychoanalysis (University, Master, Hysteric, and Analyst), I invite you to read Lacan’s Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (it is quite a difficult read). Lacan also adds a fifth discourse later on, known as the Capitalist discourse. Basically, the “other side” of psychoanalysis is just more psychoanalysis.

I think Peterson’s decision to talk about The Communist Manifesto was a bad choice. This is because the book is basically an intro text to Marx. Much of Marxism is not about communism, but the criticism of capitalism. Zizek did a good job in pointing out that Marx and Engel’s best work lies within their famous text called, Capital (Das Kapital)a huge book (four volumes; the first volume is over 1000 pages) that critiques capitalism and introduces some of the key components of “ideology”—with the most famous ones being the fetish commodityand the relationship between forces of production. Such ideas were important for thinkers that later expanded on them such as Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, and Louis Althusser who all had an influence on Zizek in various ways.

Marxist ideas, which are known as “dialectical materialism“, came from reversing the philosophy of German Idealist philosopher named Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (i.e. Marxist ideas such as class struggle came from Hegel’s master-slave dialectics). Marx turned Hegel’s idealist views of the real world into a materialism. Zizek is known for turning Marxist materialism back into Hegelian idealism. Materialism and idealism are opposites in philosophy—I am not going to explain why, you can look up the famous “mind-body” or “mind-matter” problem that was popularized by Rene Descartes. In order for Zizek to return Marx to Hegel, he also goes through Lacanian psychoanalysis (Zizek studied his PhD in psychoanalysis under Jacques-Alain Miller—a famed student of Lacan, and the sole editor of his seminars). This has to do with the fact that Lacanian psychoanalysis consists of a heavy influence from Hegel which talks about how we perceive materialist reality through language and objects through our imagination. Lacan studied Hegel under Alexandre Kojeve before he “Returned to Freud” (i.e. Lacan read Freud as a philosopher of Hegel). This is one of the reasons why reading Lacan may remind people of reading Hegel.

One of the themes that interested me most in the debate was Peterson’s take on the hierarchical aspects of nature in relationship with society. This point is interesting because it is one of the core aspects of political philosophy (i.e. the debate between Nature vs Culture / Society). Peterson takes on a position where the lack of resources and the competition for them in nature mirrors capitalism and most of the systems before it—something that apparently does not exist in Marx’s domain, which is not surprising if you have studied a little bit of political philosophy. Now, before I go over why I think this scarcity of resource is not apparent within Marx, I would like to quickly skim over Zizek’s response.

Zizek responded to Peterson by saying that nature is not hierarchical. Rather, nature is full of improvisations and contingency which I think is true (a similar argument that Quentin Meillassoux made). Zizek goes on and uses a random example of some French person inventing some type of food by accident. Here, Zizek is alluding to Freud and Lacan, where they think life on earth is an “accident”. It is through “error” (chance) where life and intelligence on earth is born and we invent things through this same notion of contingency and improvisation. The two ideas that I have just introduced (contingency and improvisation) will be the underlying themes that I will address later on in regards to nature and culture.

Now, let us try and reconceive Peterson’s problem under a different light. Just because nature consists of a scarcity of resources and a hierarchy which predates capitalism and human existence, does not mean that societies would follow a similar path. What if society was created out of the necessity of an attempt to radicalize and transgress itself away from nature? Here, we confront the paradox of destination. On one hand, humans intentionally moves away from nature to create society and culture. Yet, on the other hand, humans looks back into their natural origins “as if” it was nature’s destination for humans to transgress beyond nature into the unnatural.

This is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously refers as “Nature denaturing itself”. Things that nature cannot provide us with (i.e. warmth in the winter), humans supplement it with their own intervention (i.e. by making fire—think of the movie, The Jungle Book where the animals are afraid of the “red flower” since they can’t create fire, but humans can). Nature cannot provide us a path across the river, we build a bridge. Nature lacks the resources of X, we supplement it with something unnatural (i.e. think of things like genetic engineering of agriculture). Yet, this non-natural—this denaturing originates from nature when we look back through the displacement of our time.

In this sense, it is not surprising that societies were formed due to the necessity to create an environment that supplements what nature cannot consistently provide humans with. Society is an “attempt” to guarantee resources as long as we meet its “conditions”, where we have to be good citizens and follow its laws, etc.—even if for Marx, much of these laws are exploitativeOf course, by joining together as a society, one also gives up their “natural freedom” so to obey instituted laws. Here we are getting into Kantian territories of politics such as the notions of “guaranteed peace” within the State versus ideas like “natural peace”—where the former, just like resources, are never absolutely guaranteed since it is always in the position of transgression. 

Humans recognizes their natural origins only in so far that they move away from nature to create a society by supplementing its resources. At the same time, humans also recognize that it is nature’s goal for them to denature nature. In our time, it is easy for us to make the claim that society is always already in the process of leaving nature because many of us are already living in a society with a history that is technologically advancing rapidly in an attempt to, let us suppose, “make the world a better place” (i.e. to supplement this lack of resources, inequality perpetuated by nature through hierarchy, to make the poor wealthier, etc.). Therefore, our system of hierarchy which has been the “hi(story)” of society, allows Peterson to look back into the “origins” of nature and see a hierarchy, even when it is such hierarchy that humans have not yet overcome in our time. However, from Peterson’s point of view, we can make a counter argument by saying that it is as if human’s notion of hierarchy was nature’s goal, which lead humans to create a society with a hierarchy as such. But if we consider that humans are to transgress nature by pushing beyond its boundaries and supplement what it lacks, social hierarchies would imply that nature began as a balanced ecological system without hierarchy—a theory that is rejected by most ecologists and scientists.

Nevertheless, what I have proposed is reminiscent to the idea Marx tried to conceive: within a possible future that is to come, civilization would overcome the scarcity of resources and the hierarchies of nature—which is part of what communism consists of. Peterson thinks Marx did not account for the struggles of nature, even when Marx did factor in such problem. Peterson is not aware of the people who influenced Marx, such as Rousseau, who was one of the first philosophers to attack the concept of private property.

But why the paradox of destination? Society mirrors nature only insofar that nature reflects society—a society that is always-in-“progress” of supplementing nature through this double bind, transgressing the boundaries of nature and culture (whatever “progress” could mean in relation to temporality and its history). The displacement of time is juxtaposed with history. We are always living in a today viewing backwards of yesterday into history. Every today becomes yesterday. The historian’s fatal mistake is to claim that everything had already been conceived, even when they have to first interpret contemporary ideas in order to look back into history to make such claim. We can see this in the history of psychoanalysis. Freud before Lacan: everything Lacan said, Freud had already said because he lived before Lacan (hence Lacan had to “Return to Freud”). It is easy to see Lacan within Freud only if we read Lacan before Freud—even when Freud would have never thought what Lacan would say and how he expanded and departed from his ideas in the future after his death. This historical reading of Freud through Lacan, along with whatever else history demands, is the arrival which takes itself away from ever arriving at Freud. 

In the exact same way, we have nature before culture. It is easy to find nature within culture after-the-fact of humans living in culture (its society and history) before nature. Even when nature would have never “thought” what its “goals” were until humans reached such point in culture through pure contingency and improvisation of nature. Thus, nature is anterior to our culture which is at once, within the process of denaturing and supplementing itself as culture (this is what Rousseau calls, “the dangerous supplement”)We never arrive at the destination of nature that denatures itself because such denaturing and supplementing is always in progress as culture continues to unfold through time. Thus, to arrive is to fail at arriving—to arrive without ever arriving. One never arrives at their destination—this is the secret.

The point I wish to make is the problem of intentionality driven by the force of history: of what appears to be present which moves forward in time as it looks backwards—namely, our experience of the infinite deferral of time. This is perhaps, the most classic of all Derridean “problems” exemplified through his famous structure called, “Trace” (the unity of past and future) and “Differance”—which is to say that it is not a problem, but a fundamental experience of ek-sistence (I hyperlink my Derrida posts all the time to accommodate new readers, here it is again). The presence of our contemporary moment is always displaced in time through a force of history and a future to come. We originate from nature, yet we live in a time away from nature, where we rediscover the nature of yesterday within the unnatural society of today. And it is also this today which becomes the becoming of yesterday, and the becoming of tomorrow as today. We are never “here” but elsewhere in time. We are always living in between time—where the future is always to come.

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Unworking the Work: Jean-Luc Nancy and The Disavowed Community

Before we begin, I would like to quickly remark on the highly anticipated intellectual debate between Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson that went on yesterday in Toronto. I will share my detailed thoughts in another post. For now, I just want to say that both of them did great.

I think the debate clarified some of the misunderstandings on “postmodernism” and “Cultural Marxism”, as Zizek pointed out that people like Michel Foucault are not Marxist. The truth is, there is a huge complex intellectual history behind continental “French” philosophy that many people who are not trained in it will not immediately understand. While both Peterson and Zizek have many commonalities and differences, I agree with Peterson that what we should be getting out of the debate is the importance of communication between differences. Not only was the debate an excellent example of such claim—what we are about to examine in this post is precisely, communication as the establishment of the common.


 

Derrida (left); Nancy (right)

 

The Disavowed Community (2016) is my first encounter with Jean-Luc Nancy. The text is hard in the sense that it is full of paradoxes, but it was not as hard as some made it out to be. Nancy’s writing style resembles a lot like Derrida’s, which is not surprising. In it, Nancy assumes that you already understand what went on between Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, Marguerite Duras, Emmanuel Levinas and his own works. He also assumes you are familiar with the giants of 20th century thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida. While I have not read any of the texts that Nancy mentions on Blanchot, Duras, and Bataille, I have read enough of Derrida, Heidegger and Lacan that I understand the gestures Nancy is trying to make.

The Disavowed Community is a response to a dialogue Nancy partook with Blanchot’s The Unavowable Community from 1983, and Nancy’s The Inoperative Community in 1991. To understand The Disavowed Community, we have to understand an important gesture that that Derrida makes on Heidegger in regards to the discourses on “history”, “metaphors”, “myths” and “telling stories”. We also have to understand some of the Lacanian psychoanalytical allusions Nancy brings into this book on “Woman’s writing” (Woman’s writing is a big contemporary academic theme in both deconstruction and psychoanalysis). In this post, I will try to summarize my close readings on Nancy which might be a little convoluted because I will assume you have read the book along with most of my other posts on Derrida and Lacan.

A Metaphorical History: “Myths” and “Telling Stories”

The notion of “telling stories” began from Martin Heidegger that was famously deconstructed (unworked) by Derrida. I will not dwell on the details in this post. I will simply provide a rough sketch of such “story”—just enough for us to pass over to Nancy’s thoughts. Indeed, what I am about to do is to tell you a story.

Without going into any meticulous analysis, let us say that all languages are metaphors which is the fundamental nature of stories. The moment we speak or write, we are in metaphor (Nancy will confirm this for us later). For Derrida, this was the main reason why Heidegger spoke of the famous passage “language as the house of being”, which was an attempt to make us recognize the origins of metaphoricity in language that made Heidegger cross out the word, Being.

Since all languages are metaphors, to speak of truth is to speak of what it is not. Yet, it is through this inauthenticity of metaphor where we discover truth. Throughout history, these metaphorical truths are found in all forms of rhetoric (i.e. myths)the most prominent example resides in literature and philosophy. The danger is when we fail to recognize this metaphor (which happens all the time in our lives)—and this is what Nancy sees from Derrida which leads to his criticism of Blanchot. 

How can one speak of the object and truth without a metaphor? The ultimate destruktion is to deconstruct, to interpret, solicit and de-structure this concept of metaphor, which is to—in Nancy’s term—“unwork” writing. Yet, the paradox lies in how the “deconstruction” of metaphors requires the use of metaphors (i.e. this text). To deconstruct / unwork a story is to work out a new storyDeconstruction is always already at “(un)work(ing)” when we read (i.e. you are doing it as you read this text). In other words, for one to deconstruct a writing, one must begin with writing (i.e. that one writes about writing). In order to deconstruct / unwork a metaphorical “story”, one must enclose themselves within a certain metaphor whilst trying to break away from it. Hence, the trick is to—as some Derrideans would say—“erase one’s writing”. The unworking of works is the unworking of its own metaphor. The common mistake people make is how they tend to unwork a story and leave it in pieces (many academics seems to do this which misses the point). Deconstruction is not only about destruktion, it is also about the creation of something new from the unworking of the story. This is how Nancy creates the disavowed community from Blanchot’s unavowed community.

Politics, Community, Communism, and History

As we have learnt from my previous readings of Derrida, it is through a certain force of history (i.e. force as desire—or in certain ways, the mode of Dasein / Being) which influences the way we interpret a certain piece of writing. For Derrida, since history is written, metaphors are the beginning of “hi(story)”. Our written history is told through stories where we acquire “truths” about history as such. For example, an English literature course is essentially a history class taught through stories; in the same way that for Hegel (in Derrida’s view), to study philosophy is to study the hi(story) of philosophy. As a result—we are leaping into Nancy’s book—for Blanchot and Nancy, all “communities” (societies) are organized around these historical stories and myths that must be “unworked” (i.e. deconstructed and interpreted through the act of reading and closely reexamining and rethinking its contents).

For Nancy, Blanchot’s attempt to formulate the new idea of “the unavowable community” was born out of the “exhaustion of communism” (failure of communism). Therefore, all the stories that are told in regards to “real-communism” must also be exhausted. The terms “communism” and “community” must be radically reconcieved. In other words, both Blanchot and Nancy are challenging us to think of communism and community independent of the traditional history of communism and politics in general—all of which are told through stories (it is easy to misread this and say that we should ignore or forget all the disasters that went on every time someone attempts to establish “communism”—this might be something that I will address in another post).

The Works of Unworking and the Unworking of Works

The difference between Nancy and Blanchot is that Blanchot thinks of his writing as a “works of unworking”. On one hand, Blanchot’s works are an attempt to unwork the historical force that determines and fixes the meaning of community and communism. Thus, he proposes the unavowed (i.e. undeclared) community that would be freed from its historical pre-determinations. On the other hand, Nancy attempts to reverse this by “unworking the works” of Blanchot. Nancy is concerned on how Blanchot’s “works of unworkings” is in-itself a work that has become a story / myth which forces a closure on Blanchot’s own discourse. Therefore, Nancy attempts to unwork the work of Blanchot without turning his own unworking into a work of unworking (story):

“What can be called mythical is that for which one cannot know if the event is produced, but for which the appearance of a figure communicates an actual meaning. Myth is the speech whose subject is none other than itself, configuring itself in speaking of itself—of its own free accord and of its own ipseity.” [my italics and underline]

Nancy’s main task is to reduce his own story (speech / writing) of unworking Blanchot—to unwork (deconstruct) his metaphor and erase his own writing. For Nancy, Blanchot’s unavowable is about avowing the unavowable, and therefore avowable (and not completely unavowable). This means that Blanchot’s unavowable is still determined as an avowable work—even if it is a work of unworking. Nancy saw how Blanchot actually wanted to disavow the community that has been carried out by metaphors and stories. Blanchot wanted to disavow the avowing of the unavowable.

Being as Unworking and the Transmission of the Impossible

In order to erase writing, we must understand the reduction of metaphor. Nancy achieves this by trying to draw the reader’s attention towards the community of the common that is experienced as solitude by the reader as they read his unworking of Blanchot (your experience of reading a text and unworking of your own being). However, Nancy also wants us to recognize what precedes and grants the possibility of solitude through the reader’s unworking of Nancy’s text of unworking (i.e. the reader’s interpretation of Nancy’s text as a speech constituted by the primordial necessity of communication). This gesture of unworking qua unworking done by the reader should not be conceived as a story, but the erasure of the story which leads to the indeterminacy of “the disavowed community”. For Nancy, this unworking of being through communication is what we all have in common as a community.

Nancy and Blanchot points out that the most fundamental form of community is the community that consists of a relation without relation—the transmission of the impossible. Here, we must conceive of the reader’s own unworking of Nancy’s “impossible” that is transmitted through Nancy’s writing. In other words, writing is the transmission of the impossible—it is the relation of non-relation, the sharing of the unsharable for the reader. Nancy wishes to emphasis that all communications (i.e. an “element of speech”) are caught within the problem of inter-subjectivity, and that the only way we can communicate to others is by speaking / writing out words that functions as metaphors. Thus, the reader and Nancy’s writings is caught within the relationship of a non-relation, between the reader and the transmission of the impossible (the text), which functions as a form of communication (speech / writing) that draws our attention to a non-relation (a relation between the reader and themselves via the text). The gesture of reading is the unworking of the reader’s own being as they read Nancy’s book. I will not dwell on this any further because I have explained this many times in various ways through my other posts herehere, and here.

Nevertheless, we can now understand Nancy’s critical passage:

“The Unavowable Community and “Intellectuals under Scrutiny”, written by an author who signs his name and expresses himself in the first person. The name Blanchot may appear destined in advance to efface itself with an undeniable pallor. It nevertheless remains that it is inscribed and presented in an imposing manner and that a book that emphasizes several proper names as structurally related (through their conjunction)—Bataille, Duras, Levinas, Nancy—does not refer to the name of the author without force. And this author excludes himself from any individual community with each of the other names, instituting himself rather as the interpreter of all others but also as the one who takes their texts further [the interpreter (reader) takes these texts further through their own unworking], in the process of ‘reflection, never in fact interrupted’, for which it must be understood that this reflection has preceded—and will be pursued in-an irreducible singularity. The ‘others’ to which this book also confides its future—and for which at the same time it outlines certain characteristics—these others are at once very uncertain and ‘constrained’ in advance to share the unshareable, the heart without law of a passion in which ‘Maurice Blanchot’ at once vanishes and (like Duras) ‘implicates himself’ in an irreducible solitary manner” [my italics, parenthesis and underlining].

What Nancy writes in this passage nearly summarizes the entire book. The being (author) who writes and inscribes themselves into words through their own unworkings (interpretation) of other authors, is unworked by the reader as the writing is reflected back into the reader as the unworking of their own being (which may turn them into an author who responds to Nancy, such as this blog post). Nancy goes on further:

“Alone, avowing, disavowing, without avowal—owing nothing to anyone other than to that very thing which allows avowing and disavowing, and to speech, this primordial necessity according to which “one has to speak in order to remain silent”. In order to unavow, one must avow, be it by disavowing what could pass as the object or theme of the argument—namely, community. However, in order to speak, one must be in the element of speech, and this element precedes all possibility of determining the nature or properties of the “common” since the principle of speech establishes the common. Its sharing is prior to all possibility of distinguishing between relation and the negation of relation, between communication and solitude. Blanchot is well aware of this, ceaselessly recalling for us the relation of readers to the author and readers between themselves. Even more, this ceaselessly brings us back to this relation as to the place of a common avowal of our allegiance to…speech itself [speaking / communicating to ourselves as we read]. He thus wants to remind us of what precedes and makes possible the common, communication.

In order to speak, which establishes the common—something that I always already do as I write this text—one must already be within the “element of speech” which is that of communication, “a primordial necessity”. In this sense, communication becomes a sharing that is “prior to all possibility of distinguishing between…communication and solitude”. Thus, Blanchot writes, “one must speak in order to remain silent”—one must communicate in order to remain silent. This primordial necessity of communication is the gesture of unworking qua unworking. In other words, the common is not only about a communication to oneself, but most importantly, it allows for our communication to the other.

The disavowed community is the sharing of the unsharable—the transmission of the impossible known as the “common”, which is the sharing of the unworking of being through communication (speech / writing). This text is another story that must be unworked by the reader—something which you are always already in the process of doing as you read through this text. Communication is what we all have in common.

In the Margins: Death, Woman’s Writing, and Jouissance

Nancy (and Blanchot) does not stop here, he transgresses into the territory of Lacanian psychoanalysis by turning towards the idea of jouissance from the “self” to the “other” which consists in a certain form of double binding—at least in my eyes, since the two terms a divisive, but are also interchangeable.

Let us take a look at what Nancy means when he speaks of this relation of non-relation and the sharing of the unsharable under Lacanian psychoanalysis. We must understand the concept of jouissance—a French word that is usually left untranslated (there are many reasons for this—my intro to psychoanalysis is here and here). Jouissance is a psychoanalytical concept used to describe the ultimate form of (sexual) pleasure that knows no limits. Jouissance will take us infinitely beyond the pleasure principle where such pleasure escapes its own boundaries towards self-destruction (death). But what escapes this pleasure principle also appears to be a pleasure (p. 73). I will not spend much time around this, since the psychoanalytical discourse is complex (Nietzsche, Hegel, Lacan, Freud). I will simply point out that, it is feminine sexuality which consists of this infinite and indeterminate form of jouissance which allows for the interpretation of the community—as what Nancy calls, the “evasive” community (one can even link this to an allusion to Hegel’s famous passage on woman as “the eternal irony of the community”).

For Lacan, sexuality is a position that one takes through writing (or language in general). The reader’s interpretation of words is always already sexed (masculine or feminine—a position that the reader takes as they unwork Nancy’s text). There is always jouissance from every word we articulate, a certain form of pleasure both within and beyond the signifier (i.e. the “negative” side of the signifier). There is no such thing as a writing (i.e. a written being) without a sex.

For Nancy, Blanchot’s work of unworking becomes a myth when he cannot distinguish between the “real’ and “imaginary”. Yet, it is through such works of unworking—of unworking such work—between the indeterminacy of the “real” and “imaginary” which allows for the indeterminacy of the community. Most importantly, for Nancy, the common of unworking qua unworking escapes and precedes Lacan’s determination of sexual differences. And it is from this communication which allows for a being unworking—as being undetermined which determines whether one approaches a man’s or a woman’s writing:

“There is a common, if not a community, that precedes all solitude and all exception, all sexual differences or people, a common without which no isolation or separation would take place—a common which has nothing unified or is single, which displaces itself, within itself, dividing and diffracting itself, a common which pleases and displease itself to itself, having perhaps only little ‘self'”.

Where Blanchot thinks jouissance is shared from the self to “self”, Nancy thinks jouissance is shared from the self with “others”: the sharing of the unsharable jouissance. Nevertheless, where Blanchot thinks that man is excluded from the “sharing” of jouissance (sharing of the unsharable) in Duras’ story, Nancy thinks neither man and woman are excluded from each other. This is because (1), the common precedes sexual difference, and that (2) sexuality is a position one takes after the primordial necessity of communication (i.e. speech / writing). Thus, woman’s jouissance can be experienced by both man and woman since they both share the common of communication (unworking qua unworking). This is why Nancy asks: “How can the man desire the woman or even only want to represent this desire to himself if she wasn’t already in him, already open in him outside of himself?” (71). To unwork Nancy’s text is to take position of both the binding of masculine as a closure of the work, and the unbinding of such work through feminine jouissance which escapes the very principles of masculine binding, towards an unworking. Since the disavowed community is an unworking of Blanchot’s work that seeks to prevent itself from becoming a work, the unworking must unbind and exceed its own story from the limits of jouissance as constrained within the bounds of a work. Thus, it is woman’s writing (woman’s jouissance) that takes the reader towards a pleasure that escapes the boundaries of pleasure: of unworking the works of unworking. This infinite escape of jouissance as jouissance, brings us towards a certain “death” through the interpretation of the impossible:

“If death is understood as separation from others rather than from self, the impossible [writing] is understood as that which excludes itself and excludes everyone from all relation [the relation of non-relation towards the reader]; the impossible can be understood in quite a different way, as that which, being absolutely certain, does not linger but in an instant opens itself absolutely to the absolute—in other words, to pure unbinding [writing opens itself to unworking by the reader who interprets writing]. But the unbound is not the separated. It is that which relates itself with each to new possibilities of binding and unbinding.

For the reader, the transmission of impossibility through Nancy’s writing is a communication—a relation towards the non-relation with the common which allows for a pure unbinding. This is to say that, pure unbinding is a pure unworking of what is bound (the myth; the story) through the impossible (writing) which allows for new possibilities of binding and unbinding as the reader interprets Nancy:

“And so the pleasure that escapes—escaping each and everyone—escapes me in that it happens to the other and escapes him or her in turn. There is a something in common to us in its escaping [escaping out of jouissance as jouissance—the unworking of a work that is bound]. It is neither communion nor perhaps even communication that fills up ’empty intimacy’ [it is an “empty intimacy” because jouissance exceeds its own boundaries which leaves it empty, yet intimate]. But this intimacy finds its sense of intimacy there [“within” this exceeding; of this “beyond”], that is, in resonance of silence and speech that withholds it self. Resonance gives proximity to that—to those—which are neither unified or separated, but bound in such a way that at this movement the binding is prioritized over what is bound. The binding unbinds itself within this priority. More than attachment, it appears as an autonomous escape, a pleasure that forgets its subjects.

What goes beyond the pleasure principle and escapes its limits is an unsharable pleasure that also occurs to the other person (the reader; you). And it is through this communication and its possibilities—that of sharing the unsharable jouissance, this unbinding of binding, of unworking of works which turns the disavowed community into a vanishing community.

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Commentaries, Contemplation, Popular Posts

On Derrida: Voice and Phenomenon

This is a revised version of my essay that I wrote on Jacques Derrida’s key text, Voice and Phenomenon (1967). It is the same essay that I used as sample writing for my 2019 graduate school applications. In general, this essay received many positive feedback from professors in English and Philosophy departments, particularly in regards to its complexity, rigor, and clarity.

Since I always enjoyed doing research on the human condition as a “hobby”, I might as well try and get a degree for it. But my attempts at getting into grad school was not easy. This is because I am applying for a graduate academic degree with my non-academic bachelors of design. Most graduate programs are very competitive, where I am competing with everyone who has an academic background and a GPA that is most likely higher than mine (though grades aren’t everything). I had to make up for this with my sample writing, letter of intent, and reference letters. Thus, the purpose of this essay was not only to demonstrate my writing abilities, but my Derridean savviness which were all self-taught. Against these odds, I am happy to tell you that I got accepted to do my masters degree.

Mistakes and Clarifications

This essay was written in Chicago style where the endnotes are actually footnotes in the real version. There are a few mistakes in this essay that needs correction. For example, I did not address how Derrida translates the German word “Bedeuten” into “Bedeutung” (thanks to the prof who pointed this out). Derrida translates bedeuten into the French idiom “vouloir-dire” which translates into English as “want to say” or “to mean”. Derrida does not translate bedeutung in his works because (I think) he is trying to show how bedeutung is actually a bedeuten—a “want to say”, where the problem of intentionality via the transcendental arises. I also did not address why indication “points”. Derrida refers to this pointing as “the point of the finger”, which is entangled as an expression. This essay focuses on a Kantian reading of Derrida which excludes Heidegger, who is central to Derridean thought (I was limited to 10 pages). I also gave my essay a lame title due to it being a sample writing.

My use of the word “soul” is not as superstitious as what most readers think. The term is complex with a history that crosses over to Heidegger and other philosophers like Aristotle (i.e. soul in relation to the body in metaphysics). I also did not explain protention and retention that well. When I speak of the word “now” (i.e. the “newness of now”), I am referring to protention. There are also several wordy sentences that needs to be rewritten.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time fix any of these errors and I will leave them intact until I work out a better version. Regardless, you will get a taste of a less sophisticated and a more diluted form of this essay from my introductory post on Derrida.

 


 

A Close Reading on Jacques Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon

In 20th century, French philosopher Jacques Derrida came to a radical conclusion that our experience of temporality divides self-reflection.[1] Derrida achieves this by deconstructing Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology where Husserl attempts to reach the “purity of expression”. In this essay, I will address Derrida’s thoughts on how intentionality and temporality contaminate the purity of expression through Husserl’s concepts of indicative and expressive sign. To do this, I will first introduce the entanglement between indicative and expressive signs that one encounters through external communicative acts such as writing. From this, I will elaborate on how the conveying (speaker / writer) and receiving subject (auditor / reader) animates these signs through the intentionality of their internal “solitary life of the soul”[2] which creates the issues of interpretation. Finally, I will follow Derrida on Husserl’s thoughts to isolate indication from expression only to discover that pure expression is contaminated by the consciousness of time. As we will see in the conclusion of this essay, the notion of pure expression via speech and writing will be rendered problematic before the subject expresses externally through communicative acts. This will lead us to one of the major themes of post-structural thought on “the crisis of meaning” which is found prevalent in all forms of arts and literature. To see how we arrive at such case, let us begin by extrapolating Derrida’s thoughts on Husserl’s problem of the sign.

The problem with the word “sign” is that it contains a duality of sense which can at once be indicative and expressive.[3] An indicative sign points to something, it does not have a “Bedeutung” (we will translate this word momentarily).[4] Since all words points to something, the best example of indicative sign is writing. Consequently, the written German word Bedeutung must point us to something other than its ideal sense.[5] If we were to translate the indicative sign of Bedeutung which means “want-to-say”, the word will now point to such meaning which appears as the expressive sign.[6] Simply put, the expressive sign is entangled with the indicative sign of Bedeutung, where it points to the expression of “want-to-say”. An indicative sign does not say anything, where it simply points, and an expressive sign, mixed with an indicative sign, “wants-to-say” by pointing to the unity of sense.[7] Here, we encounter two fundamental issues. First, indicative and expressive signs are impossible to distinguish because they are entangled between the conveying and receiving subject through writing.[8] This implies that indicative signs are external signs that exists in the world because it functions like a medium that transmits the possibility of expressive meaning from the conveyor to the receiving subject. Second, while an expression is entangled with indication, the opposite is not always true.[9] If one writes “iekariukedjutu”[10], the term would still be an indication since it points to something, but without any specific expression. This is experienced in our initial encounter of Bedeutung without knowing its expressive meaning.

If the indicative sign is external, then it must be outside of our internal “solitary life of the soul”. Writing is dead and inanimate without a living soul who gives it life by animating its indicative character into an expression.[11] When the conveying subject expresses indicatively, such sign must first be animated by their solitary life of the soul with an intention to express. This intended sign passes externally as indication (i.e. writing) which is reanimated as an expression by the receiving subject. Similarly, our body which is indicative and external to our soul, is inanimate without she who intentionally animates it from her internal soul (otherwise, our body would be dead). One expresses the self through the intention of animating the indicative sign, giving life to their body and words by turning it into external physical acts such as gestures, speech, or writing. For now, let us say that expressive signs are only possible by animating indicative signs through a certain “outside” in external discourse of the empirical world.[12] The conveying subject expresses their phenomenological experience within their soul because they desire to express (i.e. the expression of their concept of life, philosophy, beliefs, etc.). Thus, all communication consists of two poles: (1) the conveying subject whose intention animates her body into an expressive act via gestures, speech or writing, which externally indicates to (2) the receiving subject who interprets and reanimates the conveyer’s indication with their own expressive intentions and soul. From the perspective of the conveying subject, expressions must pass from their internal solitary life of the soul outwardly into an intended external bodily expressive act. From the perspective of the receiving subject, not all indicative signs that the conveying subject expresses indicatively are expressive. It is when the receiving subject who intentionally animates such indications where we recognize the contamination of the sign through intentionality.[13]

Let us return to our initial experience of the term Bedeutung, and the possibility of its contamination. For the receiving subject, the indicative experience of Bedeutung lies in how they don’t know its expressive meaning (they don’t know where it points). The receiving subject will intentionally animate Bedeutung without knowing its expressive meaning because they are motivated by their internal thoughts (inner monologue).[14] By reading the word Bedeutung, the receiving subject turns the term into an ideal sense of expressionwhere sense wants to signify itself even if the reader does not know its expression or is not aware of the word’s historical intentions.[15] The receiving subject’s intention will contaminate their own experience when they reanimate the indicative sign with an expressive meaning that ignores or greatly deviates from the conveying subject’s intention. Here, we are introduced with the issue of inter-subjectivity where the receiving subject is never the speaker and we can only experience the world from our own experience. Furthermore, pure expression is no longer possible when the conveying subject attempts to express their solitary life of the soul externally as indication such as Bedeutung. The animated sign that is expressed outwardly becomes corruptible through the possibilities of being misinterpreted in external communicative discourse. The impurity of expression stems from the lack of intended self-presence of the living soul which cannot be carried into indicated / expressed signs through the outside world because words are inherently dead. The receiving subject can never experience the conveying subject’s pure expression and intentions through external indications.[16]

Let us shift towards internal discourse of communication to find the purity of expression. Husserl will devote much of his effort to untangle indication from the expressive sign to reach the “purity of expression”. He saw that, since indications are external, pure expression can only occur without it leaving our internal solitary life of the soul—namely, without it leaving our inner silent monologue.[17] This leads to a question which carries out the rest of Derrida’s deconstruction on Husserl: if for the conveying subject, expression is only possible from animating the indicative sign as external acts, does she learn anything about herself when she silently expresses through inner monologue which never passes through the outside?[18] In order to address this issue, Husserl will consequently add the terms “expressive referral” (Hinzeigen) and “indicative referral” (Anzeigen).[19] Following closely to Husserl’s thoughts of finding the purity of expression, Derrida attempts to separate the indicative and expressive sign by isolating the spatial (external; empirical; indicative) from the temporal (internal; time-consciousness; inner-monologue). For Derrida, this was pursued only to discover that neither oppositions can be distinguished from each other.[20] Within inner monologue of the conveying subject, expressive communicative acts functions as a representation of sense. The conveying subject is the receiving subject who “hears-oneself-speak”.[21] These communicative acts that are expressed internally by the conveying subject are represented (imagined) in their minds as immediate psychical acts. Certainly, one can say that inner monologue is where we discover pure expressivity, not only because it is closest to the proximity of the soul where the speaker immediately hears-oneself-speak without distance, but because monologue constitutes subjectivity of self and consciousness as such.[22] However, for Derrida, such monologue is contaminated by time which is distinguished through the blink of an eye.[23] If pure expression via inner monologue is represented in our minds through the movement of time, then they must have nothing to do with primal impressions (perception and senses) which constitutes the present moment.[24] In Husserl’s phenomenology of time consciousness, the present moment of now that is established through primal impression is only possible through the retention of this moment which had just past (the words you just read through time).[25] Retention is not constituted by our primal impression because it is an imaginary perception. Without retention that establishes a difference with the present moment, the punctuality and newness of “now” would not be possible.[26] Thus, inner monologue—the pure expressive self and consciousness—is contaminated by our experience of time. As a result, this turns inner monologue into non-perception (without primal impression of sense) because it has always been represented and imagined.[27] For Husserl, the subject will imagine as if they were silently speaking to themselves, even when they have no need to do so since their perception of psychical acts and lived experiences are immediately present.[28] Yet, by privileging such perceptions as presence, one not only forgets the effects of time, but how these perceptions and monologue are imagined representations of the present which has now past. As such, Derrida refers to language as always being “worked over by fiction”.[29] The intended self-presence within hearing-oneself-speak stems from a represented perception which makes the establishment of presence and meaning late.[30] This slight delay implies how the presence of this present moment is only possible through an imaginative supplement of sense which is what the present originally lacks. In order to privilege presence, one negates its inherent absence.

In the final analysis, three main ideas are presented in this essay. First, self-expression is no longer pure the moment we express outwardly—even before represented expression arises from the solitary life of the soul. To say that there is a purity of expression is to recognize how it is contaminated by the movement of time and the becoming-Other within internal discourse. This suggests that pure self consciousness is pre-constructed through something that is more originary and pre-phenomenological: a trace which constitutes the difference between “now” and its alterity of retention.[31] By constituting consciousness through inner monologue, the temporal division of self-reflection becomes an unavoidable and originary contamination.[32] Second, this not only shows how time contaminates the internal discourse of both conveying and receiving subject, it also reveals the main difference between Husserl and Derrida. Husserl wishes to maintain the difference between indication and expression in order to show how pure expression is possible through indicative signs that occurs within silent monologue. Derrida rejects Husserl’s compartmentalization of the two signs since the expressive sign cannot be distinguished from indication. This is recognized through Derrida’s use of “Bedeutung” as an example of indication / expression to show how the receiving subject (i.e. you, the reader) is engaged with their own animating intentions instead of the conveying subject’s. For Derrida, indicative signs are always already an expression that is influenced by time as the receiving subject engages with it. Third, the privilege of an imaginary perception as presence is where Derrida locates the notion of the supplement. This “dangerous supplement” occurs when the receiving subject substitutes their expressive intention as the conveyor’s. From the receiving subject’s point of view, the conveyor’s indicative signs are supplemented (imagined) as expressive signs, even when these indications are part of the conveyor’s animating expression that cannot be past onto the receiver through writing.[33] In another words, the conveying subject’s intention is supplemented as if it were present, even when this imaginary intention only consists of the receiver’s inner monologue which is complicated by their own experience of temporality. Therefore, we can say that, “communication” is the failure of communication. Our attempts in transmitting pure expression through speech and writing is impossible. There is no such thing as “clear writing”.

Instead of having written signs which records a truth from our soul, signs end up producing a truth where its expressive meaning varies depending on the receiving subject’s intentions. As we noted earlier, this is where we see how intentionality plays an important role on interpreting communicative acts. But it is also here, where we recognize the issues of translation. It becomes impossible to understand the indicative word which is only expressive by being reanimated through the intention of the translator / reader.[34] The longer time passes, the more difficult it is to reconstitute the originary intention of the conveying subject.[35] It is at this moment where we become lost in the crisis of meaning. Although this should not always be seen as negativity, it becomes apparent that one only reads what they desire to read under a particular “sense” (modern sense, surreal sense, classical sense, etc.) through the spell of the indicative sign, where its intentions were expressed within a specific historical time. Yet, it is from these writings, where the contemporary reader reanimates dead words and rediscover a hidden intention. Through the resurrection of the external indicative sign, we recognize Derrida’s famous aporia: the absence of originary presence that is found between the conveying and receiving subject. The internal expressions as you read this text becomes the supplement of the conveying subject’s intention which has been contaminated by your experience of space and time. This is where deconstruction begins.

Bibliography

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakavorty Spivak. Johns      Hopkins University Press, 1997.
———Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Alan Bass. University of Chicago Press, 1982.
———Voice and Phenomenon. Translated by Leonard Lawlor. Northwestern            University Press, 2011.

Notes

[1] Jacques Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, trans. Leonard Lawlor (Northwestern University Press, 2011), 70.

[2] The term “soul” implies a living entity who animates / gives life to a nonliving or inanimate object.

[3] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 3,15.

[4] Ibid., 40. Indicative sign is equivalent to the Saussurean concept of “Signifier”.

[5] Ibid., 7-8. Derrida intentionally avoids translating Bedeutung for a reason slightly different to what I have demonstrated here. Derrida’s concerns are directed towards the “pure morphology” (the pure possibility of a meaningful discourse) of such word through grammar and logical a priori of language which Husserl privileged as the telos of “being present”. This pure morphology is also found in the word “is” within the fundamental question of philosophy: “What is being?”.

[6] Ibid., 40. Expressive sign is equivalent to the Saussurean term “Signified”. Bedeutung is often translated into “signification”. The reason Derrida calls it “want-to-say” is due to the problems of the receiving subject’s intentionality (yours), something which we will see later on in this essay.

[7] Most words carry an immediate unity of sense because we already know its expressive meaning.

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakavorty Spivak (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 123. This is a word that was invented by Nambikwara tribe which means “act of writing” or “drawing lines”. Notice how the meaning of this word refers to external expressive acts.

[11] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 46.

[12] Ibid., 32. “Everything in my discourse which is destined to manifest a lived experience to another person must pass through the mediation of the physical side.”

[13] Ibid., 70-74.

[14] Ibid., 24. “Motivation is what gives to something like a ‘thinking being’ the movement in order to pass in thought from something to something.”

[15] Ibid., 29.

[16] Ibid., 34. “If communication of manifestation is essentially indicative, it is so because the presence of the other’s lived-experience is denied to our originary intuition.”

[17] Ibid., “The relation to the other as non-presence is therefore the impurity of expression. In order to reduce indication in language and attain once more finally pure expressivity it is therefore necessary to suspend the relation to others. Then I would no longer have to pass through the mediation of the physical side.”

[18] Ibid., 41.

[19] Ibid., 36.

[20] Ibid., 48-55, 69-74. Husserl refers to the isolation of the spatial as “phenomenological reduction”. Derrida realizes how the temporal (internal) cannot be completely distinguished from the spatial (external) because the internal voice is complicated by our consciousness of time which opens up “the becoming time of space [external] and the becoming space of time [internal]” (Derrida, Of Grammatology, 68). Even after reduction, the spatial is never completely reduced because space is in time.

[21] This phenomenon can be experienced as one reads this text. The conveying subject internally hears herself speak as she performs external speech or written acts. Conversely, the receiving subject also hears herself speak internally as she reanimates external indicative signs from silent reading or listening.

[22] Ibid., 68. “The voice is consciousness”

[23] Ibid., 50-55, 74.

[24] Ibid., 55-58.

[25] Derrida, Of Grammatology, 67-73. The common conception on the movement of time is experienced as a straight line. This linearity is also recognized in writing when one reads through time. For Derrida, time is non-linear via the “now” being constituted by retention. The “now” is “the deferred effect of which Freud speaks”. (See also, Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 71-73).

[26] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 53, 72.

[27] Ibid., 49, 57.

[28] Ibid., 50.

[29] Ibid., 48. One can also say that language is always worked over by history.

[30] Ibid., 77-78, 83.

[31] Derrida, Of Grammatology, 69. We can also say that consciousness is constructed by the unconscious—of what Derrida calls “Spacing” or “Archi-Writing” that is found within “the fabric of trace”. For Derrida, the concept of trace, which can only be defined through specific phenomenological and ontological precautions, is the origin of thought.

[32] Derrida sometimes refers to this as the “origin heterogeneous”.

[33] Ibid., 149. The concept of “supplement” is used to take the place of what originally lacks within presence. The supplement is the addition of nothing. This originary supplement is introduced in the final chapter of Voice and Phenomenon. It is extensively discussed in Of Grammatology when Derrida deconstructs Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages. As Derrida points out, “Blindness to the supplement is the law”.

[34] For example, in Plato’s Pharmacy, Derrida questions the translation of “pharmakon” which can at once mean “remedy” and “poison”.

[35] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 70.

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Responding to Stephen Hicks and the Criticisms of “Postmodernism”

 

Today, I would like to quickly comment on this talk that Stephen Hicks gave last year at the University of British Columbia. Despite some of his massive generalizations on 19th-20th century philosophers, I think Hicks gave an excellent overview on Kantianism and some of his influences on “postmodernism”. He is also right that both analytic and continental thinkers came to similar conclusions on metaphysics regardless of their differences. In this post, I will elaborate on some of Hick’s generalizations by talking about Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and weaving the latter with Jacques Derrida. I will also provide a quick analysis of a famous passage from Derrida’s Specters of Marx.

I would like to make four points:

First (1), if you think Nietzsche and Heidegger are “irrationalists”, then you really should reread their works. This is especially true if you also think they are outright nihilists, since both of them focuses on overcoming nihilism.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche saw how we needed to balance rationality (Apollonian) with our irrationalities (Dionysian) [speaking in Hick’s terms]. For Nietzsche, the problem is we have always privileged rationality over irrationality. Thus, he suggests that we should consider our own passions instead of being rational for once. Yet, we must also not disregard our rationality since the two are like yin yang. Here, it is hard to pinpoint Nietzche’s exact meaning since he writes in metaphors—something Heidegger and Derrida took great interest in.

In Nietzsche’s later works, he foresaw how his era will result in nihilism where people will destroy their own Christian beliefs due to the prominence of rationalism (i.e. the proliferation of science via the enlightenment era). Furthermore, he saw Christianity as a nihilistic ideology which focuses on rejecting life instead of affirming it (i.e. they believe heaven is a better place). Although Nietzsche was a controversial critic of Christianity and any religion that deals with promoting moralities that disapproves of life, he wanted to solve the problem of nihilism by trying to understand it. Nietzsche overcomes nihilism through the notion of perspectivism, where one must “destroy” some of our older “traditions” which allows us to create new moral perspectives that affirms life, open-mindedness, strength and courage (by “destroy”, I am alluding to Heidegger’s notion of “destruktion”, which Derrida translates into “deconstruction”). This is what Nietzsche famously calls “the will to power”. In some ways, Nietzsche was a moral nihilist, but only because of what he saw that was inevitably coming.

When Hicks points out how Heidegger thinks “logic gets in the way and we have to set aside logic and find some other way [to get to truth?]”, Heidegger is not necessarily saying that logic is useless and we should bide to irrationalism. But rather, he is suggesting that logic becomes contradictory, and thus “disintegrates” once we try to understand “Being” through time (I will demonstrate this later on). Therefore, we have to put in place, an “originary questioning” of being—of what Heidegger calls, the question of the historicity of Dasein (Being-There). When Heidegger asks the question, “What is Being?”, what he really mean is, “What is Being-there?”—or, “What is the Being that is already there?” (….which allows the thinking subject to formulate the question in the first place?).

Simply put, there has to first be a human “Being” who is “there” within temporality in order for there to be a “logical” thinking subject (i.e. you have to first exist in the world, temporally). This “there-ness” of Being (in-the-world)—the “Da” of Dasein—is our experience of the temporality of Being (Sein). From this, Heidegger (and Derrida), will challenge Kant’s views on temporality to distinguish the temporality of Dasein from the intratemporality of the “I think” subject (consciousness). Dasein is what precedes and makes possible, the famous rationalist / foundationalist Cartesian statement, “I think, therefore I am” (Hicks is a foundationalist). And it is within the temporality of Dasein where Heidegger coins his famous concept known as “Care”.

If you recall my last post on Derrida, I was intentionally being vague when I pointed out how when we read a text through temporality, we trace to a “history of all sorts”. This history that we trace is the historicity of Dasein (after all, Heidegger states that “language is the house of being”). But why do we trace towards the “historicity” of Dasein and not the “presence” of Dasein? Remember how trace is the unity between retention and protention where this present moment which had just past (the words you just read) unites with what is to come (the words you are about to read). On one hand, the presence of the present is always a past, which refers to a historicity of Dasein. On the other hand, this past is always moving towards a future. The logic that “disintegrates” into temporality is how this present moment is always already a past of what is to come.

Heidegger, similar to Derrida, are thinkers of origins. They are trying to conceive of a “philosophy” that can establish the “grounds” for all philosophies, epistemology, foundationalism, rationalism, empiricism, skepticism, literature, sciences, physics, and metaphysics, etc. In another words, they are trying to think of how philosophy and the very gesture of thinking arises, which in turn, establishes the philosophy of science, society, ethics, politics, art, love, etc. If you understand all of this, then you are almost at the forefront of contemporary continental philosophy.

Secondly (2), Lyotard, Foucault and Derrida should not be summarized together as if they had similar end goals simply because they were all “far left in the political spectrum” (that’s absurd). The reason is because their ideas varies greatly. For example, while Foucault and Derrida may appear to be “deconstructing” a historical discourse with similar influences such as Hegel and Heidegger, both of their approaches are very different. Foucault adopted certain aspects of Nietzchean thought, such as his “hermeneutics of suspicion” (a term coined by Ricoeur) and his “genealogical methods” of ideas, history, sex, and power. Whereas Derrida, in addition to Nietzsche, was influenced by Saussure, Freud, Lacan and most importantly, Husserl’s phenomenology. In fact, Derrida was a critic of Foucault, who attacked his magnum opus by close reading just three of its pages at a conference—which was kind of embarrassing for Foucault, since he was an intellectual superstar in France. Hence, when someone speaks of the word “deconstruction”, do they mean Derrida or Foucault? Deconstruction is often associated with the former and not the latter (an article that mixes this up is this one).

Third (3), when Hicks quotes Derrida on how deconstruction consists of a certain “tradition” and “spirit” of Marxism, Derrida is referring to his book, Specters of Marx. Something important that I must point out from this book is that Derrida thinks criticizing Marx is equally important. Basically, Derrida is trying to speak of how there is a certain “spirit” of Marx, such as his ways of radical criticism, that people always-already carry out in our capitalist world today, even if Marxism is long dead (i.e. Hicks and Peterson—the latter even used a few Marxist ideas to fight against Marxism). Therefore, we are the “specters” of Marx—even when most of us are not strictly Marxists. This form of radical criticism is what Derrida sees in “deconstruction” (destruktion; de-structure; destroy; interpretation) as he tries to situate it in politics. Hick’s naive interpretation of Derrida shows how little he knows about him—for, Hicks is not aware of Derrida’s consistent use of allusions.

Let us look at a popular passage from Specters of Marx:

“There will be no future without this. Not without Marx, no future without Marx, without the memory and the inheritance of Marx: in any case of a certain Marx, of his genius, of at least one of his spirits. For this will be our hypothesis or rather our bias: there is more than one of them, there must be more than one of them.” 

This passage can be easily misread because it consists of at least two allusions that only Derridean readers can see. The first allusion is the word “spirit”, which refers to the way Heidegger avoids using the famous German word “Geist” (spirit) in his magnum opus, Being and Time. But after refusing to use this word, Heidegger suddenly starts using it later in his lectures. Derrida wrote about this in a famous book called, Of Spirit—a book that I think only Heideggerian experts can understand because it is incredibly difficult. The title “Of Spirit”, is also an allusion to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The German word “Geist” is sometimes regarded as untranslatable since it can mean “spirit”, “ghost” (specter), and “mind”. In Of Spirit, Derrida tries to figure out the morphology of Geist and what it could mean for Heidegger throughout his usages as he took part in National Socialism (See here). In addition, “Geist” is also important because Hegel uses it quite often as “zeigeist” and “volkgeist”. At the end of my last post on Quentin Meillassoux, did you notice how I put in quotation, the “spirit” of Derrida? This is why.

The second allusion in this passage, is Derrida’s use of the word “future” (protention) which cannot “be” without a “memory” of Marx (retention). Again, for those who has read my introductory post on Derrida, this should be easily understood because trace is the unity between a past (retention of Marx) and what is to come (protention) [but I must point out that “trace” is much more sophisticated since it relates to Heidegger’s Dasein and the unity between life and death]. Basically, Derrida is applying his early thoughts on Husserl and Heidegger into Marx. But since I have not published my still “in the works” writings on the relationships between Heidegger and Derrida (along with Husserl and Hegel), I will not speak of this further.

[Side note: I am not an expert on Lyotard. But I always had a theory on why he called 20th century French philosophy as “post-modernism”. In a Derridean sense, the term “post” revolves around what is to come from a modernism that has past.]

I think Derrida sometimes “hides” his thoughts behind allusions to shield from people who are not familiar with his works. This idea originates from Socrates, where he criticized writing since anyone can take any text and read it whichever way they want (similar to the problem that Derrida pointed out). Thus, Socrates privileged passing on his philosophy via speech instead of writing—an idea Derrida finds problematic since speech is a form of writing. Socrates did this in order to prevent sophists who knows nothing about philosophy from using his works against him. Hence, Socrates never wrote anything, you can only find him through the works of Plato, who was Socrates’ student. I think Derrida is doing something very similar in this quote from Specters of Marx. 

Finally (4), in terms of how all these “postmodernists” secretly rebrand themselves as “the new left”. The argument is not strong once you realize that most of these philosophers disagrees with each other quite a bit within the French intellectual arena. This suggests that it is not so much about politics in the political sense, but rather, it is about politics in the intellectual sense in regards to who has the better and accurate philosophy.

On another note, I don’t think I will defend for all “postmodernists” since I only read a selected few. We should consider how Derrida did not begin his career with Marx, but Husserl. Derrida’s first book was as an essay about Husserl’s, The Origins of Geometry. If we were to talk strictly about political philosophy, Derrida is much more influenced by Rousseau than Marx, where the former preceded the latter by one century. In particular, Derrida was influenced by Rousseau’s famous book, The Social Contract, his paper, The Essay on the Origin of Languages, and his autobiographies, The Confessions, and especially, Reveries of a Solitary Walker. In fact, Derrida was a reader of Rousseau since his teenage years. He has written essays on Rousseau in his early 20s, long before he became famous in his mid-30s when he wrote about Heidegger, Husserl and Saussure, but you would have to read those early essays in French.

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Quick Thoughts on Quentin Meillassoux

For those who keeps up with contemporary philosophy, Quentin Meillassoux is probably one of the most famous rising French philosopher who belongs to the movement known as Speculative Realism / Materialism. His book, After Finitude (2006) seeks to challenge the entire post-Kantian tradition by arguing for us to think beyond “correlationism”, and into what he terms “ancestrality”. Currently, this is my third time reading this book because I admire his ambition and cleverness. But I am not entirely convinced if we can achieve such thing.

To those who are new to philosophy or is unfamiliar with its history, correlationism refers to a highly influential philosophical thought by Immanuel Kant, who argued that our conceptions of causality (such as those seen in natural sciences, or what we call “natural laws”), ethics, metaphysics, etc. are only possible through the subject’s intuition of space and time. For my avid followers (which is probably zero lol) I have, in many of my previous posts, showed how this works in layman terms. Perhaps I shall once again repeat myself in an easily digestible way.

In order for their to be any objects in the world that appears before our eyes, there has to be a conscious thinking subject. If I was never born, I would not know that the Earth existed because I am not a subject who is capable of thinking of the Earth as an object for inquiry. As of this moment, I am able to conceive of Earth as an object because I am already a thinking subject. Therefore, the moment I am a thinking subject, Earth—the world-in-itself—is instantly related to me as the subject. This is what we can simply call “correlationism”, which means that there is always a correlation between the object and the conscious subject.

Now, this object which appears before our eyes, whatever it might be, is not completely knowable to us because we are not the object in-itself (since we are thinking subjects). Kant’s famous claim is that we can never know any object in-itself—at least never in the absolute sense. By saying that X object can be explained with Y properties via mathematics is to idealize the object in-itself. This is known as “transcendental idealism”. Kant’s ideas changed the way we see the world by showing that it is our conscious minds in relationship to these objects through spacetime, which sets the limits to all knowledge. This is “true” in pretty much all of natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), along with our everyday lives and how we see perceive objects around us. In short, correlationism is everywhere since this is how “perspective” arises (i.e. a unique perspective about the world is a unique way of correlating with the world as a subject).

Meillassoux points out that, ever since Kant’s philosophy, pretty much every philosopher assumes this Kantian position (which is true—at least from what I know). From Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida; with the last two who arguably represents the summit of correlationism (and to be fair, Nietzsche was also a critic of Kant in the sense that Kant only focuses on the mind and not the body—something which Heidegger, Derrida and Merleau-Ponty picks up on). Another words, we never really found a way to think beyond the correlationism between subject and object because Kant’s argument seems undeniably true and hard to completely reject.

Essentially, Meillassoux is attempting to think of the object independent of the subject beyond correlationism. He tries to do this by arguing that there are certain properties in the object which are absolute regardless of the existence of the subject. One of the prime examples of this property is mathematics (in particular to the notion of contingency). An example Meillassoux uses is the “ancestral statement” that “the date of the origin of life on earth was 3.5 billion years ago”. For Meillassoux, mathematics allows us to know what occurred in Earth 3.5 billion years ago, even when there were no human subject to witness such event. For Meillassoux, this statement should be seen as an absolute that is independent of the subject. Whereas a correlationalist would say: you know that the origin of life began 3.5 billion years ago because you are sitting here in spacetime inquiring the knowledge from this piece of writing. Another words, while it may appear that you are recalling to the beginnings of life on Earth as you read this “ancestral statement”, you are actually just sitting here in the present moment establishing a correlation with the object (in this case, the “ancestral statement”).

Here, we can summarize the main difference between Meillassoux and correlationists as follow. For Meillassoux, if the subject did not exist, the mathematical properties of X object will remain intact to the object because these properties are independent of the subject and are absolute. For correlationists, if the conscious subject did not exist, the object will not exist because there is no thinking subject who will be able to conceive of the object as such. But even if the subject exists, the subject is correlating themselves with the object through an idealism via mathematics, which is never the absolute properties of the object in-itself. Meillassoux argues for us to think beyond correlation by conceiving of an absolute ancestral thought without a subject—to think of a “thought” that is independent of subjective thought. Yet, in the views of a correlationalist—the “thought” about this “non-thought” is still a thought conceived by the subject.

So far, I have read several responses to Meillassoux’s work. The most memorable one is by Alenka Zupancic (a Lacanian), who clearly stated that ancestral statements means nothing. I thought it was memorable because of how straight forward she was in the book (a bit like me, forward and to the point). Maybe it was because I secretly wanted to reject Meillassoux’s thoughts that I remembered her response. But since I don’t like jumping to conclusions so quickly, I will suspend my judgement until further notice. Overall, I am not sure if Meillassoux’s ideas will “work”.

I have recently been searching for other books hoping that they would offer me alternate insights on Meillassoux’s problem on Kant. One of the books I recently ordered is by Geoffrey Bennington (a renown student, translator, and scholar of Derrida) called, Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth (2017). I expect it to have lots of Kant, and the “spirit” of Derrida in it. I look forward to reading it regardless of whether it will help me determine if Meillassoux’s thoughts will work or not.

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Writing Before the Letter: Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction

“No one will ever know from what secret I write and the fact that I say so changes nothing.” —Jacques Derrida

Reading Derrida is no easy task. Today, I will show you an easier way of understanding some of the major components to Derrida’s project on “deconstruction”. We will be looking at the “problem” of interpretation and why there are infinite interpretations to any texts.

To give you a background about myself, I have studied Derrida for the past 6+ years. I am relatively fluent in a lot of his most difficult ideas such as trace, differance, hauntology, and their relationship with our own “Being” in a Heideggarian and Freudo-Lacanian sense. Before I was known by my peers and colleagues as the “Derrida guy”, I extensively studied many works written by Jean Baudrillard.

Although this post will be quite “intense” (just like me when I talk about philosophy in real life) and “robust”, it supposes that the reader knows nothing about the history of philosophy, Ferdinand de Saussure’s general linguistics, semiotics and Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. This means that I will be trying to explain Derrida’s thoughts in layman terms, which is not easy. Despite my attempts in simplicity, this post will gradually get more difficult and abstract due to the nature of the topic such as time-consciousness and the way you are experiencing this piece of writing.

An Overview on the “Problem” of Interpretation (Not a Problem)

Derrida is known for showing that there are infinite number of interpretations in any text (or events). As soon as any (philosophical) book leaves the original author and gets distributed to its readers, the reader becomes the author where they reproduce their own unique interpretation and meanings of the text. What this “meaning” consists of will depend on the reader’s contextual framework that takes place as they read the book. Now, suppose that the readers of this first book becomes authors who responds to the original author; and the people who reads this new author’s works becomes authors. As a result, we end up creating more books based on our “unique” interpretations of other texts which eventually leads to centuries of books, novels, and every single piece of writing on the planet.

Since interpretation and meaning is determined by context, in order for me to fully understand the intentions of the original author, there is a demand that I must understand their contextual background or “where they are coming from”. Thus, if I want to understand this brand new philosophy book, I will have to read all of these other books to develop a more “accurate” interpretation of the author. As a result, I end up chasing the entire history of philosophy because that is what the original author did. This is where Derrida takes a jab at philosophy since nearly all philosophy books are a response to other philosophers (and all books are influenced by other books in general—particularly literature).

Now, the complexity of this lies within the way which language functions differently through different periods of time. For example, certain words might appear offensive in today’s usage, while it would be considered normal and polite from another point in history. As individuals, we are always fixed and located within a predetermined set of linguistic-structure of our time where these existing syntax, lexicon, conditions, rules and traditions influences the way we interpret texts differently than those who lived in a different space and time.

Another problem with closely interpreting these texts in the book is that the inscription of writing also consists of a series historical contexts which transformed itself into English language as such. Every language is a translation, mediation, and a combination of other historical languages. Therefore, we encounter the same problem where, in order to understand certain terms and words within the book, we also have to understand its historical background: the etymology of words. As we attempt to do this, we will discover that language and translations are actually full of holes and gaps known as an “aporia” , where the meaning of certain words becomes undecidable. The most famous example is from Derrida’s Plato’s Pharmacy, where the English translation in some of Plato’s works shows how the word “Pharmakon” can mean “poison”, “remedy”, and “scapegoat” at the same time. This is why Derrideans likes to play with translations, since these aporias reveals the contradictory nature of interpretation. It is also one of many reasons why Derrideans are often found in comparative literature and literature departments rather than philosophy departments in universities.

Essentially, it is impossible to acquire the entire context of any book since they are based on a “unique” interpretation of the previous (historical) authors, where these authors are based on readings of other authors, and to infinity. There is no such thing as an “accurate” interpretation of a book that is identical to the intentionality of the original author—including Derrida’s own “deconstruction” of the text. This is the fundamental nature of interpretation regardless of how clear someone’s writing is. Even if you read a book closely (i.e. “deconstruction”) the reader will discover the author’s contradictions and the instability / uncertainty of their thoughts. At the same time, the reader will also encounter their own interpretive contradictions as they closely read the author’s work. When you read Derrida, you are reading him read other people’s works. The frustration people get while reading Derrida is part of what he is trying to show you when you close read any text. But this does not mean that one cannot establish meaning or interpretation to any readings. Rather, and once again, meaning (i.e. truth) is defined and established by a contingent historical framework that is unique to the individual subject which can never be temporally “pinned down” with precision due to the phenomenological experience of time-consciousness.

On Language: Speech and Writing

“Socrates—he who does not write” — Friedrich Nietzsche

In the most general sense, language consists of two forms: speech and writing. Let us begin by considering how you are reading a written transcript of my spoken words in this post. Three phenomenon occurs (I will use some of these as a point of reference later on):

1) This writing becomes the representation of my spoken words where I would have communicated to you in spoken form if you sat in front of me. This argument traces back to Plato, who suggested that writing is only used to represent speech, whereas speech is more authentic than writing because it is representation of our mental thoughts. This argument as we will see later on, is false.

2) As you read these words, you are supplementing my absent being as a presence. You are reading this text as if I am speaking / communicating to you, even when I am not speaking / communicating to you before your eyes (I will get to this in the next point). This supplementation happens all the time. For example, when we read a novel, we are reading it as if the characters in it are present in our mind, even when they are absent. You are reading Samuel Beckett, even when you are reading an inscription of a ghost who died 30 years ago. The news reporter appears to be talking to you on the television, even when they are absent and you are looking at a black screen. Writing consists of an element of absence. There are times when we recognize this absence within writing—such as when a stranger sends you an email, text message, post card or a letter and you fail to supplement their absence since you do not know who they are. Another instance where this absence becomes apparent is when we encounter a word that is untranslatable.

3) When you are reading this text, I am actually not talking to you because you are talking to yourself. The presence that you supplement for my absence is not me, but yourself, the reader. You are the speaker of my (your) words. This phenomenon will be very important for us to understand once we get to Husserlian phenomenology, where we will learn why “the reader becomes the author”. Essentially, “silent reading” is never silent because we are always talking to ourselves through internal monologue.

Sounds (Phonemes) and Images (Graphemes)

Now that I have roughly sketched out the premises of our discussion, let us quickly learn Saussure’s general linguistics. I began by saying that, language consists of two forms: speech and writing. Let us consider these forms by isolating them from each other.

Speech by itself consists of individual units of sounds. These individual units can be anything from a baby uttering non-sense, all the way to you talking to your boss about how incompetent they are. In short, speech is heard and not seenOn the other hand, writing consists solely of visual elements. Just as a baby who utters units of sounds which makes “no sense”, she can also scribble visible lines on a piece of paper in unintelligible ways. Writing is what we refer as image, which is the visual elements of language. What is unique about images is that it is not restricted to “writing” or any forms of inscription. Images also includes everything that we see and it is the dominate form of language. For example, the physical cup that is sitting beside my computer which I can visually see is what I phonetically call “cup”. This is why Derrida will often say that writing is everywhere since everything we see are images.

If unique sounds are not seen, and unique images are without sounds, then how do we know certain sounds relates to certain images? We know that specific units of images refers to a specific unit of sound because we are aware of the “concept” of language. I know that, the image “A” is associated with the sound “A” because I already understand the concept—which is that of English language.

Saussure referred semiotics as “general” linguistics because he saw how “sounds” can be represented with even more specific sonic units known as “phonemes”; and “images” into specific “graphemes” (and within these, we can create even more units such as glossemes, cheremes, etc.). In effect, this turns language into an object that can be studied as a science, such as linguistics. For Derrida, expanding general linguistics into phonemes and graphemes does not solve any of the fundamental problems of language in relationship to “being” in the Heideggarian sense. This is because Derrida saw how linguists are just going to create more conceptual sounds and images to represent our current system of sounds and images. We must be cautious here, because Derrida is not trying to critique linguistics.

Signifier and Signified

Ultimately, these varying units of sounds and images are what Saussure calls “signifier”. Whereas the “concept” is how these specific sounds and images creates meaning—of what we shall call the “ideality of sense”. It “makes sense” that the sound and image of the word “tree” coincides with each other. Yet, there is no particular reason why the sound “tree” is linked to the image of a tree. Their relationship is “arbitrary”. This is known as the “arbitrariness of the sign”.

Before we move any further, let us once again, return to the beginning where I said that language consists of two forms: speech (sounds) and writing (images). What we begin to see is how the fundamental properties of speech and writing are required in order to represent the concept of language. Another words, speech is actually a form of writing and vice versa, since they are both representing the same language that we already know. Thus, Plato was wrong when he said that writing is only used to represent speech, and that speech is more authentic than writing since it is closer to our thoughts (refer #1).

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The complication arises from the influence of Louis Hjelmslev at the Copenhagen school of linguistics, who points out that the signifier (sound-image) is characterized as physical forms, whereas the signified “concept” is a mental concept. For example, we get a mental concept, such as an image of a tree in our minds, when we physically read the signifier “tree” as it appears before your eyes on this page. This “material” external form of writing (i.e. this text) along with the external sounds you hear (i.e. when someone is talking to you) are combined together as an mental “internal” concept. Everything that is visually external to you, along with every sound you externally make / hear, is only possible because of how your brain processed it internally. When someone is explaining to you how thunderclouds are formed at a coffee shop, you are creating an internal mental image of what they are externally signifying as they speak.

Differance

The twist Derrida puts into all this, are two things. First, this internal signified / “mental concept”, is actually just more signifiers (we will not fully understand why this is the case until we get to Husserl’s phenomenology and temporality). For example, if I write the word “poop”, in your head you will be thinking of poop in conjunction with speaking to yourself the sound “poop”. This mental “poop”—the “mental concept”, which is an image of a piece of poop—is just another signifier, and not a signified. To explain this simply, Derrideans often uses the popular “chasing the dictionary” example. Every signifier I search in the dictionary (i.e. poop) will lead me to its definition (signified), which is just more signifiers that are used to describe the signifier I searched for. Suppose that, within this definition, I do not know what another signifier meant, and I begin to search for that signifier and the same thing happens. As a result, I endlessly chase the dictionary around for signifiers, only to find out that there are near infinite amount of signifiers that represents other signifiers (also, when I search and look into the etymology of these signifiers, I find more signifiers). These signifiers which leads to different signifiers is where the idea of difference comes from (it is also found in Saussure’s text, I cannot recall where from memory). The fact that I know poop is not the same as dog or table, chair, etc. allows poop to have its meaning.

Derrida deploys the word “differance” (a spelling mistake) to describe how the signifier’s meaning is established by what it is not—such as its oppositions—where meaning is never completely stable due to these differences. In addition, differance is also used to show how the presence of meaning is only possible through its own absence via differences, which is nevertheless still “present” (something we will not understand until later on). The reason why Derrida changes the “e” to an “a” is to show that writing can actually do more than speech. In French, the proper spelling of “difference”, and the spelling mistake “differance” verbally sounds the same. Their differences can only be recognized in writing. Here, Derrida is taking a “revenge” on Plato for calling writing secondary even when it is not. There are more reasons why Derrida calls it “differance” such as its play on the words “differ” and “defer”—I will not talk about these here (See his essay called, Differance).

Second, while Hjelmslev thinks only the signified is an internal mental concept. We now see how—since the signified is just more signifiers—even the signifier becomes internal. This will be a contradiction that we will encounter in the next few sections between Husserl’s external “indication” and internal “expression”. It is why Derrida points out that, “the outside is the inside” and “there is no transcendental signified”. This “transcendental” is what lies outside of us as subjective being, such as this text. There is no outside signified because they are just internal signifiers expanding infinitely in our minds via differance as you read my writing. Thus, Derrida’s famous passage: “there is no outside text”. I will demonstrate the concept of differance under our experience of time-consciousness later on.

Indication (Signifier) and Expression (Signified)

We will now add another twist to all of this by introducing the Husserlian terms: Indication and Expression which is more or less equivalent to the Saussurean Signifier and Signified. Recall how the signifier represents an external physical form of sound-image, whereas the signified represents an internal mental concept—which, for Derrida, is just more signifiers. Coincidentally, Husserl also makes a similar distinction between the indicative sign which is external, and the expressive sign which is internal.

For Husserl, indication “points” to an expression (indication is what Derrida sometimes calls, “the point of the finger”, or “monstration” as in “de-monstration”). The best example of indication is this piece of writing (or language in general). But if I write “asfopfaddsg”, this external indicative sign points to an expression which we do not know (a word / indication that we don’t know its “meaning” / expression to). Similar to what we already know, Husserl saw how indication (signifier) functions as a physical medium which serves as a form of communication such as speech and writing (i.e. this writing). All indications are entangled with an expression (signified) since we are already familiar with the English language.

Indication / expression is quite complex. Through Husserl’s thoughts, Derrida associates indication / expression with not just speech and writing, but with the movement of our physical bodies. This will be something which I will not explain because to really understand it, you have to be somewhat fluent in Husserlian phenomenology.

Inner Monologue, Expression and Animating Intention

“We are all mediators, translators.” — Jacques Derrida

Let us look at this piece of writing very carefully. Not many people visit my blog—only those who wish to stalk me or is genuinely interested in the things I write would come here. If no one reads this writing, this text does not exist—it is literally, “dead”. Indication (writing) by itself is dead. But as soon as someone (i.e. a living being such as yourself) reads and interprets this writing, indication is animated by the person (you) as an expression (refer #2 and #3). This animation of indication into expression is what we shall call intentionality. Every time you animate this text, there is always an intention, even if this intention is of no intention.

Let us once again recall that indication (signifier) is external; expression (signified) is internal. For Derrida, since expression (signified) consists of more indications (of signifiers established by differance), indication is also an internal phenomenon. The complexities between indication and expression lies in how they are two sides of the same coin. When I indicatively write this post (or when I speak), I have an intention to express something from my internal mental thoughts into external indicative writing. At the same time, I am also expressing myself while I internally indicate (speak) to myself. Internal expression is entangled with “external” (internal) indication because I am internally talking to myself as I write; and this is what makes “inner monologue” as such. In the same way, when you (the reader) are interpreting this external indicative text, you are reanimating my writing with your own internal expressions and indications—i.e. you are talking to yourself as you read this text (refer #3). My external indicative writing becomes your internal expression / indication as you reanimate it with an intention that is uniquely your own. To help you understand this, I will share a diagram from my notebook:

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As the author, I am someone who attempts to communicate by animating internal indications which occurs in my mind as expressions. The author passes from internal expression (indication / speaking to myself) externally as indicative writing. Inversely, when you read this indicative writing (“text”), the reader (you) reanimates my indicative writing into their (your) own internal expression / indication (refer #3). The word “intention” that is written on top of the arrows on both side of author / reader are heterogeneous—they are of different intentionalities.

This is where we understand one of the reasons why there are infinite interpretation to any text. Pure intentionality cannot be transmitted through speech / writing. Furthermore, this is also where we discover the difficulty of translation since we can never fully inherit the intentions of the original author. Hence, “pharmakon” which can translate into “remedy”, “poison” and “scapegoat” becomes undecidable. We simply do not know which word Plato meant. And whether it is one or the other depends on the intentionality of the reader / translator. Most importantly, this “pure” intentionality cannot even be expressed within our internal minds due to the effects of differance and temporality because it is always influenced by the reader’s unique contingent historical context and how they are always situated within a certain linguistic-epistemological framework.

Trace, Differance, Spacing and Temporality

“Time is out of joint” —Hamlet

We will now take one step further and integrate some of Derrida’s thoughts on how the signified (expression) is just a bunch of signifiers (indication) that occurs internally in our mind which is characterized by differance. We will also be drawing relationship on how this physical external indication which represents the phenomenon of space (“spatial”), entangles with our internal expression which is related to our consciousness of time (“temporal”). This will lead to a famous Derridean passage in Of Grammatology, on how our consciousness opens up the notion of “spacing”, which is “the becoming time of space [external] and the becoming space of time [internal]”. Just as external indication (space) is actually an infinite internal expression (through time), for Derrida, space and time are inseparable because they constitute each other as such.

The common perception of time is that it runs linearly in sequence, such as: “1…2…3…4…5…”, etc. In this case, while numbers are a representation and measurement of time, it does not account for how we experience time from a first person perspective. The best example of understanding our experience of time is to compare it to how you are reading this text which also appears as a linear line (this is an idea from Heidegger that Derrida borrows from). Temporality consists of three main aspects. First (1), there consists of this very moment of “now”—of every single word you read in this sentence which is characterized as “the present moment”. The second (2) is the idea of “retention” where every single recognition (repetition) of this now is retained in our brain as what had just past. The third (3) is protention, which is the anticipation of what is to come in the near future which can never be fully predicted.

The complexity of this phenomenon is how every signifier you just read constantly refers itself to a retention / past—of what I shall now vaguely call as “history” (or historical context). In order for me to understand this sentence, I have to retain the words at the very beginning. Just as, if I want to understand this post, I have to retain the information that was first introduced. Above all else, if I want to “understand” Derrida, I have to retain and understand the historical context of Husserl, Heidegger, Saussure, etc. who in themselves defers to more historical philosophers, poets, scholars and to infinity.

For Derrida, retention is a combination of all sorts. It is not a simple retention or short term memory of this moment, but an infinite deferral of a past / historical discourse that has always already been influenced by our imagination, memories, and our linguistic-epistemological framework (i.e. how we use words synchronically vs diachronically). If I remember correctly, Derrida refers to retention as “Now X” as in “undefined”; and not “A” like in my diagram below. Another words, this present moment is only possible through the retention of the words you had just read—which is influenced by your own pre-established historical discourse. This is where we see differance taking full effect through its own absence.

The infinite movement of differance that occurs in our internal conscious mind is the absence of this word that you had just read. Indeed, what allows for a “presence” of meaning to establish is characterized by what had just disappeared into “space” as you read—namely, of what this word is not (as you just read it through time). Yet, this disappeared word still nevertheless “appear” to be “present” through our consciousness of temporality via retention (of X), even when it is absent. This quasi appearance of presence that reveals between the spaces of words as we read this sentence, is what Derrida famously calls, “Spacing” (of time).

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In this diagram, the straight long arrow represents the linearity of time. What we see is how the “Now” (B) is only possible through the retention of A (or “X”, as Derrida would put it since it is a retention of all sorts). B is “B” because it is not “A”. And what sits between the space of B, A, and C is referred as spacing. This is why Derrida points out how the empty white space in this page takes on an importance. Our interpretation of every word relies on an abstract and absent mode of a historical past that has already been “written” before the subjective reader engages with the text (i.e. your unique contingent historico-linguistical-contextual framework which allows you to establish meaning as you interpret every word in this text). This abstract and absent writing of space is what Derrida calls “archi-writing”, the most originary and unique form of writing. Thus, to “interpret” is “to read what wrote itself between the lines” which is a radically different “organization of space” than what appears as linear before our eyes. This is one of the reasons why the first part in Of Grammatology is called “Writing before the Letter”.

Now, the trickiest part of all this is how retention is also a mixed with protention as we read this text. Another words, what allows for our articulation of this present moment is not only that it is never “present” since it refers to a past, but it is also always moving towards a protention—such as your anticipation of the next word as you read. This “phenomenon”, if we can call it that (we can’t since this idea precedes phenomenology), is what Derrida famously calls, “Trace”. This “concept” of trace (not a concept), which is very similar to differance, is an abstract term devoid of any presence (I have demonstrated enough times on how this moment is constituted by differance, which is also a trace towards a past / anticipation). Trace is what Derrida refers as “the unity between retention and protention”—of past and “what is to come”.

In Derrida’s later works, you will see how he puts trace into action with his famous ideas of a “democracy to come”. You can also see this in his essay, “For the Love of Lacan!” where he tries to predict what his readers would say in the future after his death by continuously saying, “What would Derrida have said!”, “What would Lacan have said!”. Derrida’s famous concept known as “hauntology” that is found in his later work, Specters of Marx, is also an example of trace where the past Other haunts the present from the future. Finally, Derrida also situates the notion trace with Emmanuel Levinas and his famous phenomenological “face to face” ethics.

Metaphysics of Presence and Origin-Heterogeneous

“Metaphysics of presence” is a term Derrida borrows from Heidegger (physics studies reality; metaphysics studies what lies beyond reality—the term is hard to explain unless you already know what it is). Basically, Derrida thinks we have always privileged a form of immediate presence via metaphysics, which forces a “closure” in language by establishing a stable meaning. Derrida often refers to this presence of closure as “logocentrism”.  One of the reason is how there is no meaning that is “stable” due to the temporal effects of differance, trace, and the shift in the ways we use language over time. Every time we conceive of the “now”—the metaphysics of presence of the present moment—is always already a past. In other words, there is never a “now” moment (the presence of the present), since time is always moving between retention (past) and protention (future). Another reason for this notion of logocentrism is the idea that we tend to focus on retention of the past instead of opening ourselves up to the future to come.

Recall how, when we read a book and attempt to understand it, we end up chasing the entire history. What we are really doing is we are trying to look for the “origin” of the author’s intentions in order to read them “accurately”. We often think we have found this “origin” through our interpretation of their book (and their influences) while privileging the “metaphysics of presence”; even when this origin cannot be found since it is based on our contingent historical discourse of a past that is always moving towards the future as new knowledge is acquired, which might change how one interprets the past. Then there is also the problem of intentionality which cannot be transmitted through speech and writing.

Let us apply everything we have learnt: your interpretation of the word—“origin”—implies how there are no origins since it is established by your retention which traces to all sorts of past along with future that is always to come which might change how you see this past. This is what Derrida calls “origin-heterogeneous”. Trace is the origin of your interpretation of the word “origin”. Trace is an absolute singularity because its concept does not exist. This is the most fundamental concept of deconstruction. Thus, “deconstruction” deconstructs itself.

You were reading a somewhat retro loveletter, the last in history. But you have not yet received it. Yes, its lack or excess of address prepares it to fall into all hands: a post card, an open letter in which the secret appears, but indecipherably. What does a post card want to say to you? On what conditions is it possible?

Its destination traverses you, you no longer know who you are. At the very instant when from its address it interpellates, you, uniquely you, instead of reaching you it divides you or sets you aside, occasionally overlooks you. And you love and you do not love, it makes of you what you wish, it takes you, it leaves you, it gives you.

On the other side of the card, look, a proposition is made to you, S and P, Socrates and Plato. For once the former seems to write, and with his other hand he is even scratching. But what is Plato doing with his outstretched finger in his back? While you occupy yourself with turning it around in every direction, it is the picture that turns you around like a letter, in advance it deciphers you, it preoccupies space, it procures your words and gestures, all the bodies that you believe you invent in order to determine its outline. You find yourself, you, yourself, on its path. […]


If you enjoyed this post, I have written about Derrida in many of my other posts:
A close reading of Derrida’s book, “Voice and Phenomenon” (or Speech and Phenomena).
A reading on one of Derrida’s early lectures on Martin Heidegger and his first use of the word “deconstruction”.
A response to Stephen Hick’s critique on “Postmodernism” and Derrida; I also expand on some of the ideas presented in this post..
A response to Geoffrey Bennington’s lecture on Derrida.
A response to Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson’s debate where I address the contingency of Nature through Derrida’s conception of trace.

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