Commentaries, Contemplation

On Jean Baudrillard: Seduction, Hyperreality, and the Murder of the Real

“Philosophy leads to death, sociology leads to suicide” —Jean Baudrillard

Today, we shall enter the desert of the real and examine Jean Baudrillard’s ideas on simulation, hyperreality and their relationships with his concept of seduction. It will address various topics such as nuclear deterrence, gender roles, feminism, sexual liberation, photography, and the death of universities. Many people have trouble reading Baudrillard due to his prose and borderline insane ideas. His works are written with a very distinctive style that happens to be declarative, hyperbolic, provocative, and obscure. Personally, I think Baudrillard is an incredible critical thinker in his own right—even if he does not have his own school of thought. This might be due to how he sort of just quits academia at one point and stops associating himself with any academic disciplines. It may also have something to do with how he grew up in a peasant rural family who was, at first, never considered as part of the 20th century French intellectual elites. 

Baudrillard was one of the first philosophers that I read closely back in my undergraduate days when I studied photography. His books left a lasting impact on the way I think. In many ways, Baudrillard’s ideas on simulation and hyperreality is a reinterpretation of the Platonic cave. Some of his ideas gained so much fame that his work was featured in the film, The Matrix. One of the biggest mistakes people make when they read Baudrillard is to think he is a postmodernist because he isn’t. Baudrillard is a big critic of postmodernism. He is also a sharp critic of Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, and many other thinkers of his time. Some contemporary scholars believe Baudrillard is Manichean—someone who breaks everything down into dualisms such as good and evil. While others believed he leaned towards being a pataphysician who was heavily influenced by Marcel Mauss.

Baudrillard became well known when he wrote a book called Forget Foucault (1977). At the time of publish, he even sent a copy to Foucault—who was one of the world’s most renown philosophers at the time—and asked him to read it (Foucault never responded). While Forget Foucault remains an important book to read, the best books to understand Baudrillardian thought is Seduction (1979) and Simulacra and Simulation (1981) [he has other important works such as Symbolic Exchange and Death, Fatal Strategies and Cool Memories]. These two texts provides two important dimensions of Baudrillardian thought that I will talk about today.

As already cited by many past scholars, Baudrillard was one of the few philosophers who tried to reconcile the incompatible differences between reality and illusion. He sometimes subtly points out how the disappearance of one yields to the destiny of the other. In short, Baudrillard’s method can be summarized with a single line from Friedrich Nietzsche: “We do not believe the truth remains true once the veil has been lifted”. Today, we will place extra emphasis on the word “veil”, which is associated with seduction: the disguise and play of appearance and meanings.

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The first main aspect of his thought lies in how Baudrillard thinks we are living in a world where we no longer know what is real and what isn’t. Simulacra and Simulation provides one of the best examples. The book begins with an apparent quote from Ecclesiastes, a quote that does not exist in the famous Hebrew bible: “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” Many people who read this book for the first time often believes the quote as true, even when it isn’t. What is important about this example is not only that the same phenomena happens in contemporary world of simulations, it also occurs from the reader interpreting Baudrillard’s book (this was how I got into Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction). The experience of reading Simulacra and Simulation emphasizes on this constant state of confusion.

One can see something similar in the use of “nuclear deterrence” and how its fundamental goal is to make nuclear weapons so to not use them. You sometimes read news about X country producing nuclear weapons without the intentions for nuclear war, but to protect themselves from other nuclear armed countries. In nuclear deterrence, instead of producing a real nuclear conflict via making nuclear weapons, it produces a simulated mode of conflict between countries. If I remember correctly, Baudrillard used the cold war as an example. This is one of the reasons why, in Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard talks about how people dream of nuclear explosions which result in simulating them in televisions and movies instead of making them a reality.

Baudrillard also brings to point on the emergence of photography and how it was invented at a time where reality was beginning to disappear as it gets usurped by hyperrealities. He sometimes talks about how realist photography does not actually focus on capturing what is real in the situation. If you look at Baudrillard’s own photographic art exhibitions, one might recognize such techniques in his images (often referred as the “vanishing technique”). Regardless, Baudrillard foresaw how the world would eventually be replaced by infinite simulated hyperrealities where people will no longer know what is real.

Baudrillard also uses the Borges fable as an example of hyperreality. The story talks about how cartographers mapped their empire that covers the entire land with precision. Yet over time, the empire falls into ruins and new empires establishes new borders. Reality changes, but the map remains intact and exists as the remainder. The territory no longer precedes the map, it is the map that precedes the territory—just like that of media, books, scholarships, and television, for example. In the same way, Baudrillard believes that reality no longer precedes simulation. Instead, simulations precedes reality, where the latter has become more real than real and more false than false.

It can be said that hyperrealities are produced through interpretation and forcing our ideals onto reality—hence the “murder of the real”. Later in Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard introduces hyperrealities as the remainder of society and universities. Unlike gender or reality, the remainder lacks a binary opposition (Masculine/Feminine, Reality/Illusion, Remainder/          ???). The other side of remainder is empty—it is a reflection from a mirror which is the remainder itself. The entire society becomes residual and reality is murdered, but so are universities which produces endless knowledge without finality. For Baudrillard, the real university, just like that of reality, has been long dead. What remains are endless simulation of realities. Even a strike would have the opposite effect, for it can only bring back the ideal of what is possible of a real university, a fiction that is no longer possible within a system of hyperrealities. This is one of the reasons why “sociology leads to suicide”. Sociology, just like that of feminism and sexual liberation (will get to later), seeks to uncover and strip the world naked by producing meaning and simulacrum by declaring what is most real about society. As a result, it produces new realities of the world that often exists independent of our immediate reality and the seductive beliefs people have (then there is also the problem of statistics and induction which plagues the social sciences; Baudrillard often referred statistics as a form of wishful thinking). In other words, sociology is suicidal in the sense that it produces hyperreal discourses that may lead to something like a delusion. Just like that of contemporary media, sociological findings can produce the Borges map that people immediately accept as reality without question. For Baudrillard, we are living in a world where meaning murders other meanings without consequences. Simulacrum versus other simulacra which becomes endless play of simulacra—to the point that everyone within the system becomes simulacrum.

Near the end of Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard points out how he is a nihilist. Since our world is flooded with meanings, discourses, and hyperrealities, the real has been lost in translation. Reality is dead and what remains is an infinite amount of meanings and hyperrealities that replaced reality—sort of like Starbucks which used to make pumpkin spice lattes without pumpkins in it. In the final passage of the book, Baudrillard emphasized on the irony of the situation. He ends the book by addressing how it is within this space of simulation where seduction begins.

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The second aspect of Baudrillard’s thought is more complex and it is best highlighted in his book Seduction. In it, there is a chapter called “Death in Samarkand” which tells a story of a soldier who tries to escape death while inevitably running into it. The point of this story is to show how the more people try to deviate from their fate, the more likely they will encounter it. The story leads Baudrillard into talking about the theme of chance which exceeds beyond causality and probability. Chance serves as a fundamental aspect to seduction (many French philosophers at the time spoke of chance in a similar way). Nevertheless, the “Death in Samarkand” story could resemble something like North Korea trying to build nuclear weapons so to avoid war, but ends up being threatened by other countries of going to war. Hence, what we see is a contradiction that Baudrillard highlights: between producing nukes to prevent real conflict, while inevitably running towards their own fate of going into another “real” (hyperreal) / simulated conflict. As Baudrillard writes, one always runs towards their own fate while trying to escape it.

Just like nuclear deterrence which ends up producing the opposite effects of preventing conflict, Baudrillard takes on the position that people’s emancipations are doing something similar. This can be seen in feminism and the sexual liberation. In the first chapter of Seduction, Baudrillard provocatively asserts to the Freudian view that the stability and production of reality and meaning is only possible due to the dimensions of the masculine, whereas the play of appearance, meanings and signs are only possible due to the feminine—the latter which he refer as “seduction”. Despite appearing on taking the Freudian psychoanalytic position, Baudrillard makes a reverse argument and points out how it isn’t the masculine dimension which produces and defines feminine reality as such (patriarchy), it is the feminine which challenges and produces the masculine certainty by exception via seduction. Baudrillard even points out that, the great theorist of split subjectivity Jacques Lacan, along with the entire field of psychoanalysis, also falls into the realm of seduction.

The irony that Baudrillard saw within the theme song of feminism (as he puts it) and their desire to break down gender roles is that they secretly had the upper hand in our patriarchal society by strategically manipulating it via seduction through a certain mode of challenge and the play of appearance, signs, and meanings. The feminine had always been the secret force of society which undermined all modes of masculine certainty and power. Yet, Baudrillard points out how feminists are depriving of their own strengths as they get caught up in the world of simulations which led them astray (because a lot of them dread seduction). As feminism sought to deviate from such seductive truth, they ended up producing more gender roles. As a result, it created an even more confusing world of simulations and simulacra. This is where Baudrillard criticizes the sexual liberation, which broke down gender roles. For Baudrillard, while the sexual liberation broke down gender roles via the production of new simulated realities (i.e. new realities of gender, etc.), he saw that people are still deeply seduced by / believed in gender roles—including those who sought to break them down.

At this point, it is easy to mistake Baudrillard as some anti-feminist, even when Baudrillard also did not believe in gender roles. But because he saw how people are seduced by it (they believe in it)—an old idea that is incompatible with our increasingly hyperreal world today, Baudrillard thinks gender roles still holds a lot of power in our society. One of the main problems Baudrillard had with the sexual liberation and the production of simulations is how its environment also produced people who can no longer make sense of their world and their roles in society due to the abundance of hyperrealities—a true existential crisis and mass depression of sorts, where people no longer know what is real and what isn’t. The result of this uncertain world would lead people to try and uncover what gender truly is, for example—like what you see in feminist thinker Luce Irigaray (i.e. her idea that “anatomy is destiny”; Irigaray was heavily criticized by Baudrillard in Seduction). Yet, for Baudrillard, it was never about producing or uncovering the truth of sex or gender. Rather, it had been about seduction which reversed and dissolved all gendered power relations via the play of appearances and meanings.

Baudrillard always saw how there was a seductive allure to the feminine “sex object” (via play of appearances) who is able to reverse and dissolve all modes of masculine power. In some of his other books, Baudrillard sometimes referred to this way of thinking as the “triumph of the object” which involves the subject who believes they are in power, even when it is the object who holds the power of the subject. The object holds the subject as hostage. It is for example, not the subject in power who watches the television (object), but the television (i.e. media) who watches the subject to the point that it manipulates and changes the subject—reversing all power relationships and creating a simulacrum subjectivity. This reverse relationship is what Baudrillard categorized as being part of seduction. The object is presented to the subject of power as a form of challenge, seduction, play of appearance and signs.

The confusion lies in the relationship between simulation, which comes from the production of new realities and meanings; and seduction which involves the play of these new simulated appearance of meanings and becoming seduced by them. The two terms lives in an eternal paradox, where the production of different realities will also lead to the inevitable play of seduction. In several places from both books, Baudrillard noted that simulation and seduction shares a similar dimension in the sense that the former seeks to become reality (more real than real, and more false than false), whereas the latter is the play of reality and appearances. For Baudrillard, nothing can triumph over seduction and the play of signs, not even the masculine production of simulation. In Seduction, Baudrillard writes:

“Now surprisingly, this proposition, that in the feminine the very distinction between authenticity and artifice is without foundation, also defines the space of simulation. Here too one cannot distinguish between reality and its models, there being no other reality than that secreted by the simulative models, just as there is no other femininity than that of appearances. Simulation too is insoluble.

This strange coincidence points to the ambiguity of the feminine: it simultaneously provides radical evidence of simulation, and the only possibility of its overcoming – in seduction, precisely.” (11)

Ultimately, Baudrillard’s thoughts provides us with the compatible incompatibilities between reality and illusion (simulation). With the disappearance of reality lies the destiny of simulation—the latter which can be overcome by the force of seduction. For Baudrillard, seduction allows people to accept simulative and hyperreal spaces via disguises and the play of appearances, signs, and meanings. Yet on the other hand, with the disappearance or revelation of simulations (i.e. gender roles) also lies the destiny of reality. While one can simulate some hyperreal truth via production of what is real (i.e. the truth of sex, gender, society, etc.), the desert of the real is recognized once such veil gets removed. For Baudrillard, revealing the truth will only show us that there are no truths because there was never really anything “real” to begin with; since humans had long began imposing their own modes of thoughts, realities, and Borges maps onto reality. This is what Baudrillard refer as “the perfect crime”.

Due to how Baudrillard thinks we are living in a world of simulations, he sometimes points out how he is a believer of seduction. This is because, for him, seduction is the solution to our world of simulation and the loss of what is real, which leads to people losing their purpose in this world. The recognition of “truth” via the realization of simulations would lead people to try and recover what is most real which results in producing more simulations like those found in feminist movements, sociology, literature, and other texts. Yet at the same time, the production of simulation would also lead to the eternal destiny of feminine seduction which seduces the subject into believing these simulations as truth. This is the paradox that lives at the core of Baudrillardian thought.

To simplify the second aspect of Baudrillard’s ideas while retaining the paradoxes, we can put it as such: while Baudrillard believes gender roles are false, he thinks that because people are still seduced by such idea, we should adopt them and take advantage of it as modes of illusions which would blend or erase their differences. Instead of trying to assert or reveal the “truth” of gender and sex like that of sexual liberation and feminism (which produces more simulations), or completely deny it by claiming that gender is not real like postmodernists, Baudrillard thinks we should adopt gender roles as seductive disguises that is more real than real and more false than false.

Reading Baudrillard is like encountering how these paradoxes and contradictions collides and reconcile with each other, between simulation and seduction, reality and illusion, good and evil, man and woman, masculine and feminine. I often admired the ending of Seduction because I always thought it was very thought provoking. In fact, I cited it several times in some of my older posts. It serves as a good summary to Baudrillard’s thoughts:

“The world is naked, the king is naked, and things are clear. All of production, and truth itself are directed towards disclosure, the unbearable ‘truth’ of sex being the most recent consequence. Luckily, at bottom, there is nothing to it. And seduction still holds, in the face of truth, a most sibylline response, which is that ‘perhaps we wish to uncover the truth because it is so difficult to imagine it naked'”.

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Commentaries, Contemplation

The Gift of Death: Love, Agency, and Transgressions Beyond Dualisms

I began writing this last year in October when my dog best friend passed away. At the time, I was particularly inspired and influenced by love, death, and ethics. After long periods of contemplation and thinking about the intricacies of the subjects at hand, I decided to split this post in two. While I won’t label the two posts as Part I and Part II, they are somewhat related to each other in the sense that they both seek to transgress dualisms (in a Cartesian sense) and “binary oppositions”. This post will address the themes of agency, animals, ethics, and love at the face of undecidable events. I will talk about truth and the meaning of life through the philosophers of Jacques Derrida, Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. Part II will focus along the lines of postcolonialism. I don’t know when I will finish the second part due to life obligations. With all this said, this post is half analytical and half self-reflective. It is written backwards with the “Foreword” at the very end. 

One last thing. This year, I will be trying to write a variety of posts and topics that I find interesting. Posting too many big philosophy and theory stuff might make this blog a bit overwhelming. They also take a lot of work (they are hard to write because it requires a lot of precision). In fact, I have been trying to do this with my last post where I answered 100 questions about myself. It was pretty enjoyable, probably because I like to give dumb answers to dumb questions. In the future, I might write about my esoteric hobbies and the most loved/hated MBTI personality theory. I might talk about my own personality type (INTJ). I might also share some of my casual thoughts, analysis and daily contemplations about random things like the movies and shows that I recently watched, such as The Queen’s Gambit (actually, Beth Harmon is a good example of a female INTJ). Overall, I will be diversifying the stuff I write on here. 

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Agency, Ethics and the Undecidable Event

 

“That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil” —Friedrich Nietzsche

In The Gift of Death, Jacques Derrida engages with religion and the themes of responsibility, irresponsibility and how agency (freedom to choose) produces the human individual. In it, Derrida deconstructs Soren Kierkegaard’s legendary text called Fear and Trembling which analyzes the story, “Binding of Isaac”. The story speaks of Abraham who sacrifices his son for the absolute duty for God. This sacrificial gesture is what Kierkegaard famously refer as the teleological suspension of the ethical. For Kierkegaard, in order for anyone to be religious, one must sacrifice the ethical. In line with Kierkegaard’s interpretation, Derrida points out how each one of us are like Abraham who makes sacrificial choices everyday in our lives. He writes, 

“The concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty, are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, aporia. Paradox, scandal, and aporia are themselves nothing other than sacrifice, the revelation of conceptual thinking at its limit, at its death and finitude. As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other, I know that I respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me to also respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all others.”

As soon as one encounters the love, command, and the call of the other, they can only respond by sacrificing ethics. In many ways, Derrida was influenced by Nietzsche, who points out how acts of love always takes place beyond good and evil. The things that we choose to do out of love may radically challenge and rewrite what society defines as good and evil (good and evil is a binary opposition). Love may allow us to exceed moral boundaries because it is not something that can be reduced to binary ethics, social standards or political ideologies. To act out of love requires the suspension of the ethical. In fact, this movement of love which may transgress beyond all dualisms, dichotomies and binary oppositions is found all over Derrida’s works from signifier/signified, nature/culture, good/evil, all the way to “deconstruction” and “destruction” (from Heidegger). It is one of the reasons why Derrida always ends up inventing words of his own. By doing so, he is transgressing dualisms and producing something new (this theme plays a crucial part in postcolonial context; it is why I tend to be critical of neoliberals and alike who thinks deconstruction is about “deconstructing binaries” and pitting oppositions “against” each other because that is not exactly how it works).

Under the light of existentialism, religion, and ethics, Derrida uses himself as an example and points out how he chooses to be a philosopher and scholar instead of helping others in need. He goes on further and asks, “How would you ever justify the fact that you sacrifice all the cats in the world to the cat that you feed at home every day for years, whereas other cats die of hunger at every instant?”. In a similar way, how can one choose to save one person over another who may suffer equally as much? How can I choose to love my dog over other dogs who needs love? How can we love only one person and not any other person? For Derrida, our lives are always riddled by these undecidable events which forces us to choose.

It is at this moment where one encounters the undecidable event and the relationship between responsibility and irresponsibility. I would argue that the act of choosing not only destroys ethics, it also summons it in a new way. Derrida reminds us how, while the ethical that is defined by society may deem our choices as unethical (such as choosing to feed one cat and leaving all others to die in hunger), following the ethical formula can also lead to the unethical. For, is not the entire ethical structure produced by society—such as its laws—also causes the death of million others from within? Derrida does not seem to suggest that we should live in accordance to some ultimate formula that is defined by the masses of society (i.e. social norms, institutions, political ideologies, etc.; of what Nietzsche refer as “slave morality”). Instead, he suggests that human beings must interpret (deconstruct) the undecidable events that happens in their lives and discover the contradictions of their actions and choices. It is through such acts where new meanings are produced which could possibly transgress dichotomies and oppositions and teaches us how one should live.

Agency summons and destroys ethics, where the choice one makes could come to challenge dualisms such as good and evil. It is reminiscent to the famous thought experiment of the trolley question on whether one should choose to pull the train lever to save one person and kill five others. One can also discover this metaphor from philosophers today who often forgets how the word “philosophy” translates into “love of wisdom”. Perhaps the very beginning of philosophy—if there is a beginning and origin at all—begins through genuine acts of love. I think the idea that one should always choose and interpret our world and each other out of love (of wisdom) is something that must be revived today.

This reminds me of a series of difficult lectures from 1997 called, The Animal that Therefore I Am. In it, Derrida talks about the notion of “pure life” that is found in animals and alludes it to the themes of agency and sacrifice. He compares the enslavement and genocide of animals with Adolf Hitler who enslaves and murders Jewish people by throwing them into the gas chambers (remember that Derrida is Jewish and survived World War II). Derrida reveals how the world condemns Hitler’s monstrous actions, yet he points out that we are doing something similar to animals. He emphasizes that our society would even organize doctors and scientists to force breed animals only to enslave and slay them. Not only were these lectures incredibly influential and would go on to invent “Animal studies“, the encounter of such lectures likely turned a lot of people into vegans. Hence, just like the encounter of any undecidable events, the lecture invites its readers to make a choice which may come to challenge the ethical norms established by society (i.e. the cultural norms of eating meat). 

But Derrida’s interpretation of Kierkegaard is not only an attempt at addressing how choice relates to our responsibility and irresponsibility. One of the things that Derrida hopes to reveal is how the recognition of responsibility infinitely exceeds our capacities of being human. Such limited capacity, which represents our finite experience of the world, is always overwhelmed by unlimited responsibilities that ruptures out of our lived relationship with the world and our own death. In other words, the fact that we are mortal beings who lives for a limited time in the universe forces us to make decisions. One cannot make a choice without sacrificing something else. Death is a gift given to every human being which allows life to have meaning. It is because one will eventually die which makes our decisions meaningful—such as our choice of friends, significant other, career paths, etc.

The paradox and transgressions beyond finitude/infinitude and responsibility/irresponsibility is introduced at the heart of choice as one interprets the undecidable event. The beginning of the ethical discourse is at once suspended and summoned by the event of the undecidable where one must make a choice as they exist in their own finitude (I wrote about finitude here). Should one choose to eat or not eat meat? Should one choose one cat over another? To choose one lover or another? What constitutes the individual which could possibly change and challenge other values is this act of choosing as each person runs into these undecidable events. Hence, it is not surprising that one can learn a lot about someone from the things that they do in their lives, or from the way they speak, their behaviors, actions, and the choices they make. It is these decisions and their differential relationships with what one chooses and leave aside which defines who someone is. One can perhaps think of Derrida’s most famous concept of differance which suggests how meanings are established by what it is not and how meaning is always differed via the future becoming of time. Here, one can see how Derrida is reapplying this thought into the act of choosing which is determined by what is not chosen (a rather strange paradox).

No doubt, our choices in life would not only invite us to the topic of introspection and self-reflection, it also invites us into the themes of autobiography, confessions, and forgiveness (all of these themes were examined extensively by Derrida). Perhaps this may also explain why scholars debate whether Derrida’s philosophy is based on the thoughts of Levinas, Heidegger, Husserl, Nietzsche, Rousseau, or Freud. One can read Derrida through the discourse of these thinker’s works which would make him appear to be a Heideggarian, Freudian, Nietzschean, etc. The reader must always choose as they read Derrida. It is the subtle shift in meaning, context, and intentionality through time which produces this polymorphous effect—a phenomenon that also occurs in our lives when we interpret undecidable events (this is the famous past/future dialectic which I have explained in many places such as here). This theme of choosing is most prominently found in Plato’s Pharmacy, where Derrida discovers how the ancient Greek word “pharmakon” could translate as remedy and poison. The choice of the former or latter would significantly alter the meaning of the text. The translator must make a choice through the encounter of the undecidable event.

Martin Hagglund’s recent book called, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (2019) heavily borrows from Derrida’s interpretation of Kierkegaard (Hagglund is a famous Derridean scholar). For example, Hagglund points out how, if one had infinite time in their lives, they would not need to choose because they would manage to achieve everything they desire one after another. But because we are finite beings who exists within a limited time in the world, one must always make a choice. This choice, as Derrida and Kierkegaard might say, is where one suspends the ethical; but it may also reintroduce ethics and redefine values which produces the individual. Hagglund takes on an atheist position and favors the finitude of being over anything that seeks for eternal life. The human subject always exists in finitude due to the inevitable fact that one can only experience the world from their own perspective (and how they will die one day). We can never take the position of another person because we are caught within the vehicle of our consciousness and body (this idea which has a very long history is being contested by several other disciplines right now—something that I won’t speak about here).

In addition, Hagglund also argues that those who are religious admits to the finitude of life without recognizing it. There is heaven because we want life to be eternal. Yet, we know that life in the real world is not forever. Perhaps this is where Hagglund’s argument falls short against a psychoanalytic reading where religion exists as the symptom of neuroticism and the negation of the reality principle. People would like to think that life continues in heaven, even when life ends upon their death (perhaps this is why he emphasizes on the notion of secular faith). Hagglund’s thinking leans towards the infamous Nietzschean proclamation that “God is dead”. It is because God is dead where the finitude of life is recognized (i.e. there is no afterlife; no heaven). It is this finitude—this gift of death—where choices are made and produces the meanings in our lives—something which also summons the discourse of ethics, and philosophy. Someone is born and are thrown into this world. They live, choose, produce meanings, and dies. The gift of death is the gift of life. It is this mortal experience which produces the meaning of life. A meaning and truth that one should always cherish and respect, even if it may change in the contingent future. 

Many people often associate Derrida with nihilism and how there is no truth in our world. I would argue that this is not true. Once again, the argument came from how Derrida’s concept of differance which suggests that meaning is always differed. But what Derrida is actually implying is that there are never any meanings that are identical and stable within its own contextual construction within any given modes of time (temporal experience destabilizes meaning). Simply put, meanings always change—like how your perceptions of someone changes after you meet them; or how your younger self is not identical to your current and future becoming self. However, this does not mean that your past self did not exist. Neither does it mean that the past does not exist. If the past did not exist, history will cease to exist, and no knowledge, language, and meaning would be possible in the first place (once again, this has to do with the past/future dialectics). While Derrida rejects our ability to know the absolute truth, it does not mean that we must negate our values, ethics, and moral standards. It also does not mean that truth as recognized through our finitude does not exist (it is fair to say that truth changes over time—like how people once thought that the Earth was flat). 

Derrida’s project on deconstruction grants agency to the individual so they can choose as they play among the meaning of words / and as they encounter undecidable events in their life (Derrida equates this to the “Nietzschean yes“). And it is by making these decisions which could possibly transgress binary oppositions (I speak of it as possibility because one might not always interpret something out of love, for example). Through their existence in space and time (past/future), each individual makes choices, form new meanings, values, cultures, and allow for new possibilities to arise.

Between Life and Death: the Exigency of Self-Reflection

If life and death begins and ends with nothing, then meaning and truths would come into existence through the movement from one end to the other. But what is this movement, this condition which makes meaning that is found in the undecidable event possible? Meaning is important in our finite lives, but its movement which produces meaning is only possible because we exist in finitude through space and time. For is it not inevitable that one must travel and endure the becoming space of time and the becoming time of space? Are we not travelers from the past to the future who makes choices and interpret events that occurs somewhere between our present/past life and our future deaths? And that one chooses even if they choose not to choose? Living consists of the movement of time toward death. And it is between such time where meaning is produced through the choices that we make in our lives (this is also one of Derrida’s most famous argument in Speech and Phenomena and other essays: that our animating intentionalities from self-reflections via temporal consciousness is always divided by the movement of time in an infinite series of repetitions that are never identical to each other).

Thus, people who has come to know me would not be surprised that I am deeply introspective. I can do very little without having time to myself. But this silent gesture did not come from the teachings of Derrida. It came long before my encounter of his writings. By chance or fate, I encountered his works 8 years ago and have come to my own understanding of what he is saying according to my own singularity and interpretation. The meanings that I discover in his writing yields to a lot of contemplation and interpretation—something that has been wholly represented in this blog. In many ways, understanding how I read Derrida (and others) is actually a direct reflection of who I am as a person because it reflects all the choices that I made as I read him. 

Above all else, I choose, write, self-reflect and meditate out of the love for the world and life itself. Yet, none of this is possible without the recognition of my own finitude that is measured against my future destination (death) and the rupture of infinite responsibilities of the world. Here in this life, I make decisions and choices—just as any person would (only that most people do not think about it at an intellectual level). When it comes down to it, Derrida encourages us to self-reflect and deconstruct why we do the things that we do in our lives and why we make certain choices over others. He wants us to understand ourselves and our own human condition; to think hard about our relationship with the world and other people. It is through self-reflection where we not only produce the meanings of life, but recognize our finitude.

Furthermore, since no single choice, writing, or systems of thought can be produced without repression (into unconscious) or forfeiting something else—like choosing one cat over another, one might realize that we always make contradictory choices. And that most importantly, self-reflection may allow us to understand how meaning and perspectives changes over time. What one might refer as their identity, culture, or the meaning of life changes through the infinite rupture of future time and space (hence I find identity politics naïve—sometimes to the point of absurdity). This however, does not mean that there are no truths or identities. But rather, what appears to be stable in meaning (as something that is true) at the present moment could always be challenged by future contingencies. The immanence of events, intentions, and contexts always remains open due to the necessary conditions of existing in the world within space and time.

 

Foreword (From the Future)

An event occurred. I encountered Bullet, a Bernese Mountain and German Shepherd mix. We brought him home when he was 3 months old. My dad chose Bullet because he was the one who went to greet and hugged him by leaning his head on him. My sister gave him the name “Bullet” because he was a fast runner. During our time together, I would sometimes look into his eyes and wonder what he was thinking about. I would analyze his movements and behaviors and try to study him as if I had a huge crush on him (which I did, openly). Bullet witnessed my transformation from a young teenage boy to a 30 year old. He was very disciplined, focused, curious, and smart. He even taught himself how to open doors with his paws, where he would always open my room door in the middle of the night to sleep with me. 

Bullet started to trip down the stairs. This was when he began fighting degenerative myelopathy. At the time, Bullet was still very strong. He continued his daily routines and loved his food. About two years later, he couldn’t get up from laid down position without help. He would lay at the same spot everyday without moving.  Sometimes, he would get nose bleeds by sneezing several times in a row and smash his nose against the floor as his head jerked forward. While it was very difficult to watch, he never gave up and continued to try and go outside for his walks, but couldn’t even make it past the first block. Soon, Bullet could barely walk further than the driveway. He refuses to eat and move anywhere. His breathing got louder and louder. His legs began losing muscle mass. He was also becoming blind and had accidents in the house. He lost 20 pounds in his final two weeks. By then, I knew his time has come. I was the first person who suggested to euthanize him.

Bullet, the dog who travelled faster than light. One cannot say the name “Bullet” without travelling and thinking the infinite within their own finite experiences of the world. That the remembrance of Bullet will always take us beyond good and evil. And that the word “Bullet” is worthy of its name, that it is always first and foremost a name—as someone who pierces the flesh and the movement of the heart. Bullet: the dog who ran faster than the speed of light, exceeding the dualism of space and time! So fast that his life accelerates at lightning pace. Yes, he is a time traveler from the past of the future. He arrives before and after me. If love is the madness of the impossible, then he is the impossible. 

In many ways, the most difficult choice was to offer him the absolute gift: the gift of death. I sometimes wonder, did my choice take place beyond good and evil? Or was it unethical to euthanize him? Should I had gave him the agency to choose whether he wants to keep fighting to live or rest? If so, how will I know his answer? Did he answer me by not eating? Or did he stop eating because he was unhappy? I looked him in the eye, wishing he would respond to me. But I can only see him through my tears, and not a single word needs to be said.

How wisely Nature did decree,
With the same eyes to weep and see!
That having viewed the object vain, 
We might be ready to complain

Open them, mine eyes, your double sluice,
And practice so your noblest use;
For others too can see, or sleep,
But only human eyes can weep,

Thus let your streams o’erflow your springs,
Till eyes and tears be the same things:
And each the other’s difference bears;
These weeping eyes, those seeing tears.

—Tears that see . . . . Do you believe?
—I don’t know, one has to believe . . . .

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Commentaries, Contemplation

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek: Philosophy in the Present

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

IMG_1554

write now (!!)


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

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

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

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

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

 



Seminar Presentation: Philosophy in the Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end 😊



Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Commentaries, Contemplation, Popular Posts

Lacanian Psychoanalysis and the Subversion of the Split Subject

Graph IV

Graph of Desire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graph I

Graph I, “Elementary Cell”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graph II

Graph II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We now have sufficient information to understand Graph III:

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Graph III

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

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

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

Let us move into the final form of the graph:

Graph IV

Graph of Desire (Completed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

With this aside, there are many concepts that I didn’t get to include in this post such as the concepts of sadism, masochism, fetishism, and perversion. Enjoyment (jouissance) is not restricted to ideological norms such as happiness. It could be things that causes us pain and suffering. In fact, Lacan relates jouissance to a form of suffering. Jouissance is a big complicated concept that deserves specialized attention because it is related to Freud’s infamous concepts known as the “death drive” and “repetition compulsion” (from a book called, Beyond the Pleasure Principle). Jouissance is a form of repetition that can be experienced through partial drives. Remember that the partial drives are “mechanical” because it constantly repeats—like replaying your favorite song or film. The reason you replay it is because you are always only partially satisfied. You can never get enough of it. There is always something left to desire.

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

Perhaps some of you might ask whether or not Lacanian psychoanalysis actually works—or whether any forms of psychoanalysis works at all. The short answer is that it works, but it takes a lot of time. Different analysts also have different psychoanalytic orientations and approaches. Freudians, Kleinians (Melanie Klein, who significantly influenced Lacan), and Post-Kleinians are usually the most common. Lacanian analysts are rare in the clinical circle because Lacan got banned from the IPA. There certainly are practicing Lacanian analysts such as Jacques Alain-Miller and Bruce Fink (both are super well known in the Lacanian circle). In general, it seems that psychoanalysis has been a discipline which existed “on the side”. It is definitely a lot more popular in France and other European countries. In North America, the “scientific methods” such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are much more popular choices. There are also other things that makes clinical psychoanalysis not as popular as CBT and ACT. First, psychoanalysis is really intense because you have to meet with the analyst 2-3 times a week. This means that second, it gets really expensive and not many people can afford it. We also have to factor in compatibility because the analysand must feel comfortable with the analyst since they have to open up to them.

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

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

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Meaning as Soliloquy: Responding to Criticisms of Deconstruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In many ways, Auerbach summarizes what I had said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,
B.

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Deconstruction and the Resistances of Psychoanalysis

 

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

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

Introduction to Psychoanalytical Difference: Conscious / Unconscious

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

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

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

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

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

Phenomenology, Time Consciousness, and Intentionality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Commentaries, Contemplation

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Recalling Lost Memories: Deconstruction, Decolonization and Black Slavery

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

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

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

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

“Deconstruction leads to decolonization.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyways, I should get back to work.

Ciao.

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