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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Commentaries, Contemplation

Destruktion, Deconstruction, and the End of History

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

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

What Comes Before the Question?

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

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

The Problem on the History of Ontology 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Destruction of Hegelianism, History and Ontology

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

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

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

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

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Commentaries, Contemplation

On Quentin Meillassoux: Speculative Realism and the Necessity of Contingency

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

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

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

Rationalism and Empiricism

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

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

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

David Hume’s Problem on Induction and Causality

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

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

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

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

Immanuel Kant’s Transcendental Philosophy and the Copernicus Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Commentaries, Contemplation, Popular Posts

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

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

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

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

Today, I will use everyday examples to talk about split subjectivity and some of the relationships between the “Ideal-Ego” and “Ego-Ideal” that is established in Lacan’s “mirror stage”. I will also introduce Lacan’s famous “Schema L” diagram and discuss some of its contents as this post progresses. Although I tried to tailor this post towards general audience, I think it might be more difficult than some of my other writings on Lacan.

There is a part II and part III of my writings on psychoanalysis.
Part II talks about Lacan’s famous “Graph of Desire” which can be found here.
Part III talks about love and the limits of human knowledge found here.

Last edited: January 9, 2020. Revised some of the paragraphs and clarified some sentences.


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The Borromean Knot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schema-L

Schema L

Since it is lack which constitutes subjectivity, one of the main goals of Lacanian psychoanalysis is to figure out this missing part through the subject’s relationship with the symbolic. We can see this with the popular example from Slavoj Zizek’s joke about a guy who walks into a restaurant and asks: “Coffee without cream please.”, the waiter responds: “I am sorry sir, we are out of cream, could it be without milk?”. The gist of the joke is to emphasize on the word, “without”. Here, we have the symbolic signifier, “without” (as you read it), which symbolically signifies an imaginary “without” that is missing from its signification. What is missing (milk or cream) in the coffee constitutes the coffee and changes how the subject perceives it. It is like drinking distilled water without knowing someone spat in it. But once you realize it, your entire perception of the cup of water changes. On one hand, to articulate the word “without” is to refer to something missing. On the other hand, the moment the word “without” gets articulated through language, it is no longer “without”, since it becomes the symbolic signifier that represents something that is “without”. The word “without” functions like a metonymy for another missing signifier. This is why in Alenka Zupancic’s book, What is Sex?, she refers “without” as “with-without”: the coffee without cream / milk will always include a “without”—namely, a lack which constitutes it. It is the missing spit in the water that constitutes the water, not the cleanliness of distilled water.

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

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

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

The symbolic language filters the subject’s ideal-ego by forcing it to split while governing its subjectivity (i.e. what is allowed to pass through language and the law). Therefore, the subject who appears through symbolic language is not who the subject really is. Instead, it is through what is missing within language (repressed desires in unconscious, or desires that had been sublimated / diverted) which constitutes the subject. Once you become familiar with all the policies at your new job, you are defined by the company or institution (symbolic) that you work for—which we all know is not who you really are. Or, when the job interviewer requests you to, “Tell me about yourself”, you respond with, “I am XYZ and I think this contributes to the current job position that I am seeking”. Many of us are aware of how “fake” these interviews are because we filter our language and say things in certain ways in order to get the job. Only that in our psychic lives, we unknowingly do this all the time through our relationship with the symbolic (i.e. the rules in language and the laws of society).

In the same way, your subjectivity is represented by the structure of language as who you are (“I am Y”)—which isn’t who you really are. Yet paradoxically, language is the only way to articulate who you are. This is why, in The Title of the Letter, Lacan’s split subject is what Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe famously refer as, “the impossible subject”. The subject is forced into the symbolic within the field of the Other. On one hand, to articulate language is to produce subjectivity and set out a communicative discourse and relation with other people (i.e. to tell people who you are, obey laws like everyone else, etc.). On the other hand, the subjectivity / ego produced through language becomes the symptom of repressed desires: who you are via the articulation of symbolic language is not who you really are, but the product of a subjectivity that is “not-whole”. Ironically, we can even see this when the subject goes to see a psychologist who begins to categorize them via tests because you fit into the criteria of A, B or C. By doing this, they are forcing the subject into various symbolic structures.

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

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

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

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

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Commentaries, Contemplation, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Commentaries, Contemplation

On Derrida: Voice and Phenomenon

Last Edited: November 13, 2020. Added an extra link to another (more recent) post where I talk about Voice and Phenomenon. I forgot that this post existed until someone emailed me about it.

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

Mistakes and Clarifications

This essay was written in Chicago style where the endnotes are actually footnotes in the real version. There are a few mistakes in this essay that needs correction. For example, I did not address how Derrida translates the German word “Bedeuten” into “Bedeutung” (thanks to the prof who pointed this out). Derrida translates bedeuten into the French idiom “vouloir-dire” which translates into English as “want to say” or “to mean”. Derrida does not translate bedeutung in his works because (I think) he is trying to show how bedeutung is actually a bedeuten—a “want to say”, where the problem of intentionality via the transcendental arises. I also did not address why indication “points”. Derrida refers to this pointing as “the point of the finger”, which is entangled as an expression. This essay focuses on a Kantian reading of Derrida which excludes Heidegger, who is central to Derridean thought (I was limited to 10 pages). I also gave my essay a lame title due to it being a sample writing. When I speak of the word “now” (i.e. the “newness of now”), I am referring to protention. There are also wordy sentences that needs to be rewritten and parts where I make leaps in my writing which makes it confusing. Unfortunately, I don’t have time fix these errors and I will leave them intact until I have time to edit it.

I also wrote another post about V&P here (in April 2020).


A Close Reading on Jacques Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid., 18.

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

[11] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 46.

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

[13] Ibid., 70-74.

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

[15] Ibid., 29.

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

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

[18] Ibid., 41.

[19] Ibid., 36.

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

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

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

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

[24] Ibid., 55-58.

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

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

[27] Ibid., 49, 57.

[28] Ibid., 50.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[35] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 70.

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Commentaries

Responding to Stephen Hicks and the Criticisms of “Postmodernism”

 

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

I would like to make four points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quick Thoughts on Quentin Meillassoux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Writing Before the Letter: Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction

Last Edited: June 12, 2020 (added new links to my other Derrida posts)

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

Reading Derrida is no easy task. Today, I will show you an easier way of understanding some of the major components to Derrida’s project on “deconstruction”. We will be looking at why there are infinite interpretations to any texts and some of his other ideas found in Derrida’s book, Of Grammatology (1967).

To give you a background about myself, I have studied Derrida for the past 6+ years. I am relatively fluent in a lot of his ideas such as trace, differance, hauntology, and their relationship with our own “Being”. I will try and keep this post up to date as frequently as I can because my ideas on Derrida does change over time. You can also find this post in my “Popular Post” menu.

This post supposes that the reader knows nothing about the history of philosophy, Ferdinand de Saussure’s general linguistics, semiotics and Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. This means that I will be trying to explain Derrida’s thoughts in layman terms, which is not easy. Despite my attempts in simplicity, this post will gradually get more difficult and abstract due to the nature of the topic such as time consciousness and the way you are experiencing and how you are interpreting this piece of writing.

An Overview on Interpretation

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

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

Now, the complexity lies within the way which language functions differently through different periods of time. For example, certain words might appear offensive in today’s usage, while it would be considered normal and polite from another point in history. As individuals, we are always fixed and located within a predetermined set of linguistic-structure of our time where these existing syntax, lexicon, conditions, rules and traditions influences the way we interpret texts differently than those who lived in a different space and time. This is commonly referred as context—something which for Derrida, can never be fully understood via our interpretation due to the problem of communication and repetition. If all meanings are determined by a context that can never be fully understood via interpretation, then meaning is never complete (this has to do with temporality; will get to this later).

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

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

On Language: Speech and Writing

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds (Phonemes) and Images (Graphemes)

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

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

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

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

Signifier and Signified

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

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

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

Differance

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

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

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

Indication (Signifier) and Expression (Signified)

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

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

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

Inner Monologue, Expression and Animating Intention

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

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

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

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

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

Trace, Differance, Spacing and Temporality

“Time is out of joint” —Hamlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, the trickiest part of all this is how retention is also influenced by protention as we read this text. Retention is influenced by the future becoming of time. In other words, what allows for our articulation of this present moment is not only that it is never “present” since it refers to a past, but it is also always moving towards a protention—such as your anticipation of the next word as you read. This “phenomenon”, if we can call it that (we can’t since this idea precedes phenomenology), is what Derrida famously calls, “Trace”. This “concept” of trace (not a concept), which is very similar to differance, is an abstract term devoid of any presence (I have demonstrated enough times on how this moment is constituted by differance, which is also a trace towards a past / anticipation). Trace is what Derrida refers as “the unity between retention and protention”. Trace is the unity of past and future. What Derrida is attempting to highlight here is that the future changes how the past / retentional significations are perceived (i.e. like how a 21st century reader would read a 18th century book differently than a 19th century reader). The past and future of time divides and produces the identity of the subject which is always subject to change from the future to come.

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

Metaphysics of Presence and Origin-Heterogeneous

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

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

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

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

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

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


If you enjoyed this post, I have written about Derrida in many of my other posts:

Another commentary on Derrida which focuses on other parts of Of Grammatology.
A close reading of Derrida’s book, Voice and Phenomenon (or Speech and Phenomena).
Meaning as Soliloquy: Responding to Criticisms of Deconstruction.
A reading on one of Derrida’s early lectures on Martin Heidegger and his first use of the word “deconstruction”.
A response to Stephen Hick’s critique on “Postmodernism” and Derrida; I also expand on some of the ideas presented in this post..
A response to Geoffrey Bennington’s lecture on Derrida.
A response to Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson’s debate where I address the contingency of Nature through Derrida’s conception of trace. 

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