Commentaries, Contemplation

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This leads to Derrida’s famous line, “there is no outside text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte). The outside is the inside. What belonged outside of Nature becomes the inside through supplementary differences. This supplementation is what Derrida refer as “archi-violence”—the most originary form of violence that occurs through pure contingency of the Other (will get to this later). Thus, Rousseau’s apparently “inauthentic” and “incestuous” written representation of his speech becomes authentic, even if it is an unnatural invention that originates from outside of Nature.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Commentaries, Contemplation

Recalling Lost Memories: Deconstruction, Decolonization and Black Slavery

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

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

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

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

“Deconstruction leads to decolonization.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyways, I should get back to work.

Ciao.

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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 would say, it is by “accident” that there is intelligent life on Earth.

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

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

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

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

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

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Contemplation

Derridean Meditations: Confessing with the Other at the Frontier of Time

 

[…] this act of naming: a date and nothing more. […] The index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also marks something else. Namely, the fact that we perhaps have no concept and no meaning available to us to name in any other way this ‘thing’ that has just happened […] But this very thing […] remains ineffable, like an intuition without concept, like a unicity with no generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about.” —Jacques Derrida, on 9/11.

Who and What?
Am I writing about someone, or something?
Today, I would like to speak of a topic which relies on common sense. In fact, what I am about to say pertains so much to common sense that most of us had never thought about it. Thus, it is for this reason that I must speak of such matter. Let us look at how we experience time with the ghosts who secretly haunts us within our deepest thoughts. This will also give me a chance to briefly analyze one of my favorite Sci-Fi film: Interstellar (2014) by Christopher Nolan.

For the sake of simplicity, allow me to begin with an example between the famous physicists, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. We know that Newton was the first to theorize about gravity whose ideas were usurped by Einstein’s theory of general relativity two hundred years later. At the time, would Newton have thought that someone from the future would prove his theories wrong? In the same way, when Einstein wrote his theories, would he had thought that in the future, his ideas would get falsified by other theories? To give these guys the benefit of doubt, I will say, “probably not”. Regardless, the problem I wish to highlight are the contingencies of the future, which are unpredictable no matter how hard we try to predict it. Yet, this future continues to unfold within every moment of our lives (i.e. what you are about to read). Certainly, there are many things that are relatively “predictable”, such as the weather, or sunrise in the morning, but we cannot predict whether or not I will get hit by a car tomorrow or die from an exotic disease. Nevertheless, this idea of contingency has many philosophical implications, such as the problem to what determines the certainty of knowledge and the conceptions of causality. But not only are these problems about the future, it is also about a past which provides the foundations for the present.

Trace: The Past and Future

As human beings, we are always moving forward in time as we look backwards into the past, which can be anything from the words you had just read in this sentence, all the way to your childhood memories. Every present moment which repeats itself before our eyes constantly slips into the past. Every time I try to hold onto this present moment which comes from the future, it has already become the past (i.e. the words you had just read as you anticipate my next words). The past is unique because in your perspective, I am not simply implying the words you had just read, but a vast variety of historical referents. In other words, the past is not a simple referent to the meaning of words I had just said because they can be referents which points to all sorts of memories. It is like reading a book that suddenly reminds you of something that is completely unrelated to its story, or encountering someone who reminds you of someone else from your past. Nevertheless, this future / past relation constitutes the “present moment” which consists of our “intentionality”. Indeed, the present moment is the product of our relationship between the past and future—the latter which is contingent, speculative and radically external to ourselves. It is related to the notions of “promise” which I will get to later.

Every time we look into the past, we fix onto a central point which constitutes our intentions of how we perceive the present moment in reality. However, this central point changes as time continues to move forward. For example, it is easy for us to say that “the occurrence of X in the past constitutes who I am today”. We can only make this claim because we are already at such point in our life from the future. Who I am today is due to my focus on this specific past occurance which is always subject to change as we move forward in time. The decentering of this past through the contingent events of the future changes the way we perceive present reality. The moment we refocus the central point elsewhere in the past, the present will be viewed differently. Perhaps one year from now, it is no longer the occurance of X that constitutes who I am, but Y. Or perhaps in five years, the reason why I loved you will change which might make me not love you anymore (I will return to this later on). Nevertheless, this is why looking back at our lives can sometimes appear like “it was my destiny to become who I am today, where no chance was involved”, even when this unfolding of the future is always “secretly” subject to contingency. This contingent unfolding of time from the future is what Derrida calls “future anterior”.

Let us use another example: a 30-year-old can look back at their 20-year-old selves and say “I should have done this instead of that” because they are already living in the future selves as a 30-year-old, who realized what their actions had led to through the contingencies of the future. Yet, at the moment when the 20-year-old self conducted whatever actions, they would not have “known” that such action would yield to X results 10 years later because it is something only their future selves would know; someone who the 20-year-old has not yet become. As the future other, the 30-year-old self “haunts” their younger-selves and vice versa. In this case, the present self is constituted by recalling a specific past self (a point in history, life experiences, a specific person, etc.) which is no longer present before them (absent), but appears as a ghostly presence who haunts the present as they move towards the contingent future. This movement is what Derrida calls “trace”: the unity between past and future. Trace is a famous idea which has huge motifs and many other implications (existential, psychoanalytical, etc.), especially in the way we live and perceive reality.

There is another level of complexity that I will briefly talk about. As we constantly move forward in time, we are aging every moment of our lives. One moves, even if they do not move. We are dying as we live. Life is always associated with death. To learn to live is to also learn to die. This is why I always like to jokingly say, “don’t live a little, die a little”. The point I wish to make is the paradoxical movement between the past which implies a relation with birth and life; and the future which relates to our inevitable death.

Writing With the Other and the Promise for the Future

What pertains to our problem of time is this relationship between the referential past and a contingent future. If we look at historical writers, there is always a past “other” who constitutes the intentionality of their works. Just as there is a past other that we relate to when we read their works. Look at Derrida for example, a Jew who survived the horrors of World War II and had been excluded for much of his life. Then look at his works which often includes themes of exclusion, the privilege of presence (writer) over the absent other, etc. Derrida even famously called his autobiography, Circumfession (circumcision and confession), where he attempts to expose his past “other” who has been central to all his ideas (i.e. his relationship with his mother and brothers). This is the reason why Derrida expressed interest in seeing the private lives of famous philosophers like G.W.F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger. For Derrida, confession and autobiography holds a valuable place in our lives because this past other sits behind all the things we think about and do in our lives. In Derrida’s famous lectures on the death penaltyhe talks about his vision of an Utopian society where everyone confesses and forgives.

Think of this as listening to your favorite song that reminds you of some distant past other. The composer might have wrote the song for someone important from their past which constitutes the song as such. But the person who listens to the song will relate to it through their own other who is different to the other that the composer was referring to. Whether you are the writer or the reader, there is always the other. What constitutes the written work or any forms of interpretation, whether it be a song, the most important philosophical text in history, or written fragments, relies on this past other.

Thus, one can say that the author never writes, because they are always taken hostage by the other who unknowingly writes for them. Our intention is the other’s intention. This is where we arrive at the question, of “who” and “what”? In this text, am I writing about the other? Or am I writing about time? As we enter the territory where confessions and autobiography functions as the movement of thought, we must keep in mind that this other is not only from the past, but also from the future self. What does it mean to write ethically from the past of this future self who I have now become as time continues to unfold?

In order to write, one must not exclude otherness because they are the truth who constitutes this text. It is like how the future self can see the actions of their 20 year old other who created their future; or how the world’s most famous song was possible through the death of the other from the past. The writer as pure presence can never completely write themselves in language because they are always haunted by the other from the past, and threatened by the contingencies of the future which would shift these relations. Just as a 20 year old will see the world differently when compared to their future selves, the contingencies of the future will change how we see the past—like how Einstein changes the way we see Newton. It can even be how our life experience changes the way we see younger ourselves, which makes us go, “What was I thinking back then?”.

The point is not to say that Newton was wrong; nor is it to say that the past other was foolish, because this is the unavoidable experience of time. To write ethically is to care for the other from the past that the present demands. But it is also to promise the other for the future to come because it is this other who will constitute you in the future (i.e. your future self as you look back at this very moment, as you wrote with the other). To write ethically is to tell the deepest truth. It is to make a promise for the future and retain the other within one’s writing.

This “promise” is an incredibly powerful gesture once we understand that it is not simply a promise that is recalled from the past, but as a promise which opens up the future. To make a promise is to confront the singularity of the future: to accept whoever the other might become as the future contingently unfolds. The promise is an absolute singularity, in the same way that the declaration of love functions as singularity. As Derrida says, how can I say “I love you”, if I know the “love” is you? That the word “love” either as a verb or noun, would be destroyed in front of you. Here, the importance is to recognize our proximity with the other who takes the guise of “you” as we make the promise. Indeed, “I love you” is the most common form of confession which can sometimes function as a promise. To faithfully declare love is to make a promise for the future: whatever happens in the future and how this future may threaten the way I see my relation with the past other (you) which shapes my present, I will always love you. To put this even more simply: I love you no matter who you will become in the future.

We see this in the film Interstellar. Recall in the beginning of the film when Cooper held onto Murph and promised her that he loves her forever. This promise is later recognized as the most powerful singular force from the future when he confronts his past, literally, inside the singularity of the black hole. Meanwhile, we also have Murph who was on the other side of space and time, discovering that the ghost who haunted her all along was Cooper. Both Murph and Cooper were each other’s otherness. But what we discover in this film is remarkable. Cooper was the one who thought the bookshelf was gravity, and not a person. Whereas on the other hand, Murph always thought of the bookshelf as a person, and not gravity. At the heart of the film, we discover the question of “who” and “what”: is the bookshelf someone, or something? Does not the bookshelf function similar to writing, where it has been taken hostage by the other? Nevertheless, it was Amelia Brand who was correct: that the gravity of love transcends space and time through its relationship with the other, where her distance with Wolf Edmunds were abolished. She saw love as the absolute singularity which propelled towards the infinite. While there are other possible interpretations, what we see in the film is the other who returns to haunt the past of the future as an infinite repetition. This movement of infinity is what we see when Cooper was thrown into the tesseract inside the black hole. Every fragment of time is infinite. Every moment is forever.

Who and What

Let us briefly return to one of my previous post, a series of written fragments I wrote throughout the span of several years. Is Renee someone, or something? Is she a person, or the movement of time? While I do not intend to answer this question, I often find myself caught within this difference.

Now, I wish to quickly return to the theme of life and death as marginal thought. To write with the other as the future unfolds is to paradoxically confront the other’s death through the acknowledgement of their absence. Yet, the other survives as she is recalled to the present. To live as a human being is to survive the death of the other. To survive through this death is to affirm life. Survival should not be seen as some depressing remainder after the death of the other. For Derrida, survival is what gives the most intense life possible. To survive is to exist within the most powerful force of life.

Let us together, recognize the other in this text, where its space has collapsed, and its distance abolished. You are reading what I am about to say from a future which has not yet come; of how to say, and to whom I address at the edges of my writing. This edge is the frontier of time which unfolds unto death. It is like walking down an unpaved path without knowing where you are going and who you will encounter. The other lives and dies all at once. She is reborn, she vanishes into the past. Yet, she is imminent. To inscribe the other is to not only care for her with my utmost love, forgiveness, and hospitality, but as a promise for the future to come. It is to write faithfully with the other as she dance across these pages with my hand, without interruption, without holding anything back.

While each of us carries a different discourse, the other not only haunts the one who writes, but the one who reads. What does this text want to say to you? Where does your  other come from? Here, I leave you with my signature that is countersigned by the other. In this post, I elaborated on “what” it is that I was writing about. I even explained “how” and “why” I wrote. The only question that remains is, who?

 


For more on Jacques Derrida in relationship with speech, writing and time, please see my other post, Writing Before the Letter: Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction.

 

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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 the symbolic language.

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

Today, I will use everyday examples to talk about split subjectivity and some of the relationships between the “Ideal-Ego” 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 the general audience, I feel like it might be more difficult than some of my other writings on Lacan.

Last edited: January 9, 2020. Revised some of the paragraphs and clarified various 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 discussing is formally known as “castration complex” (or in Freudian terms as the “Oedipus Complex”—there are significant differences between Lacan and Freud’s version of castration). It is also this relationship between the split subject and the unconscious ways they interact with their lack which constitutes the experience of anxiety. For Lacan, castration is the symbolic lack of the imaginary signifier. To be sure, the mirror stage does not only occur during childhood, but continues until death. Hence, castration is never complete. The splitting of the subject always takes place every time they engage with symbolic language or society—which is pretty much all the time in our daily lives. The symbolic language becomes the symptom of castration because it takes the place of what lacks / repressed. Language is the symptom of the Other’s desire—of what we 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 speech and written objects—just like the objects and people around us in reality. The split subject (you) are forced into this text (discourse) as you read it (you are filtered and split through this text). What gets repressed in the unconscious will unknowingly reveal itself through language which functions as the symptom of repression (i.e. the meaning you extract from this text). When we speak / write, one is speaking about their own repressions. Lack is what constitutes the split subject altogether—namely, subjectivity (or ego).

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

Schema-L

Schema L

Since it is lack which constitutes subjectivity, one of the main goals of Lacanian psychoanalysis is to figure out this missing part through the subject’s relationship with the symbolic. We can see this with the popular example from Slavoj Zizek’s joke about a guy who walks into a restaurant and asks: “Coffee without cream please.”, the waiter responds: “I am sorry sir, we are out of cream, could it be without milk?”. The gist of the joke is to emphasize on the word, “without”. Here, we have the symbolic signifier, “without” (as you read it), which symbolically signifies an imaginary “without” that is missing from its signification. What is missing (milk or cream) in the coffee constitutes the coffee and changes how the subject perceives it. 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 passage: “I think therefore I am”. But since the symbolic paradoxically conceals the subject’s repressed desires by splitting the subject, Lacan famously says the opposite:

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

The symbolic language filters the subject’s ideal-ego by forcing it to split while governing its subjectivity (i.e. what is allowed to pass through language and the law). Therefore, the subject who appears through symbolic language is not who the subject really is. Instead, it is through what is missing within language (repressed desires in unconscious, or desires that had been sublimated / diverted) which constitutes the subject. Once you become familiar with all the policies at your new job, you are defined by the company or institution (symbolic) that you work for—which we all know is not who you really are. Or, when the job interviewer requests you to, “Tell me about yourself”, you respond with, “I am XYZ and I think this contributes to the current job position that I am seeking”. Many of us are aware of how “fake” these interviews are because we basically filter our language and say things in certain ways in order to get the job. Only that in our psychic lives, we unknowingly do this all the time through our relationship with the symbolic (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 becoming subjectivity that is “not-whole”. Ironically, we can even see this when the subject goes to see a psychologist who begins to categorize them via tests and prescribe XYZ medication for you 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 later ideas on sexual difference that is inscribed into the way the subject interacts with language; how the subject gets unconsciously split / castrated determines sexual difference). The more ego-psychologists enforces the (split) ego which has been alienated from the Other’s desires, the stronger this alienation becomes. The ego is the wound / symptom that is created through its relationship with the symbolic Other (i.e. a relationship with what the subject had given up on / 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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