Commentaries, Contemplation

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

lacan_b

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 as 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 they reach 18 months, they begin to not only recognize themselves in the mirror as “me”, but as the “other” person (“that other person in the mirror is me!”). During this time, the infant develops the “Imaginary” through the recognition of themselves in the mirror, which constitutes the “Ideal-Ego” (ego = “I”)But as the child gets older, not only do they establish themselves in relation with their imaginary Ideal-Ego (this image I see in the mirror is who I am—as ideality), but in relationship with other people—namely, his/her relation with their parents. This “Symbolic” relation with others consists of the dimensions of the social, law, and language, is what constitutes the “Ego-Ideal”.

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

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

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

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

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

Lacan says, “it is not man who constitutes language, but language that constitutes man”. It is through what has been repressed / given up on within language which not only marks the field of the Other (unconscious), but determines how the split subject interprets and situates themselves within the language before them—such as how you are reading this text. Lacan points out, “I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it like an object”. In other words, the relationship with our own lack / repressed desires influences the way we interpret speech and written objects—just like the objects and people around us in reality. The split subject (you) are forced into this text (discourse) as you read it (you are filtered and split through this text). What gets repressed in the unconscious will unknowingly reveal itself through language which functions as the symptom of repression (i.e. the meaning you extract from this text). When we speak / write, one is speaking of 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 is the symptom of the unconscious which reveals itself through language. The desires which had been repressed into the unconscious Other can only be imagined, but never accessed through consciousness (it is called “unconscious” simply because we are never aware of it). As seen in Lacan’s “Schema L” diagram, the subject’s relations (S) with “other” people (remember: “the other person is me!”) is in close relation with their own imaginary ego (“me!”; “I”) which has been split and influenced by the Other (the lack / repressed desires). A simple example is to think of how we relate to “others” when we have a conversation with them. If I wish to connect with someone, I must find ways to relate to their experiences with my own. This relationship that the subject establishes with the other is actually a relationship with their own imaginary ego (i.e. their own experiences) which functions as a symptom that is associated with the Other.

Schema-L

Schema L

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard
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.

Standard
Commentaries, Contemplation

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

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

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


 

Derrida (left); Nancy (right)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics, Community, Communism, and History

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

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

The Works of Unworking and the Unworking of Works

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

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

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

Being as Unworking and the Transmission of the Impossible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard
Contemplation

Geoffrey Bennington’s Lecture on Derrida and Deconstruction

 

 

Back when I first started reading Derrida, one of my mentors who got me into French philosophy recommended Geoffrey Bennington‘s works. At the time, Bennington was one of her PhD advisers at the European Graduate School—along with Alain Badiou and Catherine Malabou. To be honest, I didn’t know who any of these people were, but now I’m just like, “Dang!”. Since I always try to avoid secondary sources, I was reluctant on reading Bennington until last month. This was when I discovered for myself that Bennington is the most renown Derridean expert in the world. In my opinion, Bennington is the go-to secondary source for Derrida.

In the future, I may write about Bennington on Kant in relationship with politics and the state of nature. It appears that the “necessity of contingency” has become a very popular idea in contemporary continental philosophy. In Kant on the Frontier: Philosophy, Politics, and the Ends of the Earth (2017), Bennington appears to have similar thoughts to Quentin Meillassoux. Only that Bennington does not reject Kant like Meillassoux does through the criticism of correlationism. Instead, Bennington follows Kant’s ideas between speculative and practical reason to bring out the antinomy of judgement and the “frontier” on the necessity of contingency. It is this necessity of the necessity of contingency of nature which allows humans to develop the “laws of nature” via interpreting nature. Freedom is the perfect example of this, since the moment one conceptualizes it through the contingency of nature, freedom becomes threatened through its own conceptual boundaries. To conceive of “actual” freedom, as opposed to “possible” freedom, is to think of the necessary contingency (i.e. possibility) of the end and the disappearance of freedom as a representation of freedom. To be fair, the theme on contingency—especially through mathematics—has been around for quite some time. Alain Badiou was one of the first to situate it as an ontology (the study of being). Badiou was heavily influenced by a famous 19th century French poet named Stéphane Mallarmé and his poem, “A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance” (many 20th century French philosophers were influenced by him); he was also influenced by the way Lacan used mathematics in psychoanalysis, and Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave.

Nonetheless, Bennington’s lecture stayed very close to Of Grammatology. He explained Derrida better than I did, which is not surprising. Bennington jumped over a few discourses, such as Husserl and Heidegger where I would have elaborated more on (I mentioned some of their relationships in my post on Stephen Hicks). For example, Bennington made a leap from the relationship between signifiers all the way to trace. While this is the correct move, Bennington leaves out the problem of temporality, which is revealed near the end of the talk with his bogus animation of letters appearing in the white space of the slide. Clearly, Bennington was trying to hint at Derrida’s famous concept called “Spacing”—something that I have addressed in my own readings of Derrida.

His Q&A at the end is also very useful. I like the way he highlights some of the disagreements between psychoanalysts and deconstructors. One of their differences revolves around how Lacan’s psychoanalytical claims are, for Derrida, not completely psychoanalytical. For example, Lacan would sometimes confuse the philosophical transcendental object as the psychoanalytical Objet petit a (object cause of desire). Yet, Bennington ends his answer by remarking on how the circumstances of our world requires psychoanalysts and deconstructors to be friends—something that I agree on. With this being said, I am enrolled in my first graduate class this spring on deconstruction and psychoanalysis which I am very excited about.

If you have read through the entire Of Grammatology, then you should be proud of yourself because it is quite difficult (I heard it is easier in original French). I knew people who threw in the towel within the first 30 pages. Of Grammatology is split into two parts. The difficulty of Part I, which is the first 100 pages in Spivak’s 1997 translation, is comparable to other really difficult texts such as Hegelian dialectics and Lacanian psychoanalysis. If you understand Part I, then Part II, which is the remaining 200-300 pages, gradually gets easier. Part II resembles Derrida’s early thoughts on deconstruction in relationship with politics. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl are the key philosophers for understanding Derrida.

Just like other major works by most philosophers, Of Grammatology requires more than one read. I have read it so many times that some of its pages are falling out. Even though I still occasionally read this book and learn something new every time, it is no longer on my active reading list because I am constantly occupied with other books (I am going to school, working, and doing my own research at the same time). If my posts on Derrida has assisted you on your readings on Of Grammatology or further understandings of Derrida, then you have made my day. If you enjoy Derrida, I would suggest you to try reading French novelist / critic, Maurice Blanchot—especially his books, The Space of Literature, and The Step Not Beyond. 

Standard
Commentaries, Contemplation, Popular Posts

On Derrida: Voice and Phenomenon

This is a revised version of my essay that I wrote on Jacques Derrida’s key text, Voice and Phenomenon (1967). It is the same essay that I used as sample writing for my 2019 graduate school applications. In general, this essay received many positive feedback from professors in English and Philosophy departments, particularly in regards to its complexity, rigor, and clarity. One professor even told me that most graduate students don’t know Derrida the way I do (I am sure this is not true, but I was flattered).

Since I always enjoyed doing research on the human condition as a “hobby”, I might as well try and get a degree for it. But my attempts at getting into grad school was not easy. This is because I am applying for a graduate academic degree with my non-academic bachelors of design. Most graduate programs are very competitive, where I am competing with everyone who has an academic background and a GPA that is most likely higher than mine (though grades aren’t everything). I had to make up for this with my sample writing, letter of intent, and reference letters. Thus, the purpose of this essay was not only to demonstrate my writing abilities, but my Derridean savviness which were all self-taught (I have been studying Derrida for the past 4-5 years). Against these odds, I am happy to tell you that I got accepted to do my masters degree. I was also offered funding  (which will fully fund my masters) in the condition that I write my thesis / research paper on Derrida and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, which I anticipate will be very difficult.

Mistakes and Clarifications

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

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

Unfortunately, I currently don’t have time fix any of these errors and will leave them intact until I work out a better version. Regardless, you will get a taste of a more sophisticated, difficult, and a less diluted form of my introductory post on Derrida. This essay focuses on a Kantian reading of Derrida which excludes Heidegger, who is central to Derridean thought (I was limited to 10 pages). I also gave my essay a lame title due to it being a sample writing.

 


 

A Close Reading on Jacques Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid., 18.

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

[11] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 46.

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

[13] Ibid., 70-74.

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

[15] Ibid., 29.

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

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

[18] Ibid., 41.

[19] Ibid., 36.

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

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

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

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

[24] Ibid., 55-58.

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

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

[27] Ibid., 49, 57.

[28] Ibid., 50.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[35] Derrida, Voice and Phenomenon, 70.

Standard
Contemplation

Recommended Philosophy Books

This month marks my 7th year in studying philosophy on my own. Here are some of my favorite continental philosophy / theory books that I recommend. I will rank the difficulties of each book from a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = very easy; 10 = very hard) to give you an idea on which ones you might want to try. Most of these texts changed the way I saw the world and how I should live my life, I hope they will change yours too.

IMG_20180925_172648v.jpg


All for Nothing
  by Rachel K. Ward

Difficulty: 4

“The truth needs no author and no defense. This text has been given to you and what does not vanish is not ours.”

This was one of the the first philosophy / theory text I read in my life. It was originally a PhD thesis from the European Graduate School that got published as a book. The text gives a profound critique on the decadence of human desire and our tendency towards hedonism. It is written in fragments / aphorisms that touches on many different topics such as philosophy, love, work, fashion, architecture, academia, art, vanity, inheritance, privilege, politics and truth. While this book is the least famous on this list, it is really good. I still reread it every once a while.

Civilization and its Discontents  by Sigmund Freud

Difficulty: 4

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”

This is Freud’s most popular and accessible book where he talks about how humans struggle for individualism in a society which prohibits it. As a result, civilization causes all forms of mental disorders, leading to the birth of the super-ego which controls our ego. It is in this famous text where Freud indirectly proclaims that we are all neurotics (depressed, anxious, etc.). The foundation of civilization is based on neuroticism. We are a bunch of crazy talking animals who are trying to control our own craziness. It is also in this book where Freud famously responds to why communism will never work due to humans being naturally aggressive (“Homo homini lupus”). Overall, this is an excellent book for those who are into mental health because there is no such thing as someone who is mentally healthy.

Recommended:
The Interpretation of Dreams
Beyond the Pleasure Principle
A Case of Hysteria: (Dora)

The Birth of Tragedy  by Friedrich Nietzsche

Difficulty: 4-9 (depending on how closely you read)

“You must have chaos within you in order to give birth to a dancing star.”

A famous book by Nietzsche that I find preliminary to 20th century continental philosophy—especially Freudian psychoanalysis. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche talks about two fundamental aspects of humans that are represented by two Gods: Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo represented structure, logic, and order (i.e. law and society). Dionysus represented irrationality and chaos (i.e. art, music and dance). Nietzsche saw how dangerous outcomes will follow if our society had one overpowering the other. A society that is focused solely on Apollo will lead to a society of depression and isolation. Whereas a society focused solely on Dionysus would lead to insanity.

For Nietzsche, the balance of Apollo and Dionysus created the tragedy of Ancient Greek myths where they represented an authentic form of suffering which has now been lost. Contrary to what our society perpetuates today, Nietzsche thinks we must not avoid and repress suffering, but to confront it. For Nietzsche, suffering makes great human beings (think about people like Martin Luther King, Virginia Woolf or Franz Kafka).

Look for English translations by Walter Kaufman.

Recommended:
Thus Spoke Zarathustra (this book is where the quote I used comes from)
Beyond Good and Evil
The Gay Science
Human, All too Human
Genealogy of Morals

A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments  by Roland Barthes

Difficulty: 4

“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive and impoverished.”

A Lover’s Discourse is Barthes most famous work where he talks about the experiences of love from a first person point of view. It offers a great blend between literature, critical theory and philosophy. Barthes pushes the structure of language to the limits where love cannot be described through its own signification and becomes semi-utterances. This book is influenced by a lot of philosophical ideas that went on during the 70s—most notably deconstruction.

Recommended:
The Death of the Author
Camera Lucida

Infinite Thought  by Alain Badiou

Difficulty: 5

“Philosophy privileges no language, not even the one it is written in.”

Badiou is one of the most famous intellectuals in France today. His ideas are often discussed amongst continental philosophy departments and others such as English and Social Sciences. This is a great intro book to Badiou’s famous philosophy on multiplicities of truth by using set theory. It is a book that is written clearly with great rigor. Badiou’s ideas were heavily influenced by Jacques Lacan. So if you are into psychoanalysis, you might like Badiou.

Recommended:
Being and Event
Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil
In Praise of Love

Limited Inc.  by Jacques Derrida

Difficulty: 7

I strongly recommend this book if you wish to learn deconstruction because Derrida provides a simpler way of explaining his ideas in the first essay titled, “Signature Event Context” while showing the problems of J.L Austin’s speech act theory (you can also find this essay in some of Derrida’s other works such as Margins of Philosophy). In it, Derrida also talks about the impossibility of transmitting our intentionality through communication. This is an argument that is explained with much more detail in Voice and Phenomenon—a book, like Of Grammatology, that you should not read if you are new to Derrida (I will talk about these in the next section).

Recommended:
Plato’s Pharmacy

The Courage of Truth  by Michel Foucault

Difficulty: 3

A series of lectures given at the prestigious College de France (AKA the “Harvard of France”) by Foucault who died shortly after. I think this book shows some great thoughts on how we should be more accepting of new / opposing ideas and that the truth is never what we think it is. Foucault also responds to some criticism by his fellow French intellectuals such as Jacques Derrida. It is a lecture that I can appreciate and respect, even if I am not a fan of Foucault.

The Unnamable  by Samuel Beckett

Difficulty: 5

“It’s a lot to ask of one creature, it’s a lot to ask, that he should first behave as if he were not, then as if he were, before being admitted to that peace where he neither is, nor is not, and where the language dies that permits of such expressions.”

There is a reason why Beckett won the Nobel Prize of Literature, and the reason is quite vain (that’s the point). The Unnameable is basically existentialism under the guise of literature where its hypnotic text is nearly incomprehensible. The story was written from the first person perspective by an unknown narrator called “the unnamable”. The book is a good example of stream of consciousness narration that you also see in other renown 20th century writers such as James Joyce.

Recommended:
Waiting for Godot
Molloy

Malone Dies

Seduction  by Jean Baudrillard

Difficulty: 7

“For nothing can be greater than seduction, not even the order that destroys it.”

Jean Baudrillard is Roland Barthes’ most famous student. Baudrillard was known as a provocative cultural critic and is sometimes referred as “the high priest of post-modernism”. He was infamous for publishing a text called Forget Foucault where he sent a copy to Foucault and asked him to read it.

Seduction was one of my first few critical theory books I read which left a lasting imprint on me. Although this book does talk about seduction through appearances, the text is definitely not your how-to-guide on seducing your love interest. Seduction talks about a ritual game and the play of signs, an advantage that woman always had which undermined all of its oppositions throughout history. The book also consists of Baudrillard’s incredibly provocative criticism on feminism (especially Luce Irigaray), as he writes, “yesterday they were diverted from the truth of history, today they are diverted from the truth of their own desires”.

Recommended:
Simulacra and Simulation

Fatal Strategies
The Conspiracy of Art
The Gift
by Marcel Mauss (Baudrillard was influenced by him)

Difficult Books that I Recommend

The following are what I consider as “high risk, but high reward” books. I am listing these (in no particular order) because they are very good if you are up for a challenge. I do not recommend any of them unless you have a background in philosophy or are a serious reader.

Being and Time  by Martin Heidegger

Difficulty: 10

“Only he who already understands can listen.”

I never got the chance to finish this book due to its difficulty (I will finish it one day). In it, Heidegger establishes his foundational ideas and criticism on the question on Being and how we have always avoided answering it through history (especially in Western philosophy). Heidegger is well known for combining phenomenology with existentialism. When reading this book, one should keep in mind that it was unfinished and a lot of Heidegger’s ideas actually change later in his life. This is why I would not recommend this as a first Heidegger book. I would suggest you to try reading some of his lectures first.

Heidegger (along with Husserl and Nietzsche) is one of the leading precursor to mid-late 20th century continental philosophy. Anyone who wishes to learn contemporary continental thought—especially Derrida, Sartre, and Levinas—must first pass through Heidegger’s ideas. I recommend the translation by Joan Stambaugh from SUNY press.

Recommended:
What is Metaphysics
Letter on Humanism

Nietzsche: Volumes One and Two

The Phenomenology of Spirit  by G.W.F. Hegel

Difficulty: 10+

When people say Hegel is really hard to read, they are not exaggerating. I only read a few chapters from this book because it is incredibly difficult. I would strongly suggest that you follow a reading guide or have a Hegel expert near you because this is one of the most difficult text that exists. Many people get through this book without knowing what Hegel is talking about. Unfortunately, it is a must read for anyone who is interested in continental philosophy (or any other modern philosophies) because Hegel happens to be an important intellectual figure responsible for having a significant impact on famous figures such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Edmund Husserl, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and many more.

Recommended:
Lectures on the Philosophy of History

The Critique of Pure Reason  by Immanuel Kant

Difficulty: 10

Kant might be a bad writer, but he has a brilliant mind and that is all that matters at the end. This book requires you to have a solid understanding of Rene Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and George Berkeley.

There is a reason why everyone who wishes to learn modern philosophy or any post-Kantian philosophy (19th century onwards) must first understand Kant’s ideas on consciousness and transcendental idealism. The Critique of Pure Reason is where Kant begins his famous argument that we can never know anything in-itself and the only thing we can experience is phenomena. It is a classic problem on consciousness that has never really been solved till this day. I recommend the translated editions from Cambridge University Press.

Voice and Phenomenon  by Jacques Derrida

Difficulty: 10

In my opinion, this is Derrida’s most important work since I feel like a lot of his fundamental ideas began here. Derrida also said that this book was among one of his personal favorites.

Voice and Phenomenon talks about the problems of Edmund Husserl’s ideas on consciousness and our intentionality in relation to indication and expression through temporal manifestation of spacetime. While this text is only 90 pages in length, it is difficult and dense. Unpacking it requires a lot of time and pre-understanding of Husserl’s phenomenological project (look into Husserl’s Ideas I, Ideas II, and Logical Investigations). It would be helpful to grasp Husserl’s criticism on psychology, logic and mathematics. It is also smart to learn his ideas on the difference between logical and pure grammar. In short, I would recommend you to “try” some of Husserl’s works before attacking Voice and Phenomenon—even if Husserl can make you (me) feel very stupid due to how difficult he is.

This book has two translations done by two different scholars. The first one is titled Speech and Phenomena translated by David B. Allison, and the newer one is Voice and Phenomenon translated by Leonard Lawlor; both are from Northwestern University Press. I have never read the Allison translation, but I heard it is very good.

Recommended:
The Origin of Geometry by Edmund Husserl. Translated by Jacques Derrida
Heidegger: The Question of Being and History

Of Grammatology  by Jacques Derrida

Difficulty: 10

“There is no outside text”

This is the Derridean book most people complain about due to its notorious difficulty. But it is also Derrida’s most famous work where he address his ideas on “differance”, “trace”, “archi-writing”, and “supplement”. This book requires you to have a pre-understanding of not just Husserl, but also Socrates, Plato, Ferdinand de Saussure (semiotics / linguistics), Louis Hjelmslev (glossematics / linguistics), Roman Jakobson (linguistics), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (philosophy of mathematics), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (political philosophy), Martin Heidegger (phenomenology / existentialism), Claude Levi-Strauss (anthropology), Friedrich Nietzsche (existentialism), Sigmund Freud (psychoanalysis), Etienne Bonnot de Condillac (epistemology and psychology), and William Warburton (literary critic / theorist).

This book took me two years to read and I still don’t understand everything in it. The text is split into two parts where part I is more difficult than part II. If you plan on reading it, I would get the 1998 edition translated by Spivak over her newer 2016 edition (both are published by Johns Hopkins University Press). The 2016 edition has been criticized a lot by Geoffrey Bennington, a very well respected Derridean expert.

Ecrits  by Jacques Lacan

Difficulty: 10

I once saw a guy reading this 900 page tome at Starbucks while sitting on a couch. I was thinking to myself, “that is definitely not a coffee table book”. Ecrits (writings) is the only book Jacques Lacan published. The reason why I do not recommend this as a first Lacan book is because it is best to learn Freud first. Lacan pretty much takes Freudian concepts and applies them into language and linguistics which makes him super hard to read. If our unconscious mind effects the way we interpret language, then how does Lacan explain psychoanalysis through language? If you wish to read Lacan, I would suggest starting on his lectures listed below (these are the ones I had good experiences with). Learning Hegel, which is a feat on its own, will also help you understand Lacan.

Recommended:
Seminar X: Anxiety
Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis

Seminar XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (especially this if you plan on reading Slavoj Zizek)
Seminar XX: On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge
How to Read Lacan 
by Slavoj Zizek

Standard
Commentaries, Contemplation, Popular Posts

On Love: Philosophy in Lacanian Psychoanalysis

Love means giving something you don’t have, to someone who doesn’t want it.
—Jacques Lacan

Today, I will show you the basic Lacanian psychoanalytic approach to love, sex and relationships by situating it in Kantian philosophy and some of Alenka Zupancic and Slavoj Zizek’s ideas. I apologize for not posting anything in a while because I have been really busy. Nevertheless, one can effectively say that this post is not psychoanalytical because it is situated in basic philosophical principles. Although it would make more sense for me to place Lacan within Hegel’s philosophy, explaining it through Kant will be much easier for general readers because Hegel is incredibly difficult to understand (also because I wrote this 6 months ago and I am too lazy to incorporate Hegel). Here, I will be explaining Lacan without putting emphasis on any complex psychoanalytical concepts (split subject, big Other, jouissance, ego, etc.). My goal is to show you our relationship with others in addition to some ideas on science and psychotherapy. Where Freud will say, “every relationship is a sexual relationship”, Lacan will tell you, “there is no sexual relationship.” 

The Limits of Knowledge and the In-Itself

Let us begin with one of the most influential 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant and his argument that the only thing the conscious human subject can experience is phenomenon and that we can never know any objects in-itself (noumenon). I can never know any object in-itself because I am never the chair or the table. I can never experience the world from your perspective because I am never your consciousness. I can only experience the world from my own consciousness. By saying that an object consists of X properties, I am idealizing the object as if it consists of X, even when I am never the object in-itself. The object in-itself is impossible to think about because I am never the object.

Let us use a formal example which will guide us throughout the rest of this post: can an object such as Nature, exist without a subject? If I was never born, Nature would not exist because I would not be a thinking subject who is capable of seeing Nature as such. This is why the relationship around us—which is unthinkable without a subject—is a relationship from object to other objects. But since we can think it by making such statement, it means that we are already a subject. There are no objects without a subject. In order for there to be a universe, a nature, a phenomenon, a writing or a science, there has to be a subject. As soon as the subject arises, every object is instantly related to that subject.

This subject isn’t just anybody. Within her own consciousness, she carries her desires, history, traditions, languages, culture, etc. The moment the subject exist in relation with Nature in-itself (not just standing in front of Nature, but also reading the word “Nature” in-itself), the subject immediately “contaminates” Nature with her own traces of her culture and desires. The subject establishes a relationship with Nature that she thinks is authentic (i.e. her own definitions of Nature), even when she cannot know anything in-itself because she is not Nature. The idealized relationship that the subject establishes with Nature is an Imaginary fantasy that she formulates in relation to herself. Nature as the in-itself is a void that we can never know anything about. Yet, it is this fantasy that we sustain as authentic which allows us to manipulate Nature by materializing a “Real” through the Real.

Traversing the Fantasy

lacan_b

The Lacanian Borromean Knot

Let us dive into some Lacanian psychoanalysis with simple metaphorical examples on how this Imaginary relationship with Nature in-itself works. The key is to understand the contradictions involved and how we utilize our Imagination (fantasy; Ego; self identity) through the Symbolic (language; societal law) in relation with the Real (impossible). From now on, I will capitalize the words of the three orders displayed in the diagram.

Think about how people talk about the “real world” as if they know what the Real in-itself is (“Get real!”). To reach the Real, I attempt to reduce my glass of red wine into its fundamental properties and I discover that red wine in-itself is grape juice. My attempt to reach the Real properties of the wine results in me producing the Imaginary fantasy as a surplus Symbolic statement that: “red wine is made of grape juice”. It is by producing this grape juice fantasy that I reach the “Real” which is really just an Imagination of the Real. Another words, the Real should not be something that I can only reach by producing it as an Imaginary fantasy (of imagining that red wine is grape juice). As Zizek says, the Real is this irreducible Thing that eludes us the very the moment we try to grasp it—it is an impossible Real. We can see something similar in chemistry when I imagine my cup of water as H2O instead of water in front of my eyes, or I imagine that nature consists of mathematical laws and not trees and mountains. It is through this Imaginary fantasy that we create reality around us by inscribing it into the Symbolic language; and it is through these contradictions that creates a new Real. For example, manipulating H2O causes real life effects to water. As Zupancic points out: “Science splits the world into two” and there are numerous historical events that showed this creation of a new Real (perhaps the most famous ones being Copernicus, Galileo and Einstein).

Our relationship with the Real in-itself is distorted by our Imaginary and Symbolic order every moment of our lives. What appears as (Imaginary) “Real” is always influenced by our imagination which is closely linked to our Ego. The true rupture of the Imaginary “Real” is when the impossible Real appears (when the impossible happens). It is when something in our unconscious mind surfaces to our consciousness as the Real and changes the relationship with our Imagination of the “Real”. During therapy, the goal of a psychoanalyst is to create this rupture in the patient and make them aware of their Real desires that they have unconsciously repressed into their Symbolic order (through free association) which they perceive as the “Real”. The psychoanalyst achieves this rupture by introducing a signifier (i.e. a word) which cuts across the patient’s (Imaginary) “Real”. Another words, the patient’s “Real” (of what they perceive as their “real world”) is interrupted, cut, and ruptured by the psychoanalyst who attempts to create another “Real” for the patient. This process is famously known as “traversing the fantasy” by Freud. One can summarize this entire gesture by pointing out that—as Samuel Beckett might say—psychoanalysis attempts to walk in a straight line by going in circles. Later, we will see how this new signifier from the impossible Real—which ruptures our Imaginary “Real” in a relationship—is the event of love.

Objet Petit a: “There is No Sexual Relationship”

To recap, our attempt to reach the Real in-itself is an impossibility. The moment one thinks they arrive at this Real, they discover that they are caught in their own Imagination. In the same way, what people think they know about someone is never what they know about them. What one perceives as their “Real” relationship is always distorted by their Imagination. Our relationship with the other person as the object in-itself is a relationship sustained by an Imaginary fantasy that we experience as “Real”. For us, the other person is the “in-itself”, the void, just as we are for them.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the in-itself is similar to the objet petit a, or the object cause of desire” (shown at the center of the borromean knot as “a“). When people say things like “stop objectifying women!” (via “male gaze” popularized by Laura Mulvey), they are referring to objet a. This “a” means “other” (“autre” in french) as in the other object. To be sure, not every object is objet a. It is only when the object causes desire that it becomes a. For example, the super handsome / beautiful person, your cellphone screen, the food advertisement, the car you want to buy, or the desire to reconcile with Nature. As Zizek points out, Objet a is what gives a “body” to the in-itself (the void), but it is not the in it-self. Yet, by giving body to the in-itself, objet a will appear as if it is the in-itself.

Thus, our relationship with Nature in our formal example is really just a relation with objet a, but never nature in-itself as a void. It is easy to think of our subject-object Nature example in relation to copulation. To do so, we simply need to replace Nature with a subject. Hence now, we have a subject-object relation (subject as the object or subject as objet a instead of Nature). This is why when we are having sex, we are actually having sex with objet a that is giving body to the in-itself. Another words, we are having sex with a void (an in-itself; the other person) that we know nothing about. There is no sexual relationship because the only relationship we have is with objet a which is just an Imaginary fantasy. Thus, there is a sexual relationship because there is no sexual relationship. We need Imagination not only because we have to learn and fantasize a formula for our sexual relationship due to its absence, but because fantasy is what sustains desire. This is one of the reasons why Lacan points out that a relationship is always a relationship of three:  “1 + 1 +  a“. It is also why all relationships are “homosexual” because we are making all these narcissistic connections which has everything to do with objet a (“a-sexual”), but nothing to do with the other person in-itself. What we love about someone is never exactly who that person is. Yet paradoxically, what bonds two people together is also this missed encounter (our fantasy about them) which happens to be the encounter of the “Real”.

Love as the Impossible Real

“Love feels like a great misfortune, a monstrous parasite, a permanent state of emergency that ruins all small pleasures.”— Slavoj Zizek

In our culture, the purpose of dating is to bond with the other person—to (hopefully) eventually have a “relationship” with them because there is no such thing as a relationship. Yet, it is only after dating where couples happens to love each other because “their relationship works”. While what appears to be a relationship is a fantasy constructed by the two people who are together, this fantasy is sustained by something which contradicts it. It interrupts the fantasy relationship by placing the subject into the Real. Such phenomenon is the impossible event of love.

Two people love each other not because their relationship work. Their relationship work because they love each other. For Zupancic, “it is love that does something to us, that makes relationships work and allow us to coincide with our lover”. What exactly does love do to us? Love makes us accept the object (subject) in-itself for who they are. Another words, love is neither a fantasy or an idealism (i.e. perfect personality, perfect body, etc.) because it is the impossible Real. Love as the impossible occurs not only when our fantasy relationship with the person (“the love object”) collides with the person in-itself (the void) as an absolute singularity, it can only do so because love allows us to accept the in-itself for itself. This impossibility is what disrupts our continuity with the (Imaginary) “Real” of the subject and allow us to encounter with our lover as if “it was the first time”. For Zupancic, this is why Clement Rosset responds to the “impossible question” in such way:

“Why do you love me?”
“Because you remind me of you.”

Here, we see that “you” objet a, reminds me of “you” in-itself. To put it another way, I love you because I love you—because you coincide with you. Thus one says, “She/He is the One!”. It is not surprising that people love each other without reason. After all, reason is just an attempt at “filling in the void” through the Symbolic as a surplus fantasy of a “Real”. For Zupancic, “In love, the impossible happens, and it is from there on that we must continue and work with what has happened, instead of assuming that from now on the impossible is (or should be) simply replaced by the possible and, indeed, necessary.”

* * *

Through love, we recognize that we are all strangers in this world who are caught by our own finitude, fantasizing about relationships and the way reality works. The moment we confront the Real, we are already situated in the depths of our own fantasy. The impossible event of love—the fall of falling in love—is the new signifier which disrupts our “Real”. Love allows us to glimpse the impossible while confronting the infinite through its own finitude. Where we conceive of love which erupts from the impossible Real also appears as the imaginary of the Real. Love is at once the possible and the impossible—it is a singularity, a paradox, an event which throws the subject into an orbit without trajectory; like a star absorbed into the black light. —Love is therefore, the madness amongst the impossible.

Standard